Work Remotely or Together? That’s the wrong question.
San Francisco. It’s 11AM on Monday.
The office is buzzing with activity. People sitting in halls plugging away at their computers. Animated discussions happening in meeting rooms. Everyone visibly busy doing their thing. Right?
At the office of Automattic - the company that makes and ships WordPress and employs over 250 people - it’s as silent as a ghost town. Almost everyone here works remotely. They physically meet each other once or twice a year, but all other interaction is purely online.
Is this because Automattic has a global workforce? And it’s just logistically easier (cheaper?) to have them work remotely rather than setup office spaces everywhere? Or is there more to it?
Automattic is what you’d call a ROWE - a “Results Only Working Environment”. It doesn’t matter when or where you work - as long as you’re producing “Results”.
Which option or whose option? That is the question
At Multunus however, we’ve been averse to remote work. We’ve believed that co-located teams end up being more close knit, have fewer communication gaps and are more productive. We were a strictly “no remote work” company until about 6 months ago.
Actually, let’s take a step back here. Who’s “we” here? The whole team or just the “senior management”? The truth is we didn’t know. We’d just assumed that everyone on the team believed in co-location as well.
But it was time to find out. What if we actually let the teams decide? What would they choose?
It’s been 6 months since we left this choice to the team. The trend we’re seeing at Multunus is that people like to do both - that is work out of the office and work remotely.
Some of the reasons for remote work:
- Freedom to run errands near their home
- Avoid traffic at least a couple of times a week
- Just work alone and get stuff done without getting pulled into meetings
And for co-location:
- Attend meetings face to face
- Collaborate more closely with the team on tougher challenges
- Bond better with teammates
- Engage with the business better
The impact? We don’t have a full office everyday because people come in when it works for them. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.
So what did we learn? That it’s okay to let everyone just be.
We weren’t always like this. Fixed timings, a company wide morning standup at 9:30AM (sharp!). Followed by more fixed time meetings. Everything was “fixed” for you.
But very few of us would attend and adhere to these meetings on time. Most of us struggled. It got to a point, where we’d almost want to celebrate just for coming in on time!
We also spent precious time and energy in stressful conversations around why people were coming in late. And this would get in the way of actually making progress on other important tasks.
It was clear that people had the intention to come in on time - but the work timings were not synced with their biological clock and productivity cycles.
The more painful thing to admit was that the meetings were actually not very useful either. There was no agenda, no one was ever really prepared. Ad hoc meetings. The worst kind.
What matters most
We’d totally missed the forest for the trees. The intent of the morning meeting was to get everyone engaged with our business and to get that sense of teamwork going. But it had the opposite effect - one where people felt more disconnected with the company.
Why was being on time at work everyday such a big deal? Was it because we didn’t trust each other to get their work done at their convenience?
Yes, some teams needed to collaborate in person - so they would need more overlap in terms of timings. But why was it required for the senior management to create these “policies” around fixed times and co-location?
It can be scary to just let go and give space to the team to make their own decisions. To allow them to experiment. To make mistakes.
But in return, you get a greater sense of ownership, significantly higher levels of trust and in most cases - actually better decisions being made. It makes sense when you think about it. You know more about your situation than anyone else - so, you end up making better choices as well.
In the end it’s not about what the “remote working policy” of the company should be. It’s about treating your team as adults and making the workplace more autonomous.
We’ve now made a bunch of changes: No more morning stand-ups, totally flexible hours and work from home for anyone at anytime - based totally on their convenience.
But what’s the risk with this approach? How do we avoid this kind of autonomous working environment from becoming chaotic? Or in the worst cases, people exploiting this kind of high trust environment?
That’s where great hiring comes in. Only hire the kind of people who can leverage this kind of autonomy to make themselves more successful.
- They’ve got to be very good communicators - they should be able to write and speak very good English (or whichever language suits your team the best).
- They’ve also got to be energetic, honest and self-confident.
- Folks who know how to work in teams very well. Look for great listening skills. Equally importantly, look for folks who have high expectations from their teammates.
- Finally, have small teams and provide them with great tools to help them collaborate well. None of our teams are larger than 3-4 people and we use Slack, Trello and Skype heavily.
At the end of day, most day-to-day operational decisions are largely cultural decisions. Every “policy” that you create (or better yet, choose not to create ) affects the overall engagement of the team.
The perspective you choose to take matters. You can choose to create new rules that eventually constrain the creativity of your team or you can let them grow by getting out of the way.