Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
The future of work is remote, or even better, distributed, an evolution that the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated in the past 18 months.
We often refer to companies where people work wherever they prefer as “remote”; fewer of us will use the term “distributed”.
A quick Google search shows how “remote” is overwhelmingly more common.
These two concepts are fundamentally different. In this essay, I want to highlight the differences between distributed and remote work. I also want to make a case for why distributed organisations are more effective than traditional or remote ones.
Distributed work can be more effective than the traditional office organisation. Still, achieving this requires some profound paradigm shifts.
You may not be familiar with the concept of distributed organisations. In that case, a great starting point is the post “Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy” by Automattic’s founder and CEO, Matt Mullenweg.
Since its creation in 2005, Automattic has been operating in a fully distributed fashion. Today the company counts close to 1,800 Automatticians (as we call ourselves). I joined the company in 2011 when there were less than 75 of us.
I have used the words “Distributed” and “Remote” multiple times in a few paragraphs. However, through conversations with people who only recently left their offices behind, I realised these terms require an explanation.
Remote work is certainly not a recent invention, demonstrated by the Travelling salesperson problem formulated in 1930. And what is a travelling salesperson, if not a remote worker?
Remote means “situated far from the main centres of population; distant.” Some employees work from a central office in such a company, while others are remote, distant.
The proportion of remote workers can be variable, and they can also individually alternate between days at the office and working from home.
Any company with multiple subsidiaries is also, in some way, remote. All employees do not work from the same location. It doesn’t make a material difference, whether it is a different office, home, car, or coffee shop.
I grew up with remote workers for parents and have started my career with a similar setup a long time ago.
Proximity to the leadership team significantly impacts employees status and ability to participate in the decision-making process. As a result, it weighs on people’s influence on the company direction more than skills, dedication, or competence.
Meetings with mixed attendance are a nightmare for teammates dialling in remotely. They miss all the micro-interactions between colocated participants.
Sitting in the meeting room, wandering through the hallways, or chilling at the water cooler become criteria determining who participates in discussions and impacts decisions.
Presence at the office translates into many random encounters and conversations, often leading to undocumented decisions.
As work is less documented, a perception gap widens between the person who goes to the office each day and the one who does not.
The former thinks that the simple fact of being at their desk makes them productive and believes that the latter is inevitably slacking at home, chilling on Fridays and taking it easy on Mondays.
Last but not least, in remote companies, institutional knowledge is often highly fragile, transmitted as it is by oral tradition. Thus, losing key employees can represent a substantial loss.
In a distributed company, there is no “main centre of population”. Instead, employees are spread (in our case, over 90 countries as of this writing).
It is a much more recent type of structure. The tools to work effectively as a distributed organisation have become available only in the past 30 years.
Distributed or remote-first organisations start at level three of the Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy, and at their core, we find asynchronous, transparent, and primarily written communication.
Asynchronous communication is characterised by its longer cycles. Conversations don’t occur in real-time, thus excluding anyone not present, but span longer periods, allowing all team members to participate.
A distributed company can span a geographic area much more extensive than traditional companies of the same size. For instance, as of this writing, Automattic counts close to 1,800 employees located in 90 countries.
Teams often span multiple time zones because there is no correlation between someone’s role or skills and location.
In this context, it is crucial for communication to use asynchronous media to guarantee each team member can participate during their working hours.
Synchronous communication still exists. For example, instant messaging and video conferencing are powerful tools, and a few meetings are helpful (by the way, I shared a few tips about running those). Still, they should never result in undocumented decisions. More generally, synchronous communication, instrumental in verifying alignment and clearing misunderstandings, should seldom produce decisions, and when it does, it is crucial to document outcomes onto an asynchronous medium.
Transparency is the key to asynchronicity. It is where most of the magic happens.
By sharing everything internally, you never break the thread between the conversations that led to each decision.
New hires are consistently impressed by their ability to understand how a decision was made and by whom, years before they were hired.
Transparency provides instrumental context to move forward, confident that prior decisions are not constantly debated. When they are, it is because the conditions have changed sufficiently to call for it.
It is also one of the ingredients behind the secret sauce that allows each Automattician to benefit from a three month paid sabbatical leave every five years without disrupting or slowing down our teams.
Written communication is the key to transparency.
Text is easily searchable, easy to link, and reference. In addition, writing clarifies thinking, which leads to better decisions. Finally, in a company where English is the standard communication language, but we natively speak another 113 languages, it is a more inclusive form of communication.
Talent is evenly distributed across the world. A distributed organisation becomes stronger by empowering all its employees equally instead of more classic structures where location has a disproportionate impact on careers.
I’ll dive deeper into the specific tools we use at Automattic in the future, but in the meantime, if you are curious to see how it works from within, we are hiring!