Never before have the stakes been higher for companies struggling to survive "the new normal." Adopting a flexible remote workforce strategy may help keep them from folding.
The Hard Truth
Business disruption has dominated the headlines over the past months. COVID-19 has taken its toll on the economy and left many businesses struggling or without hope of ever recovering. For companies that were able to adapt quickly enough, there was the rapid adoption of Work From Home (WFH) policies. For those businesses, it exposed that we are capable of remotely accomplishing tasks from where we live rather than from where we work. The global pandemic has forced a lot of companies to play this hand, but many, if not most, were ill-prepared.
Now, let's raise the ante a bit. What if there was a corporate strategy built around enabling and supporting employees to Work From Anywhere (WFA), dissolving the lines between working from the office, from home, from co-working spaces altogether? Follow along and I'll illustrate a way to do this - it's something that my employer and I benefit from every day.
But first, we'll take a look at why remote workforce strategies are often dismissed - there are a lot of factors involved here. Let's explore.
We go to work. It's a destination with a critical purpose for both worker and employee. It's what we've always done. We're given the tools, the rules, the supervision and everything else necessary to create a work environment. This is fundamentally true of jobs that require humans to build or repair things, work in factories on assembly lines, or provide health or municipal services, etc.
Many companies have Intellectual Property (IP) coveted by their competitors. Administrative and legal roles have evolved into full-blown departments with corporate legal counsel to protect copyrights, patents, and trademarks - their sole purpose to organize around the litigation of any number of related infringements. Historically, this was easier to control in the office in the pre-digital-era - IP was often paper or physical media, and keeping an eye on the employees was easier than tracking documents or disks. In the digital age, IP is vulnerable from a vast range of threats ranging from insider theft to hacking to corporate espionage. However, keeping IP safe in the modern age has more to do with controlling access to data than it does with monitoring people.
The traditional company hierarchy exists to preserve order. At the lowest level are rank and file workers with the least amount of responsibility and the highest levels of supervision. They generally lack the trust of the company to work unattended. They may be watched, monitored, timed, and surveilled upon so they don't risk exposing precious IP, stealing company assets, or sleeping on the job.
Middle management are largely responsible for carrying out company policy related to overseeing or enforcing the procedures designed to preserve order. They have more trust, but generally don't get much say in creating policies for their subordinates.
Executive management make up the top tier and generally create all the policies to be executed throughout the company. It's not a stretch to say that the longer the chain in the hierarchy, the more disparity there exists in trust.
Over time, whether through necessity or paranoia, a culture of mistrust by management was born, and often scaled in proportion to the size of the company. As I mentioned earlier, output is easy to measure. It's simply ingrained for companies to implement systems for punching the clock (login/logout), collecting and managing movement patterns (card keys or badges), or monitoring time spent on calls - all output metrics to help ensure that you're working for every minute you're getting paid.
What you read next is not theory, but rather an ongoing, real-life success story about how my employer built a thriving digital agency around a WFA policy (although we didn't call it that until recently). First, here are the ingredients that make this possible.
Everything here is built around teams. We have an unusually flat management structure - there are no supervisors, managers, directors, or VPs. Everyone reports to the company owner on paper. Project teams are self-managed and self-organized. We are an Agile operation, using frameworks like Scrum and Kanban to move projects along, and enjoy the benefits of the transparency they offer to help us all work together more effectively. We are accountable to each other.
We fail and succeed as a team, and we're never compelled to throw anyone under the bus. We inspect and adapt to our project challenges after each iteration. We improve by analyzing and incorporating objective evidence that highlights what we do well and what we can improve upon together. We don't measure individual value based on the clock - we base it on the outcomes we produce as a team and a company. We value outcome over output for every role we hire. Although output may be easier to measure, it is a far less valuable indicator of customer satisfaction.
Our teams continually build trust. It's the sort of trust that when collaboration is required, there is complete confidence that you'll get a response within minutes (or seconds) regardless from where your teammates might be working. This trust extends to a no-limit vacation policy provided that it doesn't compromise your teams and customers. The company strongly encourages scheduled personal downtime to decompress and recharge your batteries. Finally, if you're just looking for a change of scenery, picture having the freedom to let your team know that you'll be working from the beach for the next week. The company requires nothing more than ensuring that your decision to work remotely does not place undue burden on your team or clients.
Like most companies, we rely on the internet, perhaps even more so as a digital agency developing software for customers. What's noticeably absent from our office are servers, networking equipment, telephones. The company was born in the cloud-era, and most everything we do is hosted somewhere else, serviced and protected by armies of experts whose sole purpose is to guard the infrastructure and secure our IP, and by extension, our customers'.
The main benefit of a one-wire office is that each employee needs only two things to be successful from wherever they are working - their laptop, and an internet connection (occasionally, a mobile phone, but you'd be surprised at how little we really need one to conduct business during working hours). Any location where these conditions are met instantly becomes your workplace.
Next, we have a corporate Virtual Private Network (VPN) for all internet-attached devices. It becomes a much simpler process to manage security by ensuring encryption and having a private IP address that's only available to current, active employees. We can easily do things like restrict access to customer applications that we're building to a single IP address, and add or remove users as needed throughout our software development lifecycle. No one gets access to company or customer IP without coming from our VPN, and only designated, current employees are granted access to the VPN.
We're highly diverse for such a relatively small organization. There are native Thai, British, Polish, Russian, Moroccan, Taiwanese, Nigerian, German, American, Nepalese, Indian, Italian, Korean, Pakistani and Iranian team members. Pre-pandemic, for those working from the office, we sampled international dishes once a week as part of the company-provided daily lunch - except on Fridays, where each employee can order food from wherever they choose. We keep Apple Music or Spotify international playlists on softly in the background, or tune it out with our own headphones or earbuds.
We pursue equality and inclusiveness with regard to race, religion, nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation and personal life choices. All employees are regularly encouraged to improve or challenge policy. Every employee is on equal footing to safely raise issues to help the company adjust course. All employee feedback finds its way to individual or group consideration via documented policy to ensure that it is addressed appropriately.
On the last business day of every month, the company hosts a Town Hall meeting and covers topics like acknowledging new hires, birthdays, project successes, prospects and other new business, employee satisfaction, updates on employee feedback, and ends with a fun, interactive event in which everyone can participate, no matter where they are.
Finally, our company hosts a yearly retreat to do fun stuff, team-building exercises, as well as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project. Most recently, we helped paint a public school.
Equally important is transparency - a critical component to our success. Our agency's work is 100% auditable at all times. Each employee logs their individual effort daily. Between 10:00 and 11:00am, there is a window to update your team on what you've accomplished, what you'll be working on, and anything that might be blocking you. Each task is logged from our tracking tool and the time recorded working on it, and subsequently used to generate our monthly client invoices from them. The Client Portal provides direct visibility into every task we worked, with all the interactions, updates, comments and links. We have seen new client skepticism quickly replaced by trust shortly after they're invited to their private dashboard.
You may have noticed there is no mention of anything here that ties this approach to a physical company address. Everything here can be (and is) done from anywhere. The benefits to the employee should be obvious. It is a level of flexibility that affords a comfortable work-life balance. It may be a bit trickier for companies because they have to be willing to take a leap of faith - to let go of a long-standing mindset of feeling the need to micromanage and over-monitor their employees, and old habits die hard. However, in these desperate times, the catalyst for change is already upon us. Building a strategy that accommodates a flexible workforce could mean the difference between a prosperous future or a painful corporate death.
Of course we know that this won't work for all businesses. For some companies, there will always be a need to have people in predictable locations. However, it should serve as food for thought as to how your workplace might benefit from embracing a WFA strategy.
We'd love to hear from you about your own WFH/WFA experiences, concerns and challenges. Get in touch with us if you'd like to learn more about how we're thriving in the new normal.