Remote Work and Smart Work are two of the most used words in the wake of the Covid19 Pandemics. I have written before that the current scenario is forcing us into one of the largest technology adoption experiments ever, and this definitely has an impact on the way we work. However, I also think it is necessary to clarify that for many organisations this is simply a “transfer of activities” at home. A forced choice, not always supported by an equal change in Culture, Leadership and Organisational Attributes.
With more companies announcing extended (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, ) or permanent remote working policies (Twitter, Square, Nationwide), despite still some skepticism on the sustainability of the model, we need to interrogate ourselves on how do we get a productive model that includes Remote Working and is remote working really working all the time?
Note: This article has been updated from its original.
– May 19, added model by Ricardo Troiano. Few spelling corrections.
Remote Work: Two Maturity models.
With this forced relocation of Work at home for many, there’s been a lot of chatter about Smart Work. Let’s clarify. If you’re at home but you’re simply doing mostly zoom meetings and answering emails incessantly, you are most probably doing Remote Work. For sure a starting point, but there is a difference with true Smart Work.
A lot can be learnt from how Chinese firms have been able to exploit the need and have now embedded Remote Working practices. However, also in these cases, many have halted to some initial Remote Working practices.
The difference, despite subtle, is key especially in how Work might change in the future. Benedict Evans has explained this brilliantly when he asks are you really ‘just as productive’ at home?
“Well, it depends what you’re trying to do. if the job is ‘forming a human connection’ or ‘empathy’, then a video call might not be the right approach, and we may go back to coffee. If the job is to exchange information or update a project status, then video might be fine. But you could also ask whether it needs to be a call either – is that really the job you’re trying to do? Sometimes an in-person meeting is a human connection and video might or might not convey that well, but sometimes video is skeuomorphism and both calls and meetings are a way to use unstructured data to transmit structure. So, should the meeting go to a call, or should it go from synchronous to asynchronous (i.e. Slack, Teams, or even email), or should it go to some more structured data form? […] How much clerical work gets automated into structure and how much time does that create for those in-person meetings where the actual in-person meeting is the point?” (emphasis is mine).
To better understand this perspective, there are two maturity models that can help facilitate the understanding of what really Smart Work is. The first was created in 2017 by Joel Gascoigne, the founder of Buffer, whereas the second comes from a recent piece by Matt Mullenweg from Automattic.
The Remote Working Scale
Joel Gascoigne, the founder of Buffer, has also provided an interesting view in an article published in 2017, partly overlapping with Matt’s model, but looking more at the organisational maturity and the way work is done.
- Not remote / office-based culture this is the most typical working environment for companies, where everybody is colocated.
- Office-based with a work-from-home option this has been the first step of the evolution, with companies giving the option to employees to work from home for a limited period of time. This is the first step in allowing further maturity and usually allows organisations to progressively adapt their technology infrastructure. Culture needs to start changing as well, to ensure people that work at home don’t feel excluded.
- A remote team, in a single time zone this is where a company start getting truly remote, as this would be a truly remote set-up. Yet there are still elements of the traditional organisation (like a flexible working schedule). Synchronous work is still practised as a rule.
- A worldwide remote team spread across numerous time zones. This allows companies to expand ina 24/7 mode. You need to ensure tools exist to handle hands-off. The communication start to get asynchronous.
- A fully distributed team with nomadic team members. This is what Joel had envisioned for Buffer, a truly global team with few people travelling to connect the dots. He envisioned, however, a challenge in redefining how collaboration works in such a setup.
The Five Levels of Autonomy
The best way to truly understand the difference is to look at a maturity model of how companies can really rely upon remote working technology. Matt Mullenweg has provided his view in a recent podcast interview, where he linked the maturity level to the Level of Autonomy given to employees.
Inspired by the self-driving cars levels of autonomy, this model has five levels:
- Level Zero means No Autonomy. It is a job that cannot be done remotely, think about a barista or a construction worker. Many companies have discovered that there are far less of these roles in reality than they thought.
- Level One is where most colocated businesses are today. Most of the work is done in the office, and there is not a specific technology to support remote work. If there is an emergency, few people can work remotely for a couple of days. Tools exist to facilitate connectivity between offices.
- Level Two is where most businesses have found themselves due to the Covid19 pandemics. People have accepted that work needs to be done remotely for a while, but they recreate what they were doing in the office in a “remote” setting. Everything is still synchronous, your day is full of meetings and there is a lot of management anxiety on productivity. Some companies install surveillance software at this stage, which is probably the best way to kill any possibility to move up the steps.
- Level Three is the level where you really start from benefiting from being distributed. People start investing time in better equipment and start working in an asynchronous way. It’s also the point at which you realize just how crucial written communication is for your success. Security is a must here, but it is approached in different ways that just “closing down” systems and accesses.
- Level Four is where things get really asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. Organisation becomes really inclusive, as it can tap talent across the glove, and aim at 24/7 operations easily. All this is facilitated because standards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way.
- Level Five is what Matt defines as Nirvana. This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organization could. You’re effortlessly effective.
Smart Work, therefore, kicks in at Level 3 and only fully blooms at Level 4. Matt links his idea to the Book of Daniel Pink Drive. He effectively states that Mastery and Purpose can be matched in an office environment, but true Autonomy needs smart-work to be achieved.
An alternative Model: When is Remote Working productive
The two matrix above provide an insightful tool to assess how an organisation should develop and mature to exploit Remote Working to the largest extent. But there is another question that pops out: is remote working always a productive alternative? As many organisations will probably revert to a mixed or hybrid model, how do you chose when its best to stay remote and when to go to work? (The choice could be individual but also organisational).
An excellent and simple choice matrix has been developed by Ricardo Troiano, Global Head of Change at Syngenta.
The matrix he introduces is very intuitive, based on two axis: How to get it done and How involved is the task. Interesting to notice, however, the the same author reflects on the fact that in the post-covid world, there has been a general acceptance that also a lot of work that requires collaboration can be done remotely.
Probably the view above could be therefore modified to reflect a new reality, where “Simple” task that require collaboration can be done at Home.
Technology availability will also heavily influence the way the work gets done. Of course this matrix solely applies to work that does not require interactions to be executed (like a customer service associate would).
As I reasoned more on the suggested matrix, I felt it was missing a couple of elements. Not only, as the author himself said, there needed to be a review because of what Covid19 had brought. But we needed to better qualify the task and the work that needed to be done. In Figure 4 below you can find the resulting (more complex) matrix, which adds to the elements already identified by Troiano two more dimensions: Type of Collaboration, essentially answering the question does the task require synchronous collaboration? And Level of Creativity. For simplicity, I have listed them still on a four box.
The choice is usually easy to make, except when a Task that is simple, might still require synchronous collaboration. The example used by Troiano (co-design a meeting agenda) is perfect to illustrate the difference. How often did it happen to plan a meeting that involved many stakeholders, where the co-design was in itself an act of problem-solving to support everybody? That is the case where an in-presence meeting might be more effective.
I’ve added a zone in the matrix that I called needs serendipity. These are highly creative tasks that are not fully defined (typically a problem that we are still shaping). Here is where the value of serendipitous collaboration is more visible, and in-presence relationship is almost vital. Question is: how often is this really required?
Note that all four dimensions are influenced by Culture, Leadership and the Technological Maturity we have mentioned above.
Getting Ready for true Smart Work
The two models introduced jointly express the key components of what is needed to truly attain Smart Work. Organisational Set-up (which includes appropriate Technology tools), a new definition of what “work” means for the organisation, a progressive focus on the concept of Autonomy, and the related leadership and management evolution.
In Figure 5 you can see a further maturity model elaborated by Flexibility.co.uk, which focuses on the concept of flexibility. I find this model interesting because it looks at all the components that are needed to move from one step to the other. Not just enabling technologies, but different behaviours define a truly Smart Work.
The key virtues of true Smart Work can be summarised as follows:
- A clear and comprehensive strategy for working in a Smart way, linked to defined business benefits. Smart Work becomes an essential part of the Operating Model of the organisation.
- Flexibility in work is “normal”. This extends to ways of working and contracts options.
- The use of space is aligned with actual need, and also the positioning of offices is aligned with the workforce requirements (for example enabling coworking).
- Culture is based on Trust.
- There is a high focus on Collaboration, more through informal Networking channels rather than through formal meetings.
- Management is fully aligned on managing remote workforce.
- Autonomy becomes foundational for all employees in making a decision on what is the most effective way to get work done.
- When work is done in a physical location, this is organised by team activity through hotdesking rather than through individually assigned desks.
- Technology enables individuals to work anywhere, anytime.
- All paper-based process are replaced by electronic ones, including signatures.
- Routine Travel between offices is minimised.
- Intentional meet-ups are part of the routine to get work done.
- A culture of innovation in working techniques, collaboration and technologies evolves.
- Work is done asynchronously, often allowing to achieve a 24/7 coverage.
Not an easy task to achieve on all fronts.
Are you ready to start your journey towards Smart Working?