Sunday, November 1, 2020

g-f(1)8 All-remote organizations may indeed emerge as the future of work

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If leaders support synchronous and asynchronous communication, brainstorming, and problem-solving; lead initiatives to codify knowledge online; encourage virtual socialization, team building, and mentoring; invest in and enforce data security; work with government stakeholders to ensure regulatory compliance; and set an example by becoming WFA employees themselves, all-remote organizations may indeed emerge as the future of work.

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Condensed knowledge 10

  1. Are all-remote or majority-remote organizations the future of knowledge work? Is work from anywhere (WFA) here to stay? To better understand how leaders can capture the upside of WFA while overcoming the challenges and avoiding negative outcomes, I have studied several companies that have embraced all- or majority-remote models. They include the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO (which has several thousand WFA workers); Tulsa Remote; Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS (a global IT services company that has announced a plan to be 75% remote by 2025); GitLab (the world’s largest all-remote company, with 1,300 employees); Zapier (a workflow automation company with more than 300 employees, none of them colocated, around the United States and in 23 other countries); and MobSquad (a Canadian start-up that employs WFA workers).
  2. The Covid-19 crisis has opened senior leaders’ minds to the idea of adopting WFA for all or part of their workforces. In addition to TCS, companies including Twitter, Facebook, Shopify, Siemens, and State Bank of India have announced that they will make remote work permanent even after a vaccine is available. Another organization I’ve studied is BRAC, one of the world’s largest NGOs, which is headquartered in Bangladesh. Forced into remote work this year, it is deciding what work model to adopt for the long term.
  3. Thanks to the advent of personal computers, the internet, email, broadband connectivity, laptops, cell phones, cloud computing, and videotelephony, the adoption of WFH increased in the 2000s. As the researchers Ravi S. Gajendran and David A. Harrison note in a 2007 article, this trend was accelerated by the need to comply with, for example, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and mandates of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  4. Research has shown performance benefits. A 2015 study by Nicholas Bloom and coauthors found that when employees opted in to WFH policies, their productivity increased by 13%. When, nine months later, the same workers were given a choice between remaining at home and returning to the office, those who chose the former saw even further improvements: They were 22% more productive than they had been before the experiment. This suggests that people should probably determine for themselves the situation (home or office) that fits them best.
    • Millennials in particular seemed captivated by the idea that WFA would allow them to become “digital nomads,” traveling the world while still employed. Before the pandemic-related restrictions, some companies, such as Remote Year, were aiming to facilitate that lifestyle, and some countries, such as Estonia and Barbados, have created a new class of employment visa for such workers. As one patent examiner said, “Participation in [WFA] is outstanding for work/life balance. I live in my favorite part of the country…I have more time to relax.”
  5. WFA has notable benefits: Companies can save on real estate costs, hire and utilize talent globally, mitigate immigration issues, and experience productivity gains, while workers can enjoy geographic flexibility. At the same time, concerns include how to communicate across time zones, share knowledge that is not yet codified, socialize virtually and prevent professional isolation, protect client data, and avoid slacking.
  6. Addressing the Concerns. Communication, brainstorming, and problem-solving. When workers are distributed, synchronous communication becomes more difficult. In research with Jasmina Chauvin and Tommy Pan Fang, I found that when changing to or from daylight saving time caused a one- to two-hour reduction in business-hour overlap (BHO) between offices of a very large global corporation, the volume of communication fell by 9.2%, primarily among production workers. When BHO was greater, R&D staffers conducted more unplanned synchronous calls. Group meetings are even harder to schedule. Nadia Vatalidis of GitLab’s People Operations group says that having team members in Manila, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Raleigh, and Boulder made finding a time for their weekly group call nearly impossible.
    • WFA organizations must therefore get comfortable with asynchronous communication, whether through a Slack channel, a customized intracompany portal, or even a shared Google document in which geographically distributed team members write their questions and comments and trust that other team members in distant time zones will respond at the first opportunity.
  7. Knowledge sharing. This is another challenge for all-remote or majority-remote organizations. Research by Robin Cowan, Paul David, and Dominique Forayhas postulated that much workplace knowledge is not codified (even when it can be) and instead resides “in people’s heads.” This is a problem for all organizations, but much more so for those that have embraced WFA. The companies I have studied solve it with transparent and easily accessible documentation. At GitLab all team members have access to a “working handbook,” which some describe as “the central repository for how we run the company.” It currently consists of 5,000 searchable pages. All employees are encouraged to add to it and taught how to create a new topic page, edit an existing one, embed video, and so forth. Ahead of meetings, organizers post agendas that link to the relevant sections to allow invitees to read background information and post questions. Afterward recordings of the sessions are posted on GitLab’s YouTube channel, agendas are edited, and the handbook is updated to reflect any decisions made.
    • All-remote and majority-remote organizations I have studied are experimenting with a wide range of solutions to protect client data using predictive analytics, data visualization, and computer vision.
  8. Socialization, camaraderie, and mentoring. Another major worry, cited by managers and workers alike, is the potential for people to feel isolated socially and professionally, disconnected from colleagues and the company itself, particularly in organizations where some people are colocated and some are not. In my research I have seen a range of policies that seek to address these concerns and create opportunities for socialization and the spreading of company norms. Many WFA organizations rely on technology to help facilitate virtual watercoolers and “planned randomized interactions,” whereby someone in the company schedules groups of employees to chat online. Some use AI and virtual reality tools to pair up remote colleagues for weekly chats. For example, Sike Insights is using data on individual communication styles and AI to create Slackbot buddies, while eXp Realty, an all-remote company I’m currently researching, uses a VR platform called VirBELA to create a place for distant team members to gather in avatar form.
  9. Performance evaluation and compensation. All-remote companies evaluate remote workers according to the quality of their work output, the quality of virtual interactions, and feedback from clients and colleagues. Zapier, for example, uses Help Scout for customer support replies; a feature of this software is that customers can submit a “happiness score” by rating the response as “great,” “OK,” or “not good.” How to set compensation for workers who work from anywhere is an active and interesting debate. Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic (parent of WordPress), another all-remote company, told me that its policy is to pay the same wages for the same roles, regardless of location. But GitLab and other companies do have different pay for different geographies, taking into account the experience of the worker, the contract type, and the task being performed. Although research is needed on which approach is optimal, it’s possible that companies that tie wages to location will lose high-quality WFA workers to rivals that don’t.
  10. Data security and regulation. Several managers told me that cybersecurity was a big area of focus for WFA programs and organizations. It is true that all-remote companies have to work harder to protect employee, corporate, and customer data. As TCS transitions to a majority-remote model, it has moved from “perimeter-based security” (whereby the IT team attempts to secure every device) to “transaction-based security” (whereby machine learning algorithms analyze any abnormal activities on any employee laptop). MobSquad has replicated its client security infrastructure for WFA workers, and employees work on clients’ cloud, email, and hardware in its offices for security reasons. All-remote and majority-remote organizations I have studied are experimenting with a wide range of solutions to protect client data using predictive analytics, data visualization, and computer vision.

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Category 1: A new, better world for everyone

[genioux fact extracted from HBR]

Authors of the genioux fact

Fernando Machuca


Our Work-from-Anywhere FuturePrithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, Harvard Business Review, November–December 2020 Issue.

Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury (Harvard Business SchoolLinkedInFacebookTwitter) is the Lumry Family Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School. He was an Assistant Professor at Wharton prior to joining Harvard. His research is focused on studying the Future of Work, especially the changing Geography of Work. In particular, he studies the productivity effects of geographic mobility of workers, causes of geographic immobility and productivity effects of remote work practices such as ‘Work from anywhere’ and ‘All-remote’.

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