Getting to Distributed Teams as the Norm

The COVID-induced crisis is supposedly an accelerant of trends. If so, it seems inevitable that remote and distributed work will be rolled out and truly tested on a broad scale; many companies of the technology persuasion have been announcing their intentions to keep their workforces home through the end of the year, perhaps beyond: Square, Twitter, Shopify, Coinbase, and impactfully, Facebook.

The commentary is, so far, excited about these developments as ushering in a new normal in work arrangements. Logistically, full-throated acceptance of remote work unlocks a lot more geographies for talent and livelihoods outside of a handful of major metropolitan areas like the Bay Area and NYC. Theoretically, it also enables workers to potentially move away from these hubs, either to areas with lower costs of living, or to be closer to family.

Of course, for existing companies that already have multiple offices and workers who were working from home pre-COVID, the problem wasn’t just permission. It’s been well-understood that not being physically present at one of the major company offices is a career-limiting decision; even the term “remote work” implies a level of centrality and tiers of work and recognition demarcated by geographical proximity. Most teams place a good amount of intrinsic value on face time and hallway conversations with important people, most of whom will be clustered around company headquarters.

Slightly less appreciated is that clusters of companies in the same field provide optionality for workers in that field. When job opportunities are readily available without requiring employees to uproot themselves and their family, there’s a better balance between employer and employee bargaining dynamics. This is obviously better for the employee, but it’s arguably good for the industry at large when competition is fostered via employee mobility. California’s refusal to enforce non-competes, for instance, has been cited as a significant reason why Silicon Valley—despite the taxes and costs of living—is still the center of the startup world.

There is plenty of reasons to be skeptical of this COVID-induced arrangement sticking for the long term. The pandemic has equalized the communications playing field, as everyone— including the executives whose experiences can now inform policy—has to work with each other via the same tools and processes. Measures of productivity and output have, rightfully so, been reset or lowered given the amount of disruption in workers’ lives. Given that people are ultimately social creatures, how many allowances for remote work will persist once offices are able to reopen1? Many years back, Yahoo famously brought everyone back to the office to reset the culture, though hindsight suggests that it may not have mattered beyond making headlines at the time.

So if the tech industry is going to embrace remote work as the main mode of operation moving forward, the best chances of success will be learning from those who have figured it out long before the virus forced the arrangement. Firms like Basecamp have touted the benefits of remote work for years now, going as far as penning a book to ascribe the practice. Gitlab, who holds the distinction of being the “largest all-remote company in the world”, has a pretty good guide on how to even think about the shift. Their point is that remote work is not merely just replacing in-person rituals and rhythms with their virtual equivalents; practitioners have to unwind many of the assumptions made about in-office time, modes of communication, and forgo the implicit social signals derived from physical presence. No wonder some managers’ instincts were to just install surveillance software and keep a shadow of a facsimile of what the office would be like.

If I were to make a guess, I’d say that most tech companies will try some form of remote or hybrid office-remote setup even once COVID-19 is under control. It’s too big of a competitive disadvantage in the talent market to not offer the option of remote work; indeed, a part of the reason why the aforementioned companies so publicly announced their new policies was to positively signal to their own employees and potential job applicants. At the same time, I’d wager that most companies—particularly ones with big and established teams—will not make the cultural shifts necessary to allow all-remote work to thrive and become the new default in the short term.

That said, the technical foundations that enable remote-work continue to scale out. New apps and businesses see this stay-at-home experiment as a new market to serve. Even if the biggest companies today will eventually revert back to a headquarter-centric view of their world, the efficacy of the tooling now may well give rise to an entire cohort of remote-only startups. That vision of distributed companies, as the norm, may will be a startup generation or two away.

  1. Or, if you work as a trader for a Wall Street bank, your firm may have declared your work essential and made you go in anyway.

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