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The latest issue of Economist Magazine1 has a superb article – Distributed Companies – The nowhere firm. It cites a number of companies and outlines how these companies have developed WFH best practices, well before the current pandemic made it an imperative for the rest of us. They have honed key disciplines and approaches that all of us can benefit from. Here are a few key takeaways from the article.

  • WFH models are as old as the internet itself. Open Source companies (Linux, MySQL being the most notable ones) were developed by teams jointly written by groups of strangers geographically distributed. 
  • Gatsby, which helps companies manage content in the cloud has 50+ employees spread across the world from Berkeley, California to Siberia. 
  • Automattic, a company that is least known, but whose flagship product, WordPress, is a household name, has over 1,200 distributed employees. It has mastered the art and science of WFH and is valued at $3 Billion+.
  • GitHub which hosts millions of software projects has two thirds of its staff as remote teams. [GitHub was acquired by Microsoft for $7.5B in June 2018]
  • Stripe, valued at $20 Billion+, an online payments company is head quartered in SFO but most of its team members are remote.

Working in remote teams has been made possible due to tools like Slack, Zoom, Miro, Donut, Process Street, Confluence, Trello, etc. Firms like Rippling provide key support services such as payroll, employee benefits, etc.

It is imperative that distributed firms embrace novel management practices to make WFH effective. Github’s boss, Nat Friedman, has all employees – himself included – log into meetings virtually, even if they are in the office to make sure that remote employees don’t feel disenfranchised.  Looking over a remote employee’s shoulder is as much a “no no” as it is looking over an employee in your next cubicle. Remote employees do not slack off, as some managers fear. Key is to trust your team and set clear and where possible, measurable goals and give them the latitude and independence to achieve it. Buffer, a company that helps companies manage their social media accounts organizes a once a year in-person retreat, although given Covid-19, this will be conducted online this year.

In addition to trust and transparency, explicitness is a key attribute teams need to embrace and hence documentation is key. Discussions that lead to a decision must be captured in writing, so everyone understands the tradeoffs being considered. With little room for gabbing, WFH requires team members to be good wordsmiths.

This will require structural adjustments for most companies that are new to WFH. Brainstorming and other creative activities are possible online but take practice. Recruiting and breaking in new team members is hard virtually. According to a recent survey of 3,500 remote workers, 20% of them struggle with loneliness, partly why Github and Trello operate optional offices.

While innovative, bold and experimental firms (in most cases self-funded, cash strapped firms) have embraced WFH models for many years now, the coronavirus fueled exodus to Cyberspace is likely to make WFH the norm, rather than an exception in the years to come.

References1 Economist – March 28, 2020 – Page 60

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