The Open Secret of Remote Work

Posted by Luke Thomas
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I recently saw a video clip of DHH (the co-founder of Basecamp) where he was discussing the benefits of remote work. He made an astute comment which I've transcribed below:

"The power of remote work is the power of writing. This is the #1 switch you can do. If you are used to running your organization in terms of status updates and general communication through meetings, now is the time to revisit whether that is a good idea. That's sort of a leading question, I don't think it's a good idea to run a company using meetings as the primary and first mode of communication."

This is similar to another blog post that was published by Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic that you should check out called Distributed Work's Five Levels of Autonomy. You can also hear him talk about this concept on the Sam Harris podcast episode below.

Gitlab (the world's largest remote company with over 1200 employees) has also documented this evolution in their handbook and they've called it the phases of remote work adaptation.

What's the underlying theme?

The basic idea with these levels is that when people work remotely, over time, they go through an evolutionary process where more and more workplace communication happens in writing (or asynchronously).

There's a clear pattern here that needs to be unpacked. The companies who are highly successful at remote work have triangulated around a simple, yet critical idea. Writing.

But writing? Why is writing such a big deal for remote companies? To understand this, we need to talk about the differences between remote and co-located modes of communication.

What does this evolution look like?

If you think about a regular day at the office, most communication happens in real-time. The office is designed to maximize these interactions - teams are clustered to enable quick back-and-forth conversations. It's easy to grab a conference room and hold a meeting to brainstorm or whiteboard around an ambiguous topic or project. Put simply, The office encourages synchronous (real-time) discussion.

When you are remote, real-time conversations are much more expensive. The cost of coordination is much higher. It's not easy to get everyone together at the same time.

This could be driven by time-zone differences (9am in the morning for one individual is 5pm at night for another) or another variable. Therefore, workplace communication gravitates towards an asynchronous, or delayed format.

The method of communication between a remote and a co-located organization may look something like this:

The illustration above tries to illustrate that colocated teams spend most of their time communicating in real-time, whereas the distributed team (at least the highly-functional ones) spend most of their time communicating asynchronously.

There is some overlap and some organizations fall closer to 50/50, but there is where the gravitational pull will take you.

A surface level idea, but a deeper truth

There are stories and narratives that people tell where there's a surface-level idea but a deeper truth that is hidden beneath the surface. I believe this has happened with the remote work movement.

There's a lot of people who love working remotely. I am one of them. The idea of going back to the office terrifies me.

But why?

Is it because I love working from home? Is it because I hate going to the office?

Nope. That's a surface level argument.

The deeper reason why I want to work remotely is because the benefits of remote work are more than the act of literally working at a distance from my coworkers. It's about flexibility and freedom in the way you work.

A flexible workplace is asynchronous-first

If you want a more flexible workplace that taps into the #1 benefit of remote work, most of your communication needs to happen asynchronously. This is what the forward-thinking distributed organizations have figured out and are highlighting in the articles above.

It's not about writing for the sake of writing. It's not because someone is introverted and hates talking with others in meetings.

It's about being thoughtful with the modes of communication you use, saving meetings and real-time conversations for when they are most useful. It's about using the right communication tool for the "job" at hand.

If you'd like to learn more about how to pick the right mode of communication for the task at hand, subscribe and I'll send you the next post I write. We'll cover this in detail.

Remote work is flexible work

The future of work is a flexible working environment. If you think it's about being able to do work from your house, you are missing the point completely.

The only way you can unlock the benefits is by reducing your dependency on real-time conversations to get work done. The more synchronous conversations you have, the more you will be tied to your desk. Each meeting is a potential bottleneck.

The more you are interdependent on each other, the less of the following will happen:

  • You won't be able to take a break in the middle of the day and take a walk
  • You won't be able to have lunch with your kids and family
  • You won't be able to work when you are most productive
  • You won't be able to go grab a coffee with someone in your community

The sooner you evolve your processes away from relying on real-time conversations and meetings, the sooner you will unlock the open secret of remote work.

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