I have been working remotely and doing distributed work since 2003. It’s remote work because I live ‘far from the madding crowd’, in a town of 5,000 people, with lots of cows within town limits, many pheasants, and a few coyotes. The closest metropolitan areas are Boston (850 km) and Montreal (1,030 km) and both are closed to travel at this time. Remote work means far from everyone else.
Distributed work is people working from anywhere. There is no centre. This is what we have seen explode during this pandemic. Some people think we will go back to the ‘old normal’ of clustered work as soon as — or if — this pandemic is over. I don’t.
In Post-Pandemic Silicon Valley Isn’t A Place the startup founders at Initialized found a recent significant shift in the choices for startup location. In 2020 41.6% of their portfolio chose the San Francisco Bay Area, while only 6% opted for remote/distributed workplaces. One year later and 42.1% were opting for remote/distributed work. The shift has begun.
Working from Anywhere (WFA) is a new human technology/medium. Using the McLuhans’ Laws of Media we can understand the effects of any technology created by humans by asking four questions.
- What does it enhance or intensify? (Extend)
- What does it render obsolete or displace? (Obsolesce)
- What does it retrieve that was previously obsolesced? (Retrieve)
- What does it produce or become when pressed to an extreme? (Reverse)
WFA extends individual labour, obsolesces the office, retrieves the written word, and could reverse into digitally connected sweatshops. The most informative aspect of these laws is in the ‘retrieve’ quadrant. Why is the written word retrieved and how does that change work? The answer, I think, is that WFA means that more work will become asynchronous — disconnected in time.
The best way to communicate with a distributed team is in writing, especially when you factor in multiple time zones. Good writing skills will become critical in a distributed workplace. In 2020 Prodoscore looked at 90,000 data points from 7,000 workers. One interesting finding was that high performers regularly used voice & video less often than low performers. The tool of choice for high performers was messaging & chat.
As WFA becomes the norm, other shifts in how we work and learn will be required. Competition is now global and a lot of work is viewed as a commodity. People will have to find professional communities to stay current and these may not be in their organization.
Serendipitous encounters may decrease unless people find ways to connect outside their work bubbles. Perhaps local co-working spaces will flourish as workers look for human connections. Workers will have to use digital means to learn and gain understanding. Frameworks like personal knowledge mastery will become essential.
“Personal Knowledge Mastery is where the game is in terms of the skills needed to make sense of work in a world where we are no longer remote, but distributed.” —Luis Suarez
Continued — the worst of both worlds