normal is the bias

Almost a decade ago Harvard Business Review featured Scott Berkun’s article on how Automattic, the parent company of WordPress, was able to function as a 100% distributed company.

Culture is critical. Automattic has many policies designed to empower employees and remote work is just one of them. They believe individual workers know best how to be productive and that management’s job is to provide choices and get out of the way. If employees are self-motivated and empowered, remote work can accelerate productivity. However in autocratic or bureaucratic organizations the freedom of remote work runs against the culture. Of course remote workers will be less productive if they’re in environments that depend on centralized, rule-oriented, or committee heavy processes. But even then it can work if managers care more about results than pretense.” —HBR 2013-03-15

At the end of last year I reviewed a year’s worth of observations on distributed work, given that the pandemic had made this a major form of work for many organizations — distributed work 2021. There are now many workers who have realized that distributed work [I refuse to call it remote work] is not only viable, but in many ways is both more efficient with no commute, and more effective with fewer distractions and more flexibility.

Many managers are stuck in a mindset that face-to-face verbal communication is the most effective. They are wrong, but this form gives managers the most power and leverage so they cling to it.  The person chairing a meeting controls the information flow.

However, the best way to communicate with a distributed team is in writing, especially when you factor in multiple time zones. Good writing skills are becoming 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. These asynchronous communication modes take control away from managers and distribute it throughout the team.

Getting ‘back to normal’, with commuting and packed cubicles, results in — stupidity, the new normal — observing that the significant increase in air travel and commuting only exacerbates the climate crisis, as blistering heat waves and enormous floods increase. The appetite for returning to ‘normal’ also means more employers demanding people return to the office in spite of several airborne viruses crippling health care systems around the world.

Let us never ‘go back to normal’. Have we collectively learned nothing?

One Response to “normal is the bias”

  1. Harold Jarche

    “Know who’s not calling for a return to commutes and office work en masse? Most female leaders.

    We didn’t grow up professionally with the luxury of unwavering and comprehensive home support. We didn’t expect our spouses to take the lead at home so we could lead at work. Instead, we got used to multitasking, spreading ourselves a bit too thin to do the best we could for everyone who depended on us: aging parents, children, fellow parents, partners, bosses, friends, and colleagues.

    In some fundamental ways, the pandemic actually eased our collective burden: no more lengthy commutes meant more time with family or for personal pursuits; being at home meant starting dinner at a normal hour or throwing laundry in the wash between calls; being close to home for the rare emergency.”


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