TL;DR: Companies that have recently gone fully-remote can draw inspiration from open source. Doing so provides helpful ways to think about attracting talent and building culture.
Fully-Distributed is Taking Off
Though the headlines have focused on the big name companies and their announcements about going remote, events of the last four months have undoubtedly created a lot of new fully-distributed companies you’ve never heard of. This includes organizations that may have been partially or even fully-colocated (office-based) before Coronavirus. And this is happening in part because remote working has worked out so well for so many of them, and in part because it has proven difficult for many companies to scale down to a “reduced” real estate footprint — to serve a subset of their employees. Hybrid is harder than fully-distributed, we keep hearing. And the truth is that returning to the office is still an open discussion (fraught with overwhelming emergent logistical considerations) even for companies that really want to.
We have also no doubt seen in the last four months an acceleration in the rate of creation of new fully-distributed startups that reject offices altogether, and that do not expect their people to meet physically to get work done. This was already a trend, and any founders who may have been hesitant before Coronavirus because they were worried about investor bias or their own inexperience with remote leadership, now have enormous encouragement to kick the office to the curb.
This means, however, that now many, many more companies, not just the ones that were already on the fully-distributed bandwagon before COVID-19, are going to face the challenges unique to fully-distributed organizations.
Let’s start with a simple analogy: What the Cloud was to 2008, the Distributed Organization is to 2020.
What do I mean by that? Think organizational disruption on a global scale. Think new ways of working, new ways of interacting. Think new organizational structures and forms. Think about the dissolution of numerous formidable barriers—literally physical barriers—that have long prevented organizations from operating more efficiently and effectively. Think new kinds of competition in the marketplace, competition driven by those organizations that have embraced the distributed paradigm and can draw on the expertise of the best and brightest from around the globe to deliver solutions at a far lower cost, far more quickly than an office-centric organization could possibly achieve.
The shift to more distributed organizational forms is going to be bigger for business than the shift to the Cloud.
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg addressed Facebook employees for nearly fifty-six minutes, outlining the company’s new remote working policies and plans. Facebook joins a growing list of high-visibility technology companies that have recently declared they will allow their employees to keep working remotely indefinitely.
“I think that it’s quite possible that over the next 5-10 years about 50% of our people could be working remotely.”
The company’s weekly internal “town hall” all-hands meeting was made available via livestream to the public, offering a view into how Facebook leadership are thinking about the future of work at this momentous juncture. Mark’s articulation of the principles, the thinking, and the new policies that Facebook is putting in place to support remote working is comprehensive and clear. It should serve as a useful reference for leaders at companies thinking about their own plans for instituting remote working.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen an extraordinary display of forward-thinking and leadership-by-example from a number of large digital natives who’ve declared indefinite work from anywhere policies for all their employees. Twitter, Facebook, Shopify, Coinbase, Square, among others, have taken a definitive stance on remote work. And even a number of more conventional enterprises, non-digital natives, like Nationwide, Barclays, and Mondelez have recently made bold declarations about the future of their organizations and remote working.
As the future looks decidedly more and more distributed for all kinds of companies, less certain are the norms and the policies that employers are going to put in place regarding location and compensation. There’s already been a significant amount of recent discussion on the question “How will location impact compensation in a remote-first world?” since Mark Zuckerberg let it be known last Thursday that Facebook will adjust the salaries of workers who decide to work from remote locations in other parts of the US or the world, to reflect those market rates.
As more companies make public their remote compensation policies, and remote workers become more interested in exploring their global lifestyle options, we are going to observe an evolution, a fundamental change in the relation between location and pay.
Everyone is busy taking educated guesses about the future of Work right now, and for good reason. We don’t know what “back to normal” will look like and we don’t know how long it will take to get there. But the good news is, so long as you don’t have your heart set on getting things back the way they were in 2019, you (individually) will have a chance to shape the future of Work. A chance we (collectively) didn’t have before.
During Coronavirus, I have become interested in the idea that the disruption of long-standing patterns can be a very good thing because it creates the opportunity for new, better patterns to replace them. As I think now about the path forward to the next version of normal for Work, it’s becoming apparent there’s also been an important shift in the location and the nature of the driving force.
“I always thought the rise of remote work would be something driven by great people demanding remote opportunities as a condition of employment.
Now I think it will be companies who’ve gotten comfortable with remote working that will push for this transition, and empower their workers with the flexibility they need to do better work.”
Chris Herd, CEO of Firstbase
I think Chris is absolutely right. The power has shifted to a new location. And it’s much more than a shift in who’s driving the future. It’s also a change in the fundamental dynamics through which that power-to-change will be applied.
This is happily the first of what will be an ongoing series of profiles of organizations that are worth taking a closer look at because they are “well-distributed“. In these profiles, we’ll try to take a look at how these organizations operate, what principles they abide, and how they judge their success as a distributed organization.
I was surprised to discover only recently that the US Patent and Trademark Office is indeed a paragon of remote working, with a twenty-year history of pioneering work in distributed organization optimization.
“20 years after the inception of the original remote work pilot, the USPTO has 88% of its workforce working remotely one to five days a week. Remote working has become a proven success at the USPTO, enhancing the agency’s ability to attract and compete for talent.”
Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property & Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office
Post Coronavirus, companies of every size and stripe are going to be looking to reinvent how they work. The presence of the USPTO (a government agency) on a list of organizations that are succeeding in a significantly distributed manner should be very encouraging to all types of other organizations who may be considering a permanent shift to a more distributed version of themselves.
It’s clear the world of Work is going to be very different when we settle on a new normal after COVID-19. Lots of folks are particularly interested in asking the question: How will Coronavirus accelerate the adoption of remote working?
To get a handle on the level of remote working adoption before Coronavirus, it seemed useful to create a list of relevant remote working statistics. We found there was a lot of “behavioral data” out there and data about preferences among remote workers. There was also data about aggregate numbers of remote workers. But almost no data about the numbers of companies that were either fully distributed or above 15%* distributed before COVID-19.
Going forward, we believe it will be important to track the number of companies >15% distributed to gauge the overall penetration rate in remote working.