5 Levels of Distributed Work

A lot of people I’ve spoken to assume that work is either co-located or remote. They think that because they are working remotely from their lounge room, having Zoom meetings and being relatively productive that this is the best the work from home experience can get. But there is so much more than they, and their workplaces, can do that will send their productivity skywards.

Key Takeaways

  • Moving to a distributed and asynchronous workforce can increase the productivity of a business beyond that of any that is co-located.
  • The benefits of a distributed and asynchronous workforce include, and not limited to, accessing the global talent pool, accessing new geographical markets and increasing trust and transparency within the organisation.
  • There are four things that you can do to help move your workforce to the Nirvana of distributed work.

Leading up to 2020 we had been slowly embracing remote work, bit by bit, some workplaces had been moving online. Some of us were working from home, some of us were studying online, and some of us were booking telehealth appointments. And then COVID-19 hit and within days we were all frantically trying to do everything remotely; some of us were able to do this quickly, others have struggled.

Quite a few businesses have moved entirely online, others have embraced remote work to some extent, while others are still entirely co-located.

Ask any manager, and they’ll tell you that one of the hardest parts of their jobs is motivating their employees. It is no surprise that a lot of managers are worried about how they will motivate employees when they’re working from home. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes the three factors that motivate employees: mastery, purpose and autonomy. Let’s have a look at how these three factors play out as we move to a more distributed workforce.

The Four Levels of Distributed Work

First of all, what are the levels of distributed work? Matt Mullenweg described his five levels of distributed work in episode 194 of the Making Sense podcast with Sam Harris. He describes the journey of a company, from cautiously exploring the possibility of remote work to eventually fully embracing a distributed and asynchronous work experience. He uses five levels to describe the journey from co-located, to what calls Nirvana, the level in which a business is continuously performing better than any co-located business ever could.

Matt was a founding developer at WordPress and the CEO of Automattic; both companies now have over 1000 employees and have completely remote workplaces. In his conversation with Sam, he says that “any company that can enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion, can and should do it far beyond after this current crisis has passed.” That doesn’t mean that it’s easy and that there won’t be chaos initially. That chaos doesn’t inspire workplaces to keep pushing on, but if they do, in the end, the results will show.

Levels of Distributed Work

Level 0 — Co-Located

Some jobs simply can’t be done remotely. Think of jobs where the worker has to be physically present — fire-fighters, police officers, nurses, construction workers and people stocking shelves at our supermarkets.

Most people assume that there are far more of these jobs than there are. The more we embrace technology, the more we open up opportunities to do jobs remotely.

Level 1 — Not Remote Friendly

This is the level that most co-located businesses were at before COVID-19, they hadn’t made any deliberate attempts to make work remote-friendly.

In a lot of cases, if someone is sick, people can keep things going for a couple of days, but some work will be put on hold until that person is back in the office. At this level, work is done on company equipment. An accountant might have access to a smartphone, email and can maybe Zoom into a meeting here and there, but for the most part, they’ll put work off until they are back in the office.

Here you’re working on company time, on company equipment and in a company’s space. I can’t deny that this works well in a factory or a construction site, but it isn’t necessary for the more than 1 billion knowledge workers around the world today.

Businesses at this level were not prepared for the changes needed to adapt to COVID-life. But, with the adoption of some technology, and a slight change in the workflow, a lot of jobs can easily move up to Level 2.

Level 2 — Remote But Still Synchronous

What does ‘remote but still synchronous’ mean? Basically, at this level, they’re just trying to recreate the office.

In the last few months, most companies have fast-forwarded to this level; they know that they have to work from home, at least for the time being. At this level, they have integrated tools that help them work remotely, tools such as Zoom and Slack. But they’re just trying to recreate the old office environment.

It’s natural that as things evolve, they copy the previous generation. Work, at this level, is mostly the same as what was being done in the office, the only difference is they’re doing it remotely. They’re accessing the same information and attending the same meetings at the same time; the difference is that they’re doing it from their living room.

Businesses at this level aren’t reaping the benefits that a distributed workforce can bring. People are working on a laptop in their living rooms, often having regular real-time checkpoint meetings that are still disrupting everyone’s productivity. This creates a new problem for management. Managers are increasingly worried about keeping productivity at the same level that it was in the old co-located office. A tip here is not to install monitoring software to track productivity but to move to the next level and adopt a remote-first workforce.

In Level 2, businesses are burdened with all the downsides of having their worker’s distributed; as we start to move into Level 3 and 4, the upsides of being distributed will begin to show.

Level 3 — Remote-First

This is the point where the business starts to adapt to, and benefit from being distributed. At Level 3, people have a workstation at home; they have multiple monitors, good audio equipment and a productive desk setup.

Matt says that being “remote-first isn’t the same as remote-friendly or [having the] ability to work from home. Remote first is a whole new way to organise companies.” Work hours are a bit more flexible, and the workflow is becoming more asynchronous. Businesses are moving away from real-time meetings, although teams still checkpoint… sometimes. At this point, they are ready to be permanently distributed.

Project management software — such as ClickUp, Asana or Monday — is oh so important here. If you haven’t started using a program like this to manage and coordinate tasks you are missing out. It allows the whole team to have all their tasks in one place, add dependencies, due dates and coordinate every pretty much everything.

Having excellent written communication is key for people working at this level and beyond. Work is starting to become asynchronous and not everyone is able to attend each meeting in real-time. There is no denying that there are drawbacks to written communication — a lot is communicated through body language and tone of voice when done face-to-face. This makes great, clear and concise written communication all the more important. During the occasional meeting, there is a shared document, and everyone is contributing notes in real-time. There are great plug-ins (such as Otter.ai) that create a live transcript from your zoom meetings. If these notes are clear and concise, anyone who didn’t attend the meeting can catch up later and not get left behind.

If the organisation is big enough, it’s a good idea to have a once- or twice-yearly in-person meet-up to get to know each other. Because after all, we’re still social beings and it still feels better to have some kind of social connection with the people whom we’re working with.

Level 4 — Distributed and Asynchronous

We’re almost there; we’ve almost reached the promised land. At this level, the workflow is completely transformed; it no longer just mimics how it was done in the office.

When work is designed to be done remotely and asynchronously, people are given greater autonomy to choose when and how they work. Trust is what holds everything together, people’s work is evaluated by the quality of the output, not by when and how they do it.

Measuring output objectively, without the normal politics, means that the workplace is more inclusive. People aren’t being promoted because they’re extroverted and get heard the most or because they played the game and impressed the right person. Playing politics won’t save them if the quality of their output isn’t up to scratch.

In a co-located office, the labour pool is limited to people that live within commuting distance, at Level 4 that’s increased to include the rest of the world that doesn’t live within commuting distance. All of a sudden, it’s possible to have people working around the globe and around the clock. With great written communication and a streamlined handover process, it’s possible to have a 24/7 operation. Imagine having people working in Australia and East-Asia who hand over to people in the Middle East and West-Asia, then these people handover to people in Europe who in turn hand over to people in the America’s. Traditionally there were eight hours a day to get work done, and now there’s three times that amount of hours. What used to take three days can now be done overnight.

There are almost no face-to-face meetings; all communication is written because people aren’t working at the same time; excellent writing skills are even more important here than they were at lower levels. Communicating this way can actually be better because it isn’t the extroverted people doing most of the talking in meetings, everyone gets an equal chance to put their ideas forward. The decision-making process is slower and more deliberate this way, but, in the end, it’s better.

Employee retention increases because it is more rewarding to be able to work autonomously, being judged on your output without normal politics. People are able to spend more time socialising with who they want. Now that employee retention has gone up, it makes sense to invest more in training and developing your already great employees further.

This is what Matt Mullenweg called Nirvana (he had a fifth level for Nirvana, but I believe it can be achieved in this level). With some time and some tweaking of procedures, you can become consistently more productive than any organisation that is still in a co-located office. Everyone has enough time to focus on other aspects of their lives, they aren’t burning out, their mental health is better, and they are bringing their best and most creative selves to work every day.

Four Steps Towards a Distributed Workforce

Working remotely is something that the worker does, but having a distributed workforce is a discipline that the whole organisation must embrace. In a distributed organisation the term remote is meaningless, there is no headquarters from which workers are remote.

One of the biggest challenges for any organisation that’s moving to a distributed workforce is the challenge of context. Traditionally the context of work came from having a co-located office, face-to-face meetings, water cooler conversations and socialising at work. Once you move to a distributed and asynchronous model, you lose the structure and context of work. All too often, managers stick a bandaid on the problem and replace these conversations with video meetings and even more emails to ‘touch base’.

This is where you need to consider why people are having these conversations, for the most part, communicating information differently and more effectively will remove the friction of not being able to communicate face-to-face.

Here are four easy ways to start moving towards Level 4 and embracing a Distributed and asynchronous work:

  1. Have more transparency so that everyone knows exactly what they are doing and the context that they are doing it in.
  2. Give everyone access to the information they need to do their jobs, without them needing to ask for it. This can be in the form of a handbook or organisation wiki.
  3. Give the people you have hired the autonomy to do what they do and trust that they will deliver.
  4. Provide everyone with the tools and software to increase autonomy and align their work.

No ones work should be disparate, so often people are doing the tasks they’ve been told to do without the context of how it fits into the bigger picture. By increasing transparency and giving them access to all the information they could need, when they do come to a hurdle, it’ll be so easy to leap over it and keep on going with the sprint.

Some of the benefit of having a Distributed Workforce are:

  • being able to tap into the global talent pool, with access to over seven billion people in the world you’re much more likely to find the right person for the job;
  • documenting progress is much easier because you have hired people with excellent communication skills, written communication and transparency is literally built into the workflow;
  • once you’ve localised information, data, and procedures into one hub — like a wiki or handbook — this becomes an invaluable resource that allows you to be more agile and productive. People aren’t relying on the old hierarchical dissemination of information, the people lower in the hierarchy aren’t dependant on the higher-ups in the decision-making process;
  • it is easier to start operating in new geographical regions without increasing costs;
  • it leads to higher trust and increased transparency;
  • it gives employees more autonomy, flexibility and allows them to work at the times that they are most productive because the value is placed on the work they accomplish rather than the hours they work; and
  • it saves time because employees don’t have to commute to an office, it also reduces the costs of relocating.

HR managers reading this are going to be having nightmares, employment contracts are usually along the lines of “you will work this many hours doing these tasks, and we will pay you this much money”. Employees are accountable because they are in the office or online for certain hours. If the workforce is asynchronous, and the relationship is based on trust, it is harder to manage performance. The way to work around this is to have explicit and mutually agreed upon performance indicators included in the employment contract.

If you’d like to look at some examples of companies that have been successful with a remote-first, distributed and asynchronous workforce check out Automattic, Treehouse, Universal Mind and Lullabot.

As you can see, moving up levels increases employees’ autonomy. If anything, moving towards Level 4 will increase worker’s feeling of mastery and purpose because now they know how their work fits into the bigger picture and they’ve been given the ability to jump over hurdles themselves. There is no reason to worry about employees slacking off more when they’re working from home unless of course, they were already slacking off in the office. If an employee wasn’t motivated in the office, if they were doing the minimum to get by, they’ll probably slack off more at home. Luckily, it will be even more noticeable when their output decreases, while their colleagues’ output increases. And let’s be honest, if they were already doing the bare minimum when they were in the office, they weren’t a good fit for your organisation in the first place.

More and more businesses are going fully distributed — and thriving because of it. There’s no denying that there’s going to be a lot of challenges along the way, but none of them is insurmountable.

Business Consultant and MBA student, interested in Sustainable Business Practices