Remote working: what have we learned from 2020?

Remote working improves productivity.

Even way back in 2014, evidence showed that remote working enables employees to be more productive and take fewer sick days, and saves money for the organisation.  The rabbit is out of the hat: remote working works, and it has obvious benefits.

Source: Forbes Global Workplace Analytics 2020

More and more organisations are adopting remote-first or fully remote practices, such as Zapier:

“It’s a better way to work. It allows us to hire smart people no matter where in the world, and it gives those people hours back in their day to spend with friends and family. We save money on office space and all the hassles that comes with that. A lot of people are more productive in remote setting, though it does require some more discipline too.”

We know, through empirical studies and longitudinal evidence such as Google’s Project Aristotle that colocation of teams is not a factor in driving performance. Remote teams perform as well as, if not better than colocated teams, if provided with appropriate tools and leadership.

Teams that are already used to more flexible, lightweight or agile approaches adapt adapt to a high performing and fully remote model even more easily than traditional teams.

The opportunity to work remotely, more flexibly, and save on time spent commuting helps to improve the lives of people with caring, parenting or other commitments too. Whilst some parents are undoubtedly keen to get into the office and away from the distractions of home schooling, the ability to choose remote and more flexible work patterns is a game changer for some, and many are actually considering refusing to go back to the old ways.

What works for some, doesn’t work for others, and it will change for all of us over time, as our circumstances change. But having that choice is critical.

However, remote working is still (even now in 2020 with the effects of Covid and lockdowns) something that is “allowed” by an organisation and provided to the people that work there as a benefit.

Remote working is now an expectation.

What we are seeing now is that, for employees at least, particularly in technology, design, and other knowledge-economy roles, remote working is no longer a treat, or benefit – just like holiday pay and lunch breaks,  it’s an expectation.

Organisations that adopt and encourage remote working are able to recruit across a wider catchment area, unimpeded by geography, though still somewhat limited by timezones – because we also know that synchronous communication is important.

Remote work is also good for the economy, and for equality across geographies. Remote work is closing the wage gap between areas of the US and will likely have the same effect on the North-South divide in the UK. This means London firms can recruit top talent outside the South-East, and people in typically less affluent areas can find well paying work without moving away.

But that view isn’t shared by many organisations.

However, whilst employees are increasingly seeing remote working as an expectation rather than a benefit, many organisations, via pressure from command-control managers, difficulties in onboarding, process-oriented HR teams, or simply the most dangerous phrase in the English language: because “we’ve always done it this way“, possess a desire to bring employees back into the office, where they can see them.

Indeed, often by the managers of that organisation, remote working may be seen as an exclusive benefit and an opportunity to slack off. The Taylorist approach to management is still going strong, it appears.

People are adopting remote faster than organisations.

In 1962, Everett Rogers came up with the principle he called “Diffusion of innovation“.

It describes the adoption of new ideas and products over time as a bell curve, and categorises groups of people along its length as innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Spawned in the days of rapidly advancing agricultural technology, it was easy (and interesting) to study the adoption of new technologies such as hybrid seeds, equipment and methods.

 

Some organisations are even suggesting that remote workers could be paid less, since they no longer pay for their commute (in terms of costs and in time), but I believe the converse may become true – that firms who request regular attendance at the office will need to pay more to make up for it. As an employee, how much do you value your free time?

It seems that many people are further along Rogers’ adoption curve than the organisations they work for.

There are benefits of being in the office.

Of course, it’s important to recognise that there are benefits of being colocated in an office environment. Some types of work simply don’t suit it. Some people don’t have a suitable home environment to work from. Sometimes people need to work on a physical product or collaborate and use tools and equipment in person. Much of the time, people just want to be in the same room as their colleagues – what Tom Cheesewright calls “The unbeatable bandwidth of being there.”

But is that benefit worth the cost? An average commute is 59 minutes, which totals nearly 40 hours per month, per employee. For a team of twenty people, is 800 hours per month worth the benefit of being colocated? What would you pay to obtain an extra 800 hours of time for your team in a single month?

The question is one of motivation: are we empowering our team members to choose where they want to work and how they best provide value, or are we to revert to the Taylorist principles where “the manager knows best”? In Taylors words: “All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.

We must use this as a learning opportunity.

Whilst 2020 has been a massive challenge for all of us, it’s also taught us a great deal, about change, about people and about the future of work. The worst thing that companies can do is ignore what they have learned about their workforce and how they like to operate. We must not mindlessly drift back to the old ways.

We know that remote working is more productive, but there are many shades of remoteness, and it takes strong leadership, management effort, good tools, and effective, high-cadence communication to really do it well.

There is no need for a binary choice: there is no one-size-fits-all for office-based or remote work. There are infinite operating models available to us, and the best we can do to prepare for the future of work is simply to be endlessly adaptable.

Psychological Safety and Westrum’s Organisational Typologies

“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”

A statement famously attributed to Peter Drucker, by which he means that however much you work on your strategy, you ultimately cannot ignore the “people factor”. It is people that execute your strategy and it is through people that it will succeed or fail.

People Create Culture

The most important aspect for any organisation is people. Not strategy, not processes, not operations, and not even finance. An organisation is made of people, and people create culture. If strategy consists of the rules of the game, culture will determine how the game is played.

Psychological safety is often an emergent property of great organisational culture, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explicitly and purposefully work towards it and state that one of your goals for the organisation is to possess a great degree of psychological safety. Indeed, the first step in an intelligent journey to build psychological safety is often stating your goal and asking for help in getting there.

Psychological Safety and Culture

I’ve previously written about how to measure psychological safety, but measuring culture can be more challenging. Dr. Ron Westrum wrote in 2003 about The Typologies of Organisational Cultures that reflect how information flows through an organisation. He wrote: “organisational culture bears a predictive relationship with safety and that particular kinds of organisational culture improve safety…” That is to say, because information flow is influential and indicative of other aspects of culture, it can be used to predict how organisations or parts of them will behave when problems arise.

Westrum was focussed on real-world safety measures in the realm of healthcare and aviation, but in our technology world we should strive to adopt the same diligent approach to safety for the sake not just of the products we build but for the humans on our teams as well.

Culture is the almost intangible aspect of an organisation that so often reflects the CEO’s personality or the stance of the board members. As Westrum states: “Culture is shaped by the preoccupations of management.”

For example, if management, particularly senior management, are most concerned about exposure to risk, the organisational culture will reflect that, with processes and checks in place to ensure risk is reduced wherever possible; this usually results in a decreased focus on innovation, lower speed to market, and a low appetite for change.

Westrum’s Organisational Typologies

See the table below for Westrum’s organisational typology model. Each column describes a broad cultural typology: Pathological, Bureaucratic, or Generative, and six aspects of those cultures. It is clear from the table that the Generative culture that Westrum describes is a broadly psychologically safe culture where team members cooperate, share their fears, admit failure and continually improve.

 

Pathological Bureaucratic Generative
Power oriented Rule oriented Performance oriented
Low cooperation Modest cooperation High cooperation
Messengers “shot” Messengers neglected Messengers trained
Responsibilities shirked Narrow responsibilities Risks are shared
Bridging discouraged Bridging tolerated Bridging encouraged
Failure leads to scapegoating Failure leads to justice Failure leads to inquiry
Novelty crushed Novelty leads to problems Novelty implemented

The Westrum organisational typology model: How organizations process information ( Ron Westrum, “A typology of organisation culture),” BMJ Quality & Safety 13, no. 2 (2004), doi:10.1136/qshc.2003.009522.)

By surveying people across the organisation, you can establish the broad typology in which your organisational culture sits, and identify measures to improve. Ask respondents to rate their agreement on a 1-5 scale (1 being not at all, 5 being complete agreement) with the below statements:

  • On my team, information is actively sought.
  • On my team, failures are learning opportunities, and messengers of them are not punished.
  • On my team, responsibilities are shared.
  • On my team, cross-functional collaboration is encouraged and rewarded.
  • On my team, failure causes enquiry.
  • On my team, new ideas are welcomed.

These 6 statements are from Dr Nicole Forsgren’s research into high performing teams at DORA.

Each of these statements align with a row in the table above, so by collecting and analysing the average scores, you can quantitatively determine where your organisation resides in Westrum’s Typologies. Analyse the standard deviation of the scores to determine both the range of scores and the degree of statistical significance of the results.

Intra-Organisational Psychological Safety

There are many ways to improve the psychological safety of your team and your organisation, but sometimes as a leader, your influence may not extend very far outside of your team, and as a result, you may decide to build a high-performing, psychologically safe team within an environment of much lower psychological safety. This is admirable, and most likely the best course of action, but it is one of the most difficult places to put yourself as a leader.

Consider the “safety gradient” between your team boundary and the wider organisation. In a pathological or bureaucratic organisation, with varying degrees of toxic culture, that safety gradient is steep, and can be very hard to maintain as the strong leader of a high performing team. You may elect as your strategy to lead by example from within the organisation, and hope that your high-performing, psychologically safe team highlights good practice, and combined with a degree of evangelicalism and support, you can change the culture from “bottom-up”, not “top-down”.

This can work, and it will certainly be rewarding if you succeed, but a more effective strategy may be to build your effective team whilst lobbying, persuading and influencing senior management with hard data and a business case for psychological safety that demonstrates the competitive advantage that it can bring.

Create Psychological Safety

Take a look at my Psychological Safety Action pack, with a ready-made business case and background information, workshops and templates, to give yourself a shortcut to influencing and build a high performance, psychologically safe, and Generative organisational culture.

For any further information on how to build high performing organisations and teams, get in touch at tom@tomgeraghty.co.uk.

 

Three Simple Psychological Safety Exercises

It’s a long and worthwhile journey to build high levels of psychological safety in your team, and much of the hard work involves excellent leadership, clarity of direction, effective support, vulnerability, curiosity and much more.

However there are some simple exercises that you can carry out with your teams that directly build psychological safety. See below for four effective exercises and practices to build psychological safety, cohesion and performance.

1 – Run a Values and Behaviours Workshop

Workshop with your team to establish and refine the main values that all members of your team endorse. From these values, extrapolate the behaviours, with your team members, that reflect these values and help the team work together to achieve their goals.

For example, “blamelessness” could be one of your team values, and a behaviour that reflects this could be “Taking collective responsibility for mistakes.”

Sharing common expectations of behaviour is fundamental for psychological safety in a team.

As a result of carrying out this Values and Behaviours workshop:

  • Team members understand what is expected of them and others.
  • Team cohesion and performance improves.
  • The team are aligned to the values of the organisation.
  • Boundaries regarding acceptable behaviours are agreed.
  • The degree of psychological safety of team members increases.

2 – Hold a “Fear Conversation”

Whilst psychological safety is not about existential or external threats, it is very much about being able to show vulnerability and emotion. This exercise encourages that behaviour and builds psychological safety by making openness a norm for the team. It also provides some actionable outcomes to deal with real-world risks and threats.

On a white board or flip chart, create three columns – one for “Fear”, one for “Mitigations” and one for “Target State”.

In the fear column, write down some of the fears that you and team members possess in the team, such as “missing deadlines” or “making mistakes”. Ask everyone to contribute, but make sure that as the team leader, you go first.

Then, as a team, come up mitigations to these fears, which consist of practical things team members can do to reduce the risk of the fears becoming real. Or, in case those fears are inevitable, instead write down ways that the impact can be reduced.

Finally, discuss and write down your “Target State” – this is your team’s utopia, where “everyone can make mistakes without fear of repercussions” or “we never miss a deadline”. This helps the team cohere around common goals and aspirations, which are essential to building psychological safety.

3 – Run Retrospectives

Carrying out regular retrospectives to find the systemic root cause of failures, problems or mistakes is one of the most valuable things you can do as a leader in your journey to building psychological safety.

Ensure that any retrospective is given enough time and is carried out in an appropriate setting. Team members need to feel able to be honest and as vulnerable as possible, so carry it out in a non-public area and certainly don’t record it if you’re carrying out over a video call.

Highlight, discuss, and deep dive into the things that went well, the things you need to change as a team, any lessons learned or anything still to be discovered.

Identifying root causes of failure without apportioning blame is crucial to psychological safety, because team members need to know that they can take intelligent risks without fear of repercussions, humiliation or punishment.

For more detailed guides in the above workshops, along with templates and examples, download the psychological safety Action Pack.