Going virtual requires rethinking how knowledge work gets done

Transitioning to a truly remote workforce requires a top-to-bottom rethink of how business is conducted on an everyday basis, with an emphasis on asynchronous communications. This is the single most difficult thing companies face when making the transition from a “meetings-first culture to a writing culture,” Hansson said. “Most newbie remote companies thought remote just meant all the same meetings, but over Zoom,” he said. “That led to even more misery than meetings generally do. You have to make the transition to an asynchronous writing culture to do well as a remote company.”

Source: After embracing remote work in 2020, companies face conflicts making it permanent | VentureBeat

As knowledge workers and their organizations have de-emphasized the role of the centralized, commute in office (CCO) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem of too many online meetings has cropped up under the moniker of “Zoom fatigue.” Essentially, it’s creating an electronic office where working is defined by real time presence. As David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp (formerly 37Signals) explains, there is more to shifting from a CCO-based organization to a virtual one than where the work gets done and communication about it occurs.

The other factor in going virtual involves not just becoming more location agnostic. It’s also becoming more independent of when those activities are performed. Not everyone needs to be working and communicating at the same time, i.e. 8-5, Monday through Friday as established in the 20th century Industrial Age economy. As Hansson notes, that requires moving away from real time spoken communication in meetings to written communication.

And that’s a good thing. Writing forces people to more carefully think through their thoughts and ideas and what it is they want to communicate. It also provides a written record of challenges and progress on a given project. As more knowledge organizations become virtual, this is an important cultural step in the transition. And it has broader social and environmental benefit, according to Hannson:

Aside from operational efficiencies, remote working also benefits the environment, something that became abundantly clear early in the global lockdown. NASA satellite images revealed an initial decline in pollution in China, but as the country gradually resumed normal operations, pollution levels increased accordingly. Much of this change can be attributed to traffic, and Hansson feels remote work is one way to help the planet while improving people’s mental health.

“I’m less interested in how we might benefit [from a greater societal push to remote work] as a company, and more interested in how the world might benefit as a whole,” Hansson said. “More remote means less commuting. And for a large group of people, a better, less stressful life. That’s a massive step forward for the planet and its inhabitants.”

2 thoughts on “Going virtual requires rethinking how knowledge work gets done

  1. The act of writing is motivating and good mental health. For organizations, a further step during transition to trusted associate/worker/employee telework is empowerment to work. Not just staying home to work, hounded by tracking software or burdensome zoom team meetings, but truly respectful empowerment to produce great work with reasonable independence. Organizations and their HR departments need to “get” this empowerment and to stop the kindergarten oversight. Employee associates know when they are tied by a string.

  2. This is an interesting thought. However, over the last decade I have worked for two large health insurance companies, both with over 40% of employees working all-remote with the exception of large meetings. Neither of these companies utilized asynchronous communicaiton tools to a great extent. I felt like we worked quite well using a variety of tools – zoom, email, phone calls, and instant message. I think hybrid organizations (with all-remote and all-office workers) might benefit from a more fluid approach to communication tools and a set of core hours.

    For example, since these companies were mostly US based, the location/time variance was limited to four hours. With the in-office folks being mostly located on the East Coast, our core hours were from 7am Pacific to 2pm Pacific – with variation allowed on either end. Envato, an amazing company in Australia (with a policy of you can work any where in the world for three months) has a great “flex-place” policy with a smaller set of core hours – 3 hours in the middle of a typical Melbourne work-day. They embrace all work styles and work places (for in-office folks the building has open office options, no one has a permanent desk, there are “pods” for solitude working and they encourage people to shift their work space based on the nature of the work they are doing.) Then of course there are the all-remote companies that do use different types of communication tools to create structure around the “workspace.” In short, I think there are different organizational paths to remote work, and a solution for an all-remote company may not work for a hybrid organization or a previously all collocated office that wants to make a transition.

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