Remote is More than WFH

I’m not holding my breath about a remote work revolution once the dust settles.

Hours each day on video calls. The constant patter of instant messages and emails. Unending interruptions. This is office work at home, not remote work.

To get the most out of remote work, and office work for that matter, we ought to use this opportunity to give remote work a real try.

An email could have replaced most of the remote meetings that I’ve sat through.

A daily status update in a dedicated (and asynchronous) chat would save a dozen people from a 15-minute standup. That’s 3 hours of collective work a day.

Asymmetrical effort

It still feels easier to have a meeting. There’s no need to plan ahead or refine your thoughts. You get a few people together, have a stream of consciousness, make some decisions on the fly and it felt like work.

Hidden behind the ease of calling a meeting, are real costs. Take a few professionals away from work for an hour, add in the productivity hit from context switching and you quickly lose the equivalent of a collective day of work.

Let’s quantify it further. I call a meeting because I need to run something by management (2 people). I also need to loop in 3 more people. I give myself 15 minutes to prepare and dump my ideas into a the company slideshow template. The direct cost of that meeting was 6.25 hours.

That’s a conservative count.

Suppose we do it another way. I spend 2 hours preparing a detailed document to present to management. Each of the 2 managers spends 30 minutes reading and commenting on it. The 3 people who needed to be looped in each spend 10 minutes scanning through it. All of this can happen asynchronously and costs a total of 3.5 hours.

The benefits go beyond saving time. Something similar is bound to come up again eventually. Now you have a written record of why a decision was made, regardless of whether any of the current participants are still involved. Meetings don’t draw on this collective knowledge.

Meetings are inefficient, wasteful and usually unnecessary. Yet they’ll keep winning out over writing because meetings are low effort.

The costs and benefits rack up the more people are involved. Can you make a video instead of calling a kickoff meeting for 50 people? Now even more people can participate asynchronously. The more effort you put into a presentation, the less time everyone else needs to spend and the more value they get out of it.

There’s no need to go overboard with this. There are some things that are better when you do them as a group at the same time. Brainstorming sessions and bouncing early stage ideas around are better in small groups. Likewise, 1-on- 1 mentoring sessions are absolutely worth it.

Knowledge management

When this practice is taken to an organizational level, it becomes knowledge management.

Information should be stored in a wiki or similar system. Other teams in an organization can build on your experience without ever even having to contact you. The benefits scale and compound with time.

The hours spent in a meeting quickly stop paying dividends.

Proper knowledge management makes actual remote work possible: work that isn’t tethered to the office.

Time management

The other key to real remote work is ability to work asynchronously.

Again, there’s no need to go all or nothing with this. A few hours a day — instead of 8 — when everyone is expected to be online and responsive keeps people from getting stuck.

Beyond a short overlap period, let people be unresponsive for a few hours at time. This allows deep work to happen, and this is often eaiser at home than in the office.

Cultural shifts

While companies have been scrambling to get the latest video conferencing software and adopting new chat programs, these aren’t the tools of remote work. At best, they’re ways to tether to the mothership. At worst, they amplify the distractions of the office.

What companies should be looking at instead is how to change their processes to allow for autonomous and asynchronous work.

How can we eliminate meetings instead of holding them from our living rooms?

What can a company do to promote an internal culture of thoughtful, long-form content such as Amazon’s famed six-page memo?

What software and processes are we using to capture, store and make knowledge retrieval work? Writing about remote work should mention Confluence instead of Zoom.

Are we giving people the space to go into deep work and not respond to every message instantly?

These are the questions that organizations moving to remote work need to focus on.