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Distributed Working

Now that we have been compelled to remain in distributed working patterns for a few weeks, the benefits and disadvantages of this kind of work have become clearer, both for businesses and for employees. It would perhaps be as well to share some of our insights at this difficult time, as this kind of work becomes – for a while at least – the norm.

Even an optimistic prognosis of the current crisis suggests that several months of disruption are ahead of us, and as a result businesses will have to re-tool, re-skill, and prepare for the likely outcome that viral outbreaks like coronavirus, once rare, will become more common.

It is critical that we minimise the impact on employees and on the economy, and as we share best practice around working from home, staying connected, and adapting organizational structure to make ourselves antifragile, we will no doubt learn from others doing the same. One immediate effect has been to jolt businesses out of their complacency around the need for IoT enabled, digital infrastructure, and force a revision of internal communication. Essential for now is the need to streamline remote work, and to use technology to stay connected to others in the business.

We are in the ideal position of developing cloud-based software, work that can be performed from anywhere; as others have noted, technology firms will no doubt find themselves in a more secure position than many over the difficult months ahead. But we are far from unusual in having largely dispensed with internal emails, preferring instead to communicate over a shared, chat-based platform with secure end-to-end encryption called Microsoft Teams.[1]

As Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, points out, the ideal online business should be flat and accessible in its internal structure. Just as offices are moving to be more open-plan, with some areas for private work, so online communication tools are allowing us to take previously ubiquitous messaging like email and replace it with open internal discussions (chats, blogs) where everyone can contribute and everyone can be contacted at the same time.

Mullenweg talks about levels of autonomous workplace ranging from 1 to 4. 1 is the traditional factory model, where ideally everyone is together in the same physical space; 2 is the factory model transposed online, where everyone checks in and out at the same time, and work is constantly monitored. Becoming slightly more adaptable, 3 is the adoption of basic online tools that allow shared documents to be written and edited collectively (Sharepoint, Google Docs), or screens to be shared (Teams). Becoming more asynchronous, 4 is when each team member effectively designs their own day, contributing when home life allows, communicating via internal blogs or discussion boards and being judged on their output rather than anything else.

Crucially, as the levels of autonomy increase, so the adaptability of the organizational structure increases; a company at level 4 should be more adaptable to sudden change or crisis than a company at level 2. And at the same time, efficiency gains are possible as employees work at their own pace in their own ideal environment.

So far from exhausting the topic, we are only beginning to scratch the surface at this early date. But already there is a lot to be assimilated if we are to make our businesses adaptable to this new threat. In the coming weeks and months, best practices will no doubt become clearer and as this happens, we will continue to share insights.

[1] It was revealed recently that Zoom, a common alternative, has routed a lot of traffic through China, making it vulnerable to decryption (ref: https://www.businessinsider.com/china-zoom-data-2020-4?r=US&IR=T) Skype and Facetime have also come under scrutiny in the United States, where they are commonly used for telemedicine, but may not meet the security requirements of HIPAA, at least in their free iterations.

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