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The pandemic has triggered the world’s largest work-from-home experiment. For most companies, remote work is not a privilege but a necessity now. Even at Plum, we are working remotely at the moment. As a result, I began reading and looking up literature that could help make remote work more efficient and smooth at Plum. That’s when I came across this interesting podcast by Sam Harris, where he was in conversation with Matt Mullenweg, the founder of the company Automattic. 

For the unacquainted, Automattic is the company behind WordPress, with Mullenweg being the founder of Automattic and the co-founder of WordPress. What’s interesting about the company is that it has been acing remote work much before the pandemic. In fact, Automattic started as a distributed company, so it wasn't a gradual change for them. The company employs over 1170 people that are spread across 75 countries and speak 93 languages with no office space. It’s a remote-first company in the true sense of the word. 

Coming back to the podcast, Mullenweg discussed ‘the five levels of remote work’ in it. Here’s what I could gather from it: 

Level 1: The Traditional Setup- No Action Toward Remote

Most of the companies, I believe, were at this level of remote work before the pandemic. At this level, there’s no intentional or conscious effort towards providing the option of working remotely to the employees. Rather, it was a given that employees work from the office space at particular hours in a particular city. 

Even companies that would let people ‘be available’ from home at times would be on this level. Because while your employees could be at home, and respond to emails, attend meetings, they weren’t really able to work because they did not have the right infrastructure or tools to work from home. At this point, your company had not really invested in collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or considered security needs like VPN licenses. 

Level 2: Office 2.0- The Remote Version

Back when the Coronavirus spread began in India, we all witnessed companies rushing to provide desktops to their employees. They were setting up the remote infrastructure to keep their operations running even during the lockdown. At the time, companies were primarily focusing on replicating the office space environment at home for their employees. So, while there was an investment in remote, it wasn’t completely in the right direction. 

The same processes, same setups were just duplicated to remote style, without considering whether or not they’d be suitable for working remotely. Not just that, even with remote setup, the modus operandi remained more or less the same. The working hours were the same for all employees. The managers expected employees to be readily available at their beck and call. 

As a result, the video conferencing tool Zoom Cloud Meetings topped download charts globally and their business skyrocketed. But more importantly, employees became anxious and overwhelmed with the number of meetings and communication that they’d have to be a part of as the managers wanted to ensure that ‘work was happening'. Companies that were on this level even considered installing surveillance software on employee laptops. Many companies are still stuck at this level. 

Level 3: Moving with the Times

By now, most of us have come to terms with the fact that remote working was not a temporary move. It was not a provision for the three-month lockdown. In order to ensure employee health and smooth business functioning, remote work is the only way ahead.  Once this realization dawned upon companies, they started taking a remote-first approach. They looked for tools and enablers that made remote work better. Meetings were utilized better than “catching up on what everyone’s doing”. More and more shared documents, projects, and tools came into being for better collaboration. 

This is where I think many companies are now. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had all started at Level 2. But now, we’re developing a remote-first outlook and getting better at operating remotely. 

But does it end here? Not according to Mullenweg. There are two more levels of remote work that we’ve to conquer. 

Level 4: To each his own- Asynchronous

Fundamentally, no two people are the same. Some people are night owls and are most productive while the world sleeps. Some are early risers and like to get most of their work done by noon. Back in an office setup, we didn’t really have the luxury to let employees work at their own favorite time of day. But working remotely can allow you to get the highest productivity out of your team. 

To do that, you need to build a remote work culture that has asynchronous communication i.e. where information can be shared without the need for an instant response. Where operations are such that employees have flexible working hours. 

Asynchronous communication allows your employees to get in the ‘flow state’. Being in the flow state or ‘in the zone’ is a psychological state where your employees are up to five times more productive, according to McKinsey. In addition to the productivity boost, asynchronous communication can allow you to go global. You can hire the best talent across the world and actually run operations 24X7 wherein one remote team passes the baton to the other team at the end of their shift. 

To get here, I feel what is needed is the setting of clear expectations and responsibilities. As leaders, we need to drive communication that is built upon the mindset that the receiver may or may not be readily available. For instance, as a standard, all task-related messages can have three elements: 

  • A clear action or outcome that is needed
  • A due date
  • Action to take if a requirement can’t be met.

This way the receiver knows the priority of the tasks and can work on it accordingly. This is just one of the many ways of ensuring effective asynchronous communication that I think can work. 

Level 5: The Ultimate Remote Working Setup

As Mullenweg puts it, this level is where your team attains Nirvana. And this is where we should strive to reach. 

Considering the present situation, Nirvana is where we’ve devoted enough time and had enough learnings from experiments with a remote setup that we master the art of doing work and collaborating remotely. This is the point where we’ve not just built a remote setup but developed an iron-clad remote culture that ties to the company’s values and goals. Nirvana is where your business is functioning impeccably remotely as if it was meant to be remote (like Automattic!) from the get-go.  

Once you attain Nirvana, it will directly impact your business growth. But more importantly, it will impact your employee engagement and wellbeing. Your employees would be able to balance personal and professional well-being - a challenge that’s new to them as remote workers. 

Where’s Plum At?

After reading all about these levels of remote work, I couldn’t help but wonder where Plum was in terms of a remote culture that I have been trying to build at the company. While I can say without a shred of doubt that we’ve definitely crossed Level 3, we’re still at the beginning of Level 4. I am increasingly learning more and actively taking an initiative to boost asynchronous communication but there’s definitely a lot more to do.