What Knowledge Work Can Learn From Remote-First Companies
Improve business outcomes by reducing distractions and enabling deep work.
There is more to life than work. Before I start, I want to share something personal from last weekend. My girlfriend and I visited the white chalk cliffs of Étretat in France. It’s a great place to unplug and recharge. Enjoy this scenic and somewhat dramatic view.
It is sometimes tough to get things done in a workday. I’ve experienced days where it felt like I accomplished nothing.
This is an example routine from my past and some parts might sound familiar to you:
The workday starts somewhere between 8 and 9 AM. There is a standup with the team at 10 AM. It does not make sense to start with anything before that meeting that requires a huge amount of brain power.
I decide to go through my emails. It’s a bad habit but I’ve already scanned some of them the evening before while sitting on the couch in the living room. One email seems to require my attention ASAP. It contains a chain of messages and people located on the other side of the world are replying as we speak. This will require some thought and investigation tomorrow morning. There is no use to answer immediately unless I power up my laptop.
After the standup, I decide to check what I missed on Slack. This is often the place for essential discussions. I feel it’s important that I can also share my opinion and the decision might also impact my work.
I still need to take some time to review a couple of documents stored on Google Drive and comment on those. I also need to file a bug report.
At 12.30 PM, I take time for a quick lunch.
This is followed by 2 meetings in the afternoon with a half hour in between. One meeting is an unexpected one, I only see a subject but it isn't easy to gauge what it is really about.
After the meetings, I check my notifications on Slack and new emails arrived.
Before I know it, it’s 5 PM.
Tomorrow, I will be able to “brag” about how busy I was at the standup. But at the same time, I’m thinking about the limited value I have been creating or the impact I had. There was also no time for engaging with deep work.
For deep work that needs creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and brain power to tackle complex problems, I need to get “in the zone”. The best time to enter the zone for the schedule I presented is before 8 AM or in the late afternoon. The fewer distractions I have, the better it is to sharpen my focus.
The days I’m working from home, often result in longer workdays but at least then I’m getting things done.
I like going to the office from time to time. At the office, It’s nice to meet up with colleagues but I’m frequently absentminded because there is more noise and more unexpected conversations. Commuting also takes time. I get generally fewer things done at the office.
This made me ponder and reflect some more. I also did some research and gained some insights.
This article shows how companies that heavily depend on knowledge workers, can drastically improve their business outcomes. I will show what these companies can learn from remote-first companies and how your business will be able to achieve more with fewer people.
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I discovered an interesting collaborative study from Asana and Sapio Research. That study shows that knowledge workers are doing meaningful work for only 2 days out of five. Continous emails, message notifications, and unexpected meetings consume 60% of a worker’s day.
At a time when it is challenging to find skilled talent, an enormous amount of time seems to be wasted with the talent that companies do have at their disposal. Next to being on the lookout for additions to the current workforce, it’s also vital to investigate how current work processes can improve.
According to the study, this is where knowledge workers spend their time on:
Only 27% of the time is spent on the skilled job they’ve been hired to do.
13% of the time is spent on strategizing and planning.
A staggering 60% is spent on coördination such as communicating about project status, searching for information, and managing shifting priorities
This demonstrates that there is room for improvement. It’s difficult to do deep work when your time is limited and you have to switch between tasks all the time.
People are not like computer processors. We are not able to switch between tasks as easily and efficiently.
According to this study from the University of California, it takes on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after being interrupted. If you get distracted three times a day, you lose an hour of work.
The more complex the task at hand, the longer it takes to get back into the zone. Software developers for example lose more time returning to a task than average knowledge workers. The longer they are away from a task, the more time is needed to get back to it. Non-technicals often have trouble understanding how much focus a developer needs to execute his tasks.
Paul Graham wrote an article about the difference between the maker’s schedule and the manager’s schedule:
The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour.
Since the manager is often calling the shots and is not fully aware of this, makers have less time for deep work and getting things done.
When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting.
The Case For Deep Work
In this article, Cal Newport, author of the book Deep Work talks about the difference between shallow and deep work.
Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes us feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy.
Knowledge workers should need to spend more time engaged in deep work — cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.
Cal mentions three key benefits generated by deep work:
Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.
An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.
Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work.
Deep work has benefits for both the business and the employee. This is closely related to what I talked about in one of my previous articles: Boost your Business by Creating Happiness
The Five Levels of Remote Work
I am currently reading the book “The Pathless Path” by Paul Millerd. I also subscribed to his newsletter “Boundless”.
In one article he talks about the five levels of remote work, a concept introduced by Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, and also the company behind WordPress. Automattic is considered a role model and innovator in the area of remote work. It has been entirely remote since 2005, and with almost 2000 employees, it has helped prove that remote workplace culture can succeed at scale.
Remote-first companies have employees in different time zones all over the world. Employees also have the flexibility in deciding when to start and end their working day.
The biggest challenge that globally distributed remote companies are solving is … COMMUNICATION.
Since the pandemic, lots of companies were forced to adopt remote work quickly. Remote tooling like Slack, Teams, GSuite, Zoom and Miro were introduced.
Many of these companies are somewhere between level 2 and level 3 of the pyramid shown below. These companies are remote-friendly and offer the flexibility to work from home. Most companies still expect their employees to come into the office at least some of the time. But apart from the flexibility, there are no significant business advantages.
A company starts to witness the real power or remote working once it is operating at level 4. At that level, REAL asynchronous communication is used.
When reaching level 4, the company can call itself remote-first. Remote-first isn’t the same as remote-friendly. Remote-first is a whole new way of organizing a company. I start to roll my eyes when I see job descriptions where a company is offering the flexibility to work from home 2 days a week. In that case, working from home will most likely result in more trouble collaborating.
How many of you enjoy “hybrid meetings”? How included do you feel in such a meeting?
It’s NOT about Remote Work
An article on TechCrunch mentions that Automattic rejects the word “remote” entirely. Instead, Automattic uses words like “distributed” and “asynchronous”. Communication at Automattic is written and asynchronous.
Asynchronous means that it can be addressed anytime during the work day. This is in contrast to communication where an answer is expected (almost) immediately.
These are some examples of synchronous communication:
All kinds of meetings: virtual (e.g. Zoom), hybrid, at the office
Tapping someone on the shoulder at the office to ask a quick question
These are examples of asynchronous communication channels:
Instant Messaging: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts
Collaborative Designer Tools: Figma, Marvell
Async Video Messaging: Loom
Email and instant messaging are asynchronous communication channels by nature. How these remote tools are used, is influenced greatly by company expectations and culture.
These are things that are happening at companies with remote and “asynchronous” tooling but are not remote-first:
You are expected to be online in Slack or Teams. Otherwise, your boss might think you are not working.
You are supposed to follow up on IM notifications on many channels (even if the messages posted over there are not business critical).
People video call you out of the blue and you are supposed to accept them.
You are expected to have your email client open.
Email is the primary method of communication. Most of them result in long message chains.
People are Different
Not all individuals have the same sleeping pattern. Some people are more energized in the morning, others in the evening. Generally, people can be allocated to one out of 4 “chronotypes”.
The following animal names are used to represent these chronotypes: the lion, the dolphin, the wolf, and the bear.
It seems that I’m a wolf. I like the snooze button and have trouble waking up. I also perform at my best later in the day. This holds for doing sports and for engaging with complex or creative work.
Even when people are living in the same time zone, they are performing better at different times during the day.
Introverts and Extroverts
Introverts think best when it’s quiet and where there are no other people around. Meetings are challenging for them, speaking before large groups can be especially intimidating for them too.
More preparation and written communication are beneficial for introverts. It also benefits the company. Introverts thrive more when they can think in solitude. It will also lead to better decisions where everyone participates more equally in the discussions.
What’s happening at a remote-first company? I studied some companies that operate fully remote and sell remote-first products.
Ditch Recurring Meetings
Meetings are reduced to an absolute minimum. Recurring meetings are ditched and replaced by asynchronous communication. Recurring meetings are often about accountability.
Standups: “What did you do yesterday, what are you going to do today, any difficulties?”
Reporting: “What’s the status of the project?”
Announcements and updates: “We landed a new enterprise customer!“
Use Asynchronous Video Calls
With tools like Loom or Claap, it is possible to replace a whole range of meetings with video recordings. These tools allow you to give contextual feedback to one another and have discussions inside that tool. It is for example possible to put comments or ask for input at a certain moment in time of that video.
These tools can be used for a whole range of interesting use cases:
Centralizing and sharing team knowledge
Asynchronous team planning
Delivering feedback faster
Training and building teams
What Meetings to Keep
Social bonding: offsites where the whole team meets in person for a combination of work, fun, and offline connecting. Donut chat helps to welcome new hires, build internal networks and virtually meet “strangers” for coffee or lunch.
Manager check-ins: It’s beneficial to organize a 1-on-1 between a manager and a direct report synchronously. This can be done via a video call.
Hiring: Some parts can happen in writing but at a certain point, it’s best to meet in person using a video call.
Customer Meetings: Gathering qualitative data and feedback from customers often requires a live meeting.
Email and instant messaging tools like Slack are asynchronous but they have some real disadvantages:
They bury information. You might miss important discussions when being out of the office for a couple of days or just plain busy.
The information is not well organized and it’s difficult to find the necessary information after a while.
Tools like Twist are betting against Slack for exactly those reasons.
The remote-first model is beneficial to all companies that heavily depend on knowledge workers. Companies can achieve more with fewer people. This is particularly interesting since it is so hard to attract top talent.
On average, knowledge workers only do meaningful work 2 days out of five. The main reason is that they are frequently distracted and interrupted. The more interruptions, the harder it is to engage with deep work. More time for deep work is beneficial for both the employees (more satisfaction) and the company (more value).
People are different. They do their best work under different circumstances and at different times during the day.
Meetings are challenging for introverts. They benefit from more preparation and written communication.
Some people feel more energized in the morning, others in the evening.
Remote-friendly offers flexibility to employees to work from home. These companies still have an office-first culture which makes collaboration more difficult. Remote-first is not only about remote work. It’s mainly a different culture.
At remote-first companies:
Recurring meetings are ditched
Some meetings are replaced by asynchronous video calls.
Hiring, manager check-ins, customer meetings, and social bonding are exceptions for organizing meetings.
Email and instant messaging tools are replaced by tools that promote structure and do not bury information.
I would also like to hear YOUR thoughts or questions about this topic:
How much can you engage with deep work at your job? What would help to achieve better focus and greater satisfaction?
At what level of remote work is your company operating?
When during the day, is your best time to do creative or complex work? What is the best environment for this type of work?
Which remote tools are your favorite ones? And why?
How many meetings do you have on average each week? How many of them do you think are necessary and which ones could be replaced by writing?