Road warrior or home hero
Reflections on 36 years of remote working
I have been working remote since 1984. After I graduated I started a career as an auditor and then a management consultant. I followed that path with one of the world’s leading firms for the next 29 years. Doing the work at the client site was the only way to do the job right.
Everyone in the firm developed a working life that combined offices and factories with the kitchen table, airport lounges, trains and hotel rooms. Bear in mind we had no laptops, no spreadsheets, no powerpoint and not even a mobile phone in those days.
I have felt like an outsider as lockdown proceeded. Working 100% from home has been a little different but not much. Business media has been flooded with advice on how to work from home. It all felt out of line with my own experience but I struggled to figure out why.
Until I came across Jason Fried’s thoughts on remote work as a platform. Right now the way we do remote working is porting our office habits into a new environment. Real change will mean inventing new ways of working that are built for the remote working world.
I am a big fan of Signal v Noise . The blog founders literally wrote the book on remote working. You can learn a lot from them.
My own thoughts are less structured and no more than a reflection on many years of lived experience. For what its worth these are the key elements:
Standard tools have always been integral. Before computers everything was recorded on pen and paper. We all used the same pens. We all used the same analysis paper. And we all used the same brand of typex to fix mistakes. The only real conflict arose when we merged with another firm that used pencils not pens and typex.
Tools and methods were basic building blocks. They were guides not rules. Think rather of a common framework. With plenty of room to adapt to the context of the assignment. Allowing for innovative new approaches to suit the client and the challenge.
Working with frameworks not rules is an important element of remote working. Its about putting trust in your team. Give them the space to do the best job possible. Remote working is not a good fit with a command and control culture.
Client assignments were the basis of all remote work. They determined the location, the size of the team and the objectives of the work. The structure was small teams working on each assignment in intense, deadline focused bursts.
Regular changes in teams. So 2-5 people for each assignment but never the same group twice.
Managers, Partners and specialists visiting and monitoring client teams on an occasional basis. Focus on the job in hand but created a floating core of people that linked things together
Limited number of office based, large group events (1-2 per month.) Social aspect of events was much more important than technical content or management messaging.
Too busy with client work always an acceptable excuse to miss group events at every level. But not too often.
Common standards of training, personal development and performance appraisal. Everyone was responsible for their own personal development and assessed against this. No career progression without showing personal growth and learning.
We had a limited level of hierarchy - 8 grades of staff across 150,000 people. Alongside this was a culture that encouraged collaborative initiative. Collaborative initiative is a clumsy phrase and a hard one to define but best shorthand I can think of for now.
I have no idea how these or other ideas will emerge in a new world. Many organisations will move to a mixed remote/ office working method - expect much crap about hybrid models in the months ahead. Ignore it. (Sidebar: Zoom is not built for any sort of new world right now. Neither is Teams.)
Its an area worth thinking about for any business. It is also going to create big new opportunities for new businesses. Personal view, remote will make work better for many people. Embrace it and find the best way for your business.
Observations for the week:
Understanding business is as much about the context of the wider world as it is about traditional strategy and management thinking. I have been gathering a few links every week that have made me think. Despite my best intentions, this week is dominated by COVID-19.
This thread is a good summary of the conventional, liberal consensus view of where we stand on COVID right now. It represents solid values and good intentions. But it also reflects a level of certainty that is misplaced at best. Thanks to Matt Clifford for pointing me to the link.
Sweden is seen as an outlier in Europe. A negative perception in most cases. In reality, Swedish culture is based on deep community values and responsibility leading to high voluntary compliance without the need for detailed rules.
Contrast this with the UK. Here COVID-19 has exposed structural weakness in institutions and a fragile divided community. Note that UK and Scottish Government policies have been near identical. To date this results in similar outcomes but much different perceptions.
Another accepted “fact” is that managing the virus is also good economic policy. Harvard Business Review argues (paywall) that US policy has been a trade off. Over there, economic and fiscal stimulus has replaced good public health measures. For now - long way to go. Note also the “limits of modelling outside the known empirical range.” With the best intentions, forecasting right now is even more unreliable than usual.
Final virus thing. An article from the New York Times (paywall) highlights the threat to progress against TB and Malaria. Diseases which are far bigger killers than COVID. Expect similar headlines about first world health problems in the months ahead. The impact of delaying routine treatments, slowing diagnoses of cancer and downplaying other health issues is impossible to estimate right now.
Two totally non COVID related things:
Peter Zeihan offers the best summary of the Middle East crisis I have seen for a long time. Realistic view that the region is now a stand off between the Arab world (led by Saudi Arabia) and Iran. Israel/ Palestine has become a sideshow in this analysis.
A great article on the strategic role finance can play even in a small company. I will return to this topic in depth in future although I am not sure I can summarise better than Jana does here. If you can find an accountant that offers more than simple hygiene factor compliance and a series of scare stories about new regulatory “risks”, I would love to hear about them.