Distributed companies are uniform: everyone is remote, so everyone is potentially equal, there’s no inherent power imbalance. Remote companies however have a remote gap: the difference between local people, working from the office, and remote people, working from home or on-the-go.
It’s relevant to note here that historically very large organizations have had remote workers, and the organizational approach has been most of the time around having them a “second tier” of people, while all the decisions were made in the office. While it’s difficult to argue this didn’t work, it’s however usually set up in a way where the local employees and remote employees are different from the start, with some things and even some company roles being precluded to remote workers. This is often exemplified by the feeling that “if you want to progress in your career, you better move to the office”.
A company with some people on the go is just a company with different people doing different jobs, or a company with remote workers, not a remote company. This might seem like an arbitrary point, but it’s key in this context: a remote company is a kind of company that is structurally trying to hire people both locally and remotely and having no barriers between the two tiers of people.
Distribute Decision Making
A good compass to use to fill the remote gap is the question “where are decisions made?”. Decisions are usually tied to the hierarchy, but not always. So use the existing company hierarchy just as initial guidance, then integrate with direct experience, and then check how many decisions happen in-person only, compared to how many decisions happen on tools that are visible and accessible by everyone in the company regardless of them being in the office or remote.
When power is local leaning, remote people feel disconnected and disempowered. They will feel as all the decisions are taken “by being there” and this dynamic creates a pressure for being in the office. This is a common scenario, as often the office is located where the founder or management is.
When power is remote leaning, local people tend to be forced to use the same communication tools and decision making that remote people use. The office becomes more easily integrated, as everyone is pushed to not rely to in-person encounters for decisions. The choice of being in the office or not is thus neutral.
A good question to drive change is: does making a decision work exactly the same for everyone, regardless if they are remote or local?
In terms of decision making this means that if a company wants to work better remotely and scale more, the decision making needs to switch entirely to digital channels.
The difficult part here isn’t just to review the processes and the tools, but also to put effort in training people and identifying habits that might still be anchoring decisions locally.
While decision making is surely relevant from a business perspective, presence plays a big role too, because it creates the space where human interactions put the foundation for a lot of collaboration, clarity, understanding, and ultimately, trust.
A good question to drive change is: do people feel as connected remotely as they are locally?
Equalizing the perception of presence across the local and the remote people is thus a very important aspect in balancing the relational challenges of the two tiers of a remote company.
While there’s no one specific solution to the problem of having two tiers of people in remote companies, the best approach is to have in place the same kind of tools and structures that work in fully distributed companies.
From a certain perspective distributed companies have an easier life, but just in the sense that it’s either this, or nothing — there’s no other choice. Remote companies will always have the temptation to rely to in-person activities, which will however keep the two-tier system in place, creating siloing of groups, hindering collaboration, limiting integration, and overall having a less effective company.
There are many initiatives that can be put in place to promote distributed decision making and equalized presence, let’s see a few:
- The main equalization initiative is to have common communication and collaboration tools that are exactly the same and used exactly in the same way regardless of being remote or local. Internal blogs, chats, wikis, conference call software, etc.
- Make sure that all the in-person activities are either purely social, or when happening, the key outcomes are transcribed accurately on the common tools.
- Make sure every decision is available and visible on these common tools as soon as possible, ideally having them as the first source of truth for any decision no matter the size: “If it’s not written there, it’s not decided” is a good rule to put in place.
- Make sure that all the managers lead by example by explicitly and visibly making sure that everyone is on the same playing field. For example, aim to have a 50-50% split: about half of the managers should be remote, and the other half local and proactive in filling the remote gap.
- For in-person meetings provide equivalent and automated tools for remote people too. Either by using always the same conference call software, having digital whiteboards, setting the audio and video always on in meeting rooms, or having invites auto-generating and auto-starting the conference call in the room. Automating bookings and conference calls setup can go a long way and avoids the “oh sorry, I forgot to call you in!” moments.
- Schedule to have days working from home for everyone in the company, like remote Thursdays or similar solutions. Note that “Thursdays” are easier than “Fridays” because they will worry less, at least in the beginning, some traditional managers that still think that “being present equals being productive”.
- You can have a local buddies program, people that in rotation are paired up for a week with someone remote, and act as their liaison person in the office. For example Pivotal leverage their existing pair-programming structure to pair with remote people… using always-on tablets for the day.
- Review your in-person activities. Most of them will likely end up being meetings, and most meetings could even shift to be entirely asynchronous discussions. Others might be more specialized, in which case there are plenty of shared collaborations tools: from Google Spreadsheets to Keynote on iCloud to Figma to Miro to and so on depending on your needs.
Let’s review with a story
The above list might sound a bit abstract, so let’s make a practical example on how that can mean in practice. The situation is interesting because while Automattic is distributed, we travel and meet in person, which means we end up to have groups of people in the same location, co-working for some time from the same space.
What happens if the people in the same location need to jump on a call with others that are remote? A common approach is to group everyone in the same room, and call. This seems natural, but goes against the equalization principle above: you’ll end up with enforcing two tiers. The people in the same room can exchange whispers, notes, and even just a raised eyebrow can be meaningful — everyone else on the call will be cut out.
What we do instead is to have everyone setup as-if they were remote, in some cases not just having each on their own laptop with their own headphones, but even in separate rooms. This simple approach, even if it can seem counterintuitive at the beginning, ensures that everyone is on the same playing field for the discussion, and nobody feels cut out.
In general, a rule of thumb for all of this is: if something is harder to do when remote, it should be fixed.