Distributed Work: Making Time for Face-to-Face Communication

Author’s Note: While face-to-face communication is currently not necessarily safe, perhaps until a vaccine or effective treatment is found for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth contemplating how companies might cope in the near-term future with new organisational and operating structures to take the trend of remote work into account.

Models for Distributed or Remote Work have grown side-by-side with the Digital Age. The recent Covid-19 pandemic has forced a more rapid shift towards distributed or remote work due to stay-at-home orders across the globe.  With ongoing uncertainty caused by this new coronavirus, companies are reviewing whether remote work could be made permanenthoping to leverage potential gains in employee satisfaction, more productive workforces and cost-effectiveness.  Technology companies, such as Twitter and Square, have already announced that employees may continue to work remotely on a permanent basis. 

The process of converting to an operating model that relies on distributed or remote work is easily talked about, but harder to put into practice.  Not only is there usually a period of trial and error with various technological tools for messaging, video-conferencing and document sharing, but remote work also reduces face-to-face communication, something humans are not particularly accustomed to.Belay Station - Articles (Distributed Work, 5 Levels of Autonomy - Matt Mullenweg, April, 2020)

It may sound contradictory, but even the most successful companies at leveraging a highly distributed or remote work operating model still maintain a level of face-to-face communication.  This is not a fault of their operating models, but by design.  It has been observed consistently in sociology that face-to-face communication among members of a group tends to increase cooperation, as well as build bonds of trust.  It also allows for non-verbal codes, such as facial expressions, posture, touch, and motion, all subtle psychological clues to the meaning of communication that can’t be replicated in forms such as writing, and which reach limits over voice and video technology. 

Belay Station - Articles (Distributed Work, Making Sense Podcast #194 - March, 2020)A case in point is Automattic, most notable for owning and operating WordPress, and often held up as an exemplary model of how Distributed Work can succeed.  On Sam HarrisMaking Sense Podcast (#194) in March, 2020, Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic, described his thoughts around Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy.  Many companies are currently on an unintended journey through these levels.  (Mr Mullenweg also recently wrote an article giving advice on how to navigate the work-from-home culture entitled ‘Coronavirus and the Remote Work Experiment No One Asked For’).

From the beginning, Automattic was always Distributed.  Founded in 2005 in San Francisco, Automattic now has nearly 1,200 employees working remotely all around the world.  The company was started without many of the initial employees having met each other in person.  They worked via written communication and voice calls.  Their first face-to-face wasn’t until a group of about 8 members of the team met at an Indian restaurant in San Francisco to get to know each other better.

Belay Station - Articles (Distributed Work, Automattic Grand Meetup)

This face-to-face communication remains essential to Automattic.  Project teams are encouraged to meet for a week once or twice a year, and the whole company gathers for 7 days once a year for what’s called a ‘Grand Meetup’.   As Mr Mullenweg noted in an interview published in Quartz, “While it’s possible to work remotely, there’s a bonding and a familiarity that develops when you’re in person together that’s irreplaceable.”  Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, similarly worries that working remotely on a permanent basis can burn through ‘social capital’ achieved during physical, person-to-person meetings.  This could in turn lead to negative consequences for social interaction and mental health.

As companies transition from an office environment to at-home arrangements, there are several noteworthy considerations to pay attention to, particularly as this is the first time many workers are experiencing working remotely: 1). It can be done, and done successfully; 2). Best practices already exist on everything from technologies to organisational structures, and 3). the psychology of human behaviour and motivation is important to help overcome concerns around a variety of issues, such as job performance and the ability to maintain work and non-work boundaries. And, as noted above, there are a number of important benefits from ensuring face-to-face communication still has a place in Distributed Work to help a company advance and thrive.

Don Jurries

Featured Photos: Pixabay; Matt Mullenweg’s ‘Distributed Work’s 5 Levels of Autonomy’; Sam Harris’ Making Sense Podcast; Automattic’s Grand Meetup

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