November 29, 2021

Welcome To The Distributed Age: How To Make Remote Work, Work

Author's Note: This article originally appeared on on February 8, 2021

A rapid transition to remote work became a necessity for many workers early in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, there has been much speculation about whether there will be a broadscale return to the office, a continued shift towards more remote work, or some combination in between.

Are remote work policies just the latest management trend, spurred by the pandemic? Or, is a distributed workforce the future of work?

In the 2nd edition of his book, ‘Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart’, author John O’Duinn provides practical and strategic guidance for how teams and organizations can successfully make the transition from the Information Age to the Distributed Age, and makes the case for why they need to.

The Distributed Age

The new Distributed Age is one in which commuting to an office is largely optional, where workers are able to take advantage of their ability to live in communities that are more appealing and not solely dictated by their jobs, and where distributed teams are the norm. O’Duinn asserts that society is at a tipping point and on the verge of making this transition to the Distributed Age driven by a combination of several socioeconomic changes. 

For one, the length of time people stay in a particular job has shortened to 1-2 years for high paying tech companies like Google or Apple, with a national average of just over 4 years, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The expectation that workers will move that frequently for new positions is unrealistic, particularly when people begin to settle down with partners, start families, or otherwise become integrated into a particular community.

Additionally, moving for one new job when in a multiple income family poses the challenge of having one partner leave their position and find a new job as well. This is evident in pre-pandemic mobility data, which showed that Americans were moving at the lowest rates since mobility tracking began in the late 1940s.

The Benefits of Distributed Teams

There are multiple advantages to distributed organizations highlighted including social, economic, and environmental benefits. 

  1. Competitive advantage: Companies are able to hire the best talent, wherever they are and not just the best talent that will commute to a physical office location.
  2. Financial advantage: Organizations are able to focus more funds on their employees and their products.
  3. Community advantage: When the income streams of local residents are more diverse, rather than dependent upon the health of a single large employer, the community is less susceptible to boom and bust cycles and more economically resilient overall.
  4. Sustainable advantage: Transportation is the largest single source of carbon emissions in the US, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Reducing commute traffic can substantially and immediately reduce that carbon impact on the environment.

Making the Transition

Throughout the book are actionable tips and strategies to help make work on distributed teams successful and the transition smooth, included in both the “How” section as well as the “Humans and Culture” section of the text. 

O’Duinn’s overall advice on how to make remote work, work? Think big, but take baby steps.

“Relentless baby steps can fundamentally change cities, society, and (hopefully) save our planet” -- John O’Duinn

Distributed organizations must be hyper focused on organization and operations from the start, and organizations looking to transition should do so by starting small. According to O’Duinn, making big, sweeping announcements about shifting to remote work is a mistake.

Doing so can come across to employees as a management fad.

Instead, he suggests making small improvements to day-to-day operations that work for everyone. Improving how calendars are kept, meetings are scheduled, notes are taken, and email etiquette, can all benefit employees whether they are physically still in an office or not. Once all of these changes are in place, it is then possible to have people work from home occasionally and then get used to doing so a few days per week. 

At that point, when you have a team that functions well no matter where they are, the office becomes optional. 

Whether you are already working on or managing a distributed team or looking to help your team make the transition, making changes incrementally and with a focus on improving work for everyone is key.

As O’Duinn says in the book’s closing, “Instead of feeling daunted by the magnitude of it all, just quietly start taking baby steps. Start today. And keep taking relentless baby steps. Every. Single. Day.”

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