It’s definitely NOT a one-size-fits-all
Building on my personal experience leading distributed organizations, and my deliberate study of highly-remote organizations over the past six months, two key factors informed my approach to strategy development outlined below.
First, this challenge is shared by many organizations. Therefore, having your business come up with a solution from scratch will just repeat old mistakes that others have already made and learned from. Instead, I chose to synthesize their experience and lessons learned focusing on identifying the contextual elements that impact the outcome, so the approach can be adapted to fit an organization’s unique context.
Second, I view organizations as complex systems with emergent properties, where the relationship between cause and effect is not fully known/understood. Therefore, while an initial, directional approach is essential, the plan needs to include scaffolding for learning as we go: creating the space and the method to observe the impact of changes as they are made, and the willingness to adapt both direction and plan based on what is learned.
Step 1: Align on the “why?”
A remote talent strategy offers a diverse set of benefits and challenges. For example, at the organizational level, it offers access to a broader candidate pool but requires deeper intentionality in designing and scaffolding how work gets done. At the individual level, it offers more flexibility in schedule management but requires stronger communication and organization skills to get work done. Your business may have already experienced some of these, as Stripe had through its remote engineering hub. Different organizations choose to pursue a remote work strategy for a host of reasons, placing varying premiums on the benefits they want to capture and the challenges they need to mitigate. This variability leads to choosing different remote talent strategies. Therefore, Your business’ starting point needs to be articulating its specific “why?” — scoring these key benefits and challenges and creating clear criteria to evaluate alternative remote talent strategies.
Step 2: Converge on the desired end-state
Remote talent strategies lie on a spectrum between “fully co-located in a single office” and “work from anywhere” where the extreme ends are the best option only for a minority of organizations. Strategies in between those extremes differ from one another primarily in how much they constrain the location from which work can be done, and how much they constrain the time-of-day in which work should be done synchronously. Quora, for example, opted to keep its office, allow employees to work from any country in which they can be legally employed, but defined 9am to 3pm PT as “coordination hours” where most employees will be expected to be available for meetings and impromptu communication, regardless of where they are located. Market research identified additional points along the spectrum that can serve as anchors for different remote talent strategies. Flexibility in location and synchronicity has a varying impact on specific roles based on their unique attributes: providing on-site client interaction, accessing specialized equipment or facilities, the need for supervision and regulatory oversight, reliance on collaboration and interaction, and focus on innovation. Therefore, your business needs to conduct a role-by-role impact assessment of each candidate strategy. Coupled with the weighted criteria defined in Step 1, it will have sufficient insight to converge on the right end-state and determine whether a single end-state can fit across the entire company or bifurcation by role type is required.
Step 3: Define success and how to measure it
Defining success targets and how they will be measured will heavily influence the way organizational changes will be rolled out to support the strategy.
Success should be looked at through two key lenses: work, reflected in a set of business KPIs, and workforce, reflected in a set of employee-reported data. The specific benefits your business wants to capture and key drawbacks it wants to mitigate with its remote work strategy will determine the selection of specific KPIs and data. Since this strategy heavily impacts the way employees interact and collaborate, those standard success metrics should be complemented with Organizational Network Analysis metrics collected both actively and passively.
Ideally, changes will be rolled out as randomized, controlled tests that will allow your business to isolate the impact of the strategy and distinguish between correlation and causation. Pragmatically, in some cases your business will have to move backward from that ideal, thoughtfully making trade-offs between reducing success attribution and increasing roll-out feasibility.
Step 4: Perform gap analysis and formulate a plan
With a clear end-state and approach to measurement defined, your business can now perform a gap analysis between the present state and the desired end-state to determine the pace by which it can move forward. The analysis explores the same two lenses of success: work and workforce.
Work — effectively working remotely requires deliberately changing the way work in the organization gets done across several dimensions:
- Routines, tools and capability building
- Cyber and internal data security
- Coaching and development
- Productivity and performance management
- Senior leadership and culture
- Recruiting and onboarding
Workforce — effectively working remotely requires deliberately preparing the workforce to work remotely across several dimensions:
- Other needs (childcare, physical space, etc.)
Understanding the current gaps and ways to address them will enable your business to set a realistic pace for the change. Understanding the variability in current gaps will inform whether a uniform pace or multiple paces will likely yield a better outcome.
Step 5: Do → Sense → Adapt. Repeat.
Once the plans for closing the gaps identified in Step 4 are set in motion, on-going measurement of the success metrics defined in Step 3 will inform progress and drive continuous adaptation of both the strategy and the plan to implement it.
Putting it all together
For those of you who share my preference for visuals and illustrations, the following diagram summarizes how all the steps fit together: