When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2019, the world wasn’t ready. The words “unprecedented times” became more ubiquitous than bedazzled face masks as workforces were thrust into forced separation. What once had been in-person and “professional” became – except in the case of essential workers – working from home in pyjama pants. From face time to FaceTime; from zooming into a meeting with barista-made coffee to Zoom meetings with a homemade cuppa. But for many, this was already the norm. Or, at least, the expedited blueprint.
Pre-2019, many companies (especially in the world of tech) were re-looking the benefits of on-site working versus the myriad ways that distributed work produces better work by happier employees. Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, started a podcast called Distributed to talk to other leaders at the forefront of changing the face and format of work. From Twitter to Upwork and Square, these global companies are showing why it’s possible to be spread across the world working more efficiently than ever – pandemic or not.
5 reasons why distributed working is a win-win (plus tips on how to do it!)
1. It’s true modernity
Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel believes distributed work is a logical revolution we missed; that in-office working is a relic from the Industrial Revolution when people were needed to run machines from 9am to 5pm. “Increasingly work can be done from anywhere, and increasingly it doesn’t need to be done from nine-to-five, increasingly it doesn’t need to be this long term, one-on-one relationship between an employer and an employee. But somehow we missed the transition and we are continuing to operate as if work had to be done the same way.” 2Stories co-founder Anelde Greeff agrees: “We are not all at our best at the same time (as is usually expected during a meeting or brainstorm). You might be distracted, immersed in another project, tired, worried, bored... By working asynchronously, we give people the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas at a time when they’re feeling up to it; when they’re feeling inspired.”
Modernity means having the most modern equipment and tech available too to ensure that everyone is on par, no matter where they’re working from. The model will fail if you don’t put the correct support structures in place. Says Greeff: “We do asynchronous work at 2Stories by having shared Google docs or slides, where people can add, edit, comment and craft as and when they feel inspired. The results are fantastic. The work is better and time is used wisely.”
2. It broadens the pool
Kasriel says that local talent is, by definition, “not as strong as global talent because it’s a tiny subset.” The best person for the job may be in another city, country or continent. Simple geography could be holding your business back from being its best. And it could also count as a saving. An office based in Cape Town, where rent is notoriously ever on the rise, means fair payment includes living expenses for Cape Town. Whereas an employee living in a city like Durban has a lower cost of living (not to mention, remote work cuts out the cost of commuting!).
“For me one of the most exciting benefits of distributed working is the fact that we can collaborate with creatives across the country and world,” says Greeff. “We don’t have to be held back by location. We can find the people that are right for the job. We can also support South Africans who are moving abroad or living as digital nomads.”
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey poses the critical question: “Do we all need to be in one city? Do we all need to be in an office?” What are the crucial drivers that necessitate regular physical presence in one space? And can they be removed or adjusted using technology? Interrogate these questions until you’re left with the bare minimum of people who absolutely need to be on-site in order to complete their jobs (such as office cleaners).
3. It encourages diversity
Kasriel says that in the U.S., 42% of freelancers have either a mental or physical disability that makes it too difficult for them to go into the office or work in a traditional office environment. Plus, he adds, there are veterans with PTSD and people with Asperger’s – there are “all sorts of physical or mental reasons why the traditional labour market does not work for them.” Diversity also includes people from different parts of the world, with different cultures, perspectives and attitudes. Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of award-winning social impact agency Women Online, also writes in her book Hiding In the Bathroom: How to Get Out There When You’d Rather Stay At Home that some people are simply too anxious or introverted to feel fulfilled in an office every day. The very feeling of being surrounded by others who can invade your space without warning can feel like an assault – one that made her quit dozens of jobs before finally starting her own company.
Investigate how your current structure affects those whose home lives, mental health and social proclivities are non-traditional. Ask yourself how much more amazing talent you could have access to if your policies made it easier for these people to join your workforce. Is there a place in your company for mothers with children who need extra care? For those with mental or physical disabilities? 2Stories co-founder Joanne Hope says, “Diversity and inclusion is important in any organisation, but it is absolutely crucial in a creative service business. Diversity of thought, perspectives and lived experience is the life force of creativity and is what drives teams to deliver great work that resonates with their audiences. Building a primarily distributed company has made it possible for us to create an ecosystem where diversity and inclusion can thrive.”
4. It enriches impoverished communities
“If you have a highly skilled, highly paid person in an economically depressed part of the country, on average they create another four jobs,” says Kasriel. “What happens is they make a sufficient amount of money and they need to go to the dentist, they need to go to the movie theatre, they are going to consume goods locally, and so that’s gonna create jobs for the baristas and create jobs for the local retail shops.” Called the local multiplier effect, this is an easy way for everyday companies to have a real impact on poverty in South Africa.
The person most qualified should always be chosen. But are you truly looking everywhere for that person? Are you limiting your job ad to those in a certain country or city? Specifying a vehicle of their own? Is office time mandatory to some degree, with the office located somewhere difficult to get to using public transport? These are all exclusionary factors that could turn away suitable candidates.
5. Everyone is happier (and they stay longer!)
Kasriel says the reverse of distributed working is much worse: not-as-good talent (limited to locality), paid higher rates, tied to a cost of living, and employees who inevitably leave for a higher salary – taking with them valuable knowledge. “[We live in an] agile world where we document a lot less than we used to and a lot more is in people’s brains [so] when they leave, it’s really, really painful for everybody.”
Make sure employees are not only happy but also that the way they’re working is optimised for them – as individuals. Everyone working when, where and how they’re happiest is the foundation for happy clients, loyal employees and expansion.
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