How do you onboard and develop a distributed workforce? Particularly new and junior members of staff?
This has been one of the big topics of conversation for me recently. It started with my chapter ‘Snapback’ in ‘Aftershocks and Opportunities’, progressed through a Twitter debate, which led to the recording of an episode of the WB40 podcast this week, alongside hosts Matt Ballantine and Chris Weston, and psychologist Wendy Kendall.
Wendy has incredible experience in this field, having worked with the military and international corporations on remote collaboration, culture sharing, and moving to new operating environments. As Wendy says on the podcast, you can see the move to the cyber realm as similar to relocating to a different country, with a new language, culture and rules. Why shouldn’t it be possible? After all, we had to build up the now familiar processes of the office environment. Why shouldn’t we just create a whole new set of behaviours for the remote world?
Building for Remote
Some companies already have. GitLab has documented in great detail its approach to an all-remote workforce, including the challenge of onboarding people and overcoming loneliness. There is so much that I agree with in GitLab’s approach, particularly its focus on measuring results not hours, and its empowerment of employees as a ‘manager of one’.
Between the podcast discussion and diving more deeply into GitLab’s work, I certainly believe it is possible to run a successful workforce on a fully-remote basis. I think the approach advocated probably drives more deliberate decision-making, greater transparency, and greater productivity.
But I question how applicable it is to most environments and organisations today. Because of the nature of those organisations, their levels of maturity, and the nature of their employees.
GitLab is an incredibly young organisation, formally founded in 2014, without a legacy to have to change. It is also a very wealthy company, having raised over $400m in funding and running what I suspect are quite high-margin services. Yes, it invests a lot in its contribution to the open source core of its business, but nonetheless it is paying good salaries (upwards of £45,000 for junior developers) to its staff.
Companies like this can be extremely selective about who they employ. In fact, employees of this type of organisation will self-select, especially on the basis that it is 100% remote. Converting a company with an established workforce, often on lower average salaries – and definitely starting salaries – to a remote environment is a very different proposition. The scale of the retraining effort to establish something akin to the processes used by GitLab is a colossal undertaking. And this is assuming that those employees are building a purely digital or intellectual product that can be assembled in that fashion.
Migrating to Cyberworld
This would be true even if most organisations currently run in a slick, transparent and deliberate manner. I think most of us know that is not the case for most organisations, which as I said on the podcast, tend to rely on the good will and hard work of lots of people to keep them running in spite of – rather than because of – sound processes. Should we address this? Absolutely. Can it be done fast? Absolutely not.
People will need to be both retrained and re-equipped. In giving up the office, large organisations will need to start thinking much more about the home or remote working environment of their staff and spend accordingly, if they want to avoid risks of physical or mental harm. The change this will require in budgets alone is colossal for a large employer.
The longer the lockdown continues, the greater the acceleration in existing trends towards hybrid working and fully remote organisations. I haven’t changed my mind since I wrote Snapback: the minute they really can, I think a lot of organisations will flood back to the office. But more change is happening at an accelerated rate the longer the virus persists in disrupting our lives. The question for organisations who have recognised the potential for more remote or hybrid working, is when to begin the radical interventions that will begin their real transformation and allow them to reap the benefits.