Which type of Remote Work fits you? A 5-level model to transform your organisation, Part 2

https://ma.tt/2020/04/five-levels-of-autonomy/

The good news

As a manager and a leader you are currently facing a huge challenge. All of a sudden you have to motivate, steer and control your entire staff from afar. And quite obviously the old management tools don’t do the trick anymore when everyone is working from home. 

The good news:

The corona-induced changes are to a considerable degree the same changes that will make your company fit for the digital age. In both cases it’s about being productive in evermore uncertain environments, actively managing change, and augmenting the autonomy and innovative force of teams. 

The digital company of the future, everyone agrees, will be substantially more agile and flexible. Hierarchies will be reduced, and the borders between companies will blurr, in order to incorporate more and more talents and ideas from the outside into one’s own products and services.

What can entrepreneurs and managers do during the crisis that will also set their company on the right course for further digitalisation? 

One inspiring blueprint hails from digital pioneer Matt Mullenweg, who founded the content-management system WordPress in 2003. WordPress is to date the most widespread system for operating websites, and employs over 1200 people, all of whom work together decentralised out of 70 countries.  

In the following I would like to introduce you to Matt’s 5-level model for autonomous, distributed work. Every level corresponds to a specific mindset and set of competencies, without which the respective forms of leadership and work could not function. It gives us an orientation of which outer forms of organisation and work are connected to which mindsets, attitudes and competencies. This map is the first step towards coherent, effective action. 

While you’re reading this, ask yourself on which level your company is located. And check which assumptions, mindsets and competencies it would take for you to develop further – in order to master the current crisis, but also and especially to actively shape the digital transformation of your enterprise. 

Matt Mullenweg’s 5-level model

In the following, we’ll take Mullenweg’s model (see illustration above) and complement it with the respective mindset and set of competencies that belong to each level. This way you’ll get a good grasp of which outer forms of organisation and work are connected to which mindsets, attitudes and competencies. 

Level 0: location-based work – little chance of decentralisation

Some jobs are so bound to a concrete location that almost no autonomy is possible. Construction worker, firefighter and plumber are such jobs. In the current crisis, however, many companies are realising that certain jobs aren’t actually as tied to physical presence as they thought. My body therapist Rivka Halberstadt, for example, has been “treating” me via Zoom for the past few weeks. I would have never expected this to work, but it does: for example, she shows me how I can put pressure on certain body parts myself in order to loosen tensions and release emotions. 

To work regular hours at a fixed place is the standard model of the industrial age. Developed in the late 19th and early 20th Century, it emerged in the factories of the European continent and brought with it an immense standardisation of life on earth, including the establishment of a world time, the ubiquity of the nation-state, and worldwide industrial norms. 

This form of work, historically new and very specialised, established itself as the norm in the consciousness of most people and as such was not called into question for a long time. We have all learned location-based work at school and feel that it is “normal” to go to the office from nine to five. This normality creates an intense feeling of security, manageability and stability. The instruments of this form of work are likewise well known: we discuss issues in in-person meetings, make decisions in the hallway, and exchange information in the canteen. We are used to gaging the mood of our colleagues from their foreheads and the reactions of our boss from the twitch in the corner of their mouth. We spend a lot of time in between our tasks talking with our colleagues about the weather, the traffic that morning, or our vacation plans. 

Bosses at this stage tend to exercise strong control over their employees and their work processes. More about that at the next level. 

Level 1: work takes place at the office

Many German companies with mandatory presence are at this level. Employees work from fixed desks. They have their own desktop computer and their files are stored in a filing cabinet next to it. They communicate via email, fax and landline. Lunch is taken in the office canteen, and in many places employees still punch in and out of work. These companies have had a difficult time adjusting to working from home, since employees first of all needed to be supplied with the necessary infrastructure – laptops, cloud access, and so on. 

As on level 0, companies on level 1 assume that work takes place at the office. Therefore, productivity and performance are measured by how much time someone spends working. If an employee manages to finish all work set for the day by lunch and then simply goes home, they would probably get into trouble. 

Bosses assume that they have to control their employees in order to be efficient and effective. They use time-tracking tools, fixed rules, milestones and KPIs. Even if they wouldn’t say it out loud, most employers implicitly believe that employees, without having pressure and control exerted on them, would work as little as possible. The mistrust is mutual – employers are often perceived as punishing or rewarding instances that want to squeeze as much as possible out of their employees, transfer pressure to people below them, and are themselves often quite incompetent. 

The worldview of such companies is mechanistic: companies are machines whose processes must be precisely organised. Employees carry out directives. Some companies are heavily rule-based (quality in this context means “doing things the right way”), others are more performance-driven (there is a pressure to always perform higher). Bosses (or boards of directors) set impossible targets because it is believed that this will spur employees to perform at their highest. In many of these companies there is an enormous pressure to work, everything is done heatedly without there being a good reason for it. 

Level 2: digital tools meet analogue forms of work

Even before the corona crisis, most German Companies were already in the process of moving from the first to the second level. In the course of the digital transformation, employees were given their own digital devices with which they are now able to remotely control a series of important work processes. They use cloud software and stay in contact as teams through tools like Microsoft Teams or Skype. However, because of corona, these companies have been forced to further accelerate their digitalisation process. 

But the work processes on level 2 are basically the same as those on level 1. Like the analogue work day, the digital work day proceeds in synch. Attendance at the office is mandatory and the day is filled with in-person meetings. 

It’s on this level that managers start to become afraid of losing control: without being able to watch everyone from the corner-office, they wonder whether their employees are working hard or perhaps just lying around on the couch. As Matt describes, some companies then start installing surveillance software. He also says: don’t ever do this!

Since this level merely transfers analogue procedures into the digital, there reigns the same mindset as on level 1. But since digital tools want to be used differently than analogue procedures allow for, there are likely to be disruptions, misunderstandings and ambiguities. 

Companies haven’t really understood what advantages digital tools and agile procedures have. When everyone is talking about digital transformation, Slack and Trello, then companies want to be a part of that, which doesn’t mean they’re ready to undergo structural change. 

Cooperating with established and only minorly digitised companies, we at betterplace experience this very often. Our partner organisations may use the same tools as we do, but their procedures and their degree of autonomy and responsibility of their employees has not changed. This is equivalent to the communication department of a corporation that may use social media, but needs every tweet to be approved by a departmental head. Core characteristics of digital communication, like speed and authenticity, are thus squashed. 

Level 3: digital tools lead to new work processes and leadership

On this level employees have the necessary equipment for decentralised work: for example, laptops and quality audio equipment. They use common digital tools for documentation, project management, feedback, recruiting, collaboration etc. These include tools such as Zoom, Slack, Podio, GSuite, Trello, Airtable, Canva, Fridaypulse, or Notion (check out this great crowdsourced list of digital tools (thanks to Jörg Rheinbold, one of our infinite sources of digital inspiration). 

At this stage conventional formats of offline work are not simply mirrored by digital ones. Instead, completely new work processes, routines and codes of conduct emerge. For example, team members (be they all in the same room or remotely at their laptops) document meetings in real-time on Google Docs. Teams work asynchronically and collaboratively on shared tasks. Transmission of knowledge or further training occur in new digital or blended learning formats. Instead of firewalls, which render external communication slow, inconvenient, or even impossible, companies use decentralised security measures such as BeyondCorp. Here not the company as a whole is shielded, but security measures are adapted to individual devices and the competencies of individual employees. 

At this level we can talk about the so-called “digital mindset”. Managers and employees understand that digital tools, products and services have different advantages (and challenges). They loosen old structures and develop new ones that are more flexible and agile. Digital technologies are decentralised by principle, they allow us to share and collaborate on a world scale, analyse huge amounts of data, and offer “cognitive enhancement” through algorithms and AI (check out this article by Keks Ackerman about digital dynamics).  

In the course of increased competition through new business models and markets, increased complexity and accelerated change, it’s important that decisions can quickly be made where the relevant knowledge exists. But nowadays no boss is able to keep a better overview of all the multilayered connections and processes along the line of production than individual employees that do the daily work, know the clients etc. Communication and project management tools empower individual employees to not only see their small segment of work, but also more of “the whole” of the company, and are thereby able to independently draw conclusions, suggest improvements etc. 

To fill this new wiggle room, employees have to grow and develop new competencies: acting independently, sharing knowledge, collaborating co-creatively, and agiley steering projects. 

The competencies necessary for this, however, are not limited to new tools and codes of conduct. They are inner psychological skills. Here an important principal becomes relevant: In that measure in which outer structures are dissolved in the course of digitalisation (e.g. when hierarchies are succeeded by networks), do people lose their outer support structures. Instead, they have to find orientation and stability from elsewhere – and that can only occur within themselves. They must be able to anchor themselves within themselves. In order to be innovative and and also realise the new, they have to dare to act independently, instead of executing “orders from above”. This can only succeed when employees self-confidently follow their own curiosity and intuition and are willing to step outside of their comfort-zone. Only if you’re willing to make mistakes can you be creative. 

At this stage the form of leadership fundamentally changes: leadership is no longer solely exercised on the executive floor, but is shared by teams. In order to let go of power, bosses and managers have to be able to rely on their employees having a series of essential competencies:

  • organising and motivating themselves (instead of suspecting that employees working from home are just lying around on their couch)
  • clearly and openly communicating in teams (instead of holding back information for one’s own use or unproductively getting caught up in projections and conflicts)
  • developing a shared overview of the company and acting in the interest of the bigger picture (instead of, for example, making decisions that are extremely inconvenient for another department)

If these competencies are present in a team, bosses can relax: they are no longer required to give directives or check and control everything. Instead, they can occupy themselves with the future of the company and guide it in strategically important directions. 

Level 4: decentralised work becomes the new norm

Level 4 is especially characterised by the fact that asynchronous work becomes the norm. The fewest of these companies still need central office space, because principally everyone can work from anywhere. 

Employees are no longer evaluated by when and how they produce results, but only by the actual quality of the work itself. The image that I have in mind is that of a well coordinated school of fish, in which every part knows exactly how it can optimally embed itself in the process, without explicit “commands” from above. 

Team members can to a large extent adapt their work life to their own living situations and biorhythms – they themselves decide when and from where they work. Organisations know the value of diversity and don’t attempt to minimize it through one-size-fits-all work cultures. Instead, they can integrate employees from all possible locations – because there is no office with a fixed location, the most competent people for the given job can be recruited from anywhere. Asynchronised forms of communication allow for people that are rather introverted or want to take their time thinking about something to have their contributions heard (for in many common meetings these types of people are simply run over by alpha dogs). Likewise, it becomes much easier to integrate people with disabilities or other restrictions or particularities as full team members. 

The technical equipment of the employees is of high quality, as is their competency with digital tools. But above that they also have the “softer” digital competencies, such as knowing how to stay alert during lengthy Zoom-meetings – e.g. by taking part on the stairmaster or hula hooping once in a while. Synchronous meetings still exist, but they’re well prepared (with agendas, precise goals, clear procedures). 

These companies invest the money that they save on office space in customised further training and coaching for their employees, as well as in longer offline retreats, at which all employees meet annually or more frequently to get to know each other in person. 

Instead of spending hours with random colleagues in the canteen or breakroom, employees can spend their leisure time with whomever they want. 

The borders between private life and work at level 4 is negotiated according to very different criteria than at other levels, since employees can consciously and completely independently lay out their work processes as best fits their needs and interests. 

To work at this level, employees must further expand and hone the inner competencies of the previous level. In order to work as decentralised as possible, while still being well coordinated, teams have to be aligned with the goals and purposes of the company. Employees must know in their everyday life (not just cognitively, but, as it were, on a cellular level) how they can best contribute to the overarching mission of the company. This asks for a high degree of maturity, since it also requires again and again that we make decisions which, in the short-term, go against our own interests, but are useful to the greater whole. 

This requires, amongst others, the following competencies:

  • Self-contact and self-reflection
  • High competency in giving and receiving feedback, brave conflict behaviour, being able to hold tensions and irritations
  • Meta-reflection and process-consciousness
  • An overview of the whole (company, market, competition etc.)
  • Intuition

At this level most companies no longer have conventional bosses. Instead, the organisation works self-organised by means of a competency-based hierarchy. It makes sure that tasks are taken over by the person with the highest competency in the given area and that others take their bearings from this “temporary boss”. The bosses have far-reaching freedom of decision-making, but must consult with the relevant colleagues. When a task has been completed, the team dissolves and then restructures itself for a new task. In this type of organisation, it’s possible that a former manager will take directions from someone who previously had a far lower rank in the company hierarchy. 

Prospects of a 5th level: nirvana – you can always go further

This level exists because, according to Matt, there’s always a further development. In this ideal scenario, every person has a place that fits them perfectly, with just the right balance between their contribution to the company and their own wellbeing. Employees have the opportunity to optimally balance their basic needs for security/belonging and freedom/growth. They live in the inspiration zone, are innovative, creative and so well attuned to each other that they can promote their individual potential as well as the purpose of the company. 

On which level is your company and where do you want to go?

What follows from the 5-level model for the development of your organisation? Think about where your company currently is and to where you want to develop it. Do you and your employees have the relevant mindset and competencies?

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If you want to know more about which role new mindsets and inner competencies play for the future of work – and, above all, if you want to concretely try out and realise them – visit our new online course The Future of Work needs Inner Work.

In 36 videos, worksheets and exercises, as well as live online session, you’ll learn how to successfully and sustainably realise the Future of Work and make your company more innovative, effective and authentic. 

Joana Breidenbach, Bettina Rollow