Goodbye Water Cooler

by Stew Bradley April 1st, 2020

With Covid-19 forcing most of us to stay at home, we've had to find new ways of doing many of our normal daily tasks. How we buy food, educate our children, entertain ourselves, and get work done has had to change. There have been digital solutions available for many of these tasks for years, but this pandemic has dramatically increased their usage. How entrenched these many of these digital alternatives will become is hard to tell, and dependent on how long this pandemic lasts. But one of these alternatives, remote work, has already shown the potential to have a lasting impact regardless of the pandemic's duration.

Remote work is not a new idea. It has been sporadically attempted, with mixed results, since the rise of the internet. Despite decades of rising living costs in major cities and the increasingly digital nature of work in all industries, it was only with the proliferation of affordable cloud-based tools/products that remote work has become a viable and attractive solution for many we businesses.

For employees, remote work saves them time, as they no longer have to commute. It offers greater flexibility over how they incorporate work into their lives, making it easier to find time for family, friends, and hobbies. Remote workers also avoid office-related distractions, which is key to the benefits we will explore below.

For businesses, the benefits of adopting remote work are cost savings and productivity gains. The cost savings fall into two buckets. (1) Lower spend on office space as businesses can downsize or cancel office leases. (2) Lower labor costs via access to cheaper labor markets with the search for new employees no longer constrained to the geographic area surrounding the office. The cost advantages of remote work are most prevalent in businesses where office space and labor costs make up a material portion of operating expenses (e.g., software businesses, consulting firms, etc.).

Increased productivity is the more nuanced advantage of remote work. Study, after study, after study, over the past decade, has touted the productivity gains seen in remote workers. What is the underlying reason for the increase? Are remote workers happier and thus more productive? That might be a factor, but the crux of the productivity benefits arise from adopting a culture that fosters asynchronous communication and the increased deep work enables.

Asynchronous communication ('async 'for short) is sending a message without expecting an immediate response. How does this work in practice? Reaping the productivity benefits of remote work requires more than just sending all the employees home and giving them zoom accounts. On its own, that would lead to declines in productivity, as the tools we use to communicate remotely are not perfect proxies for being in an office.

It is often helpful to use hypothetical examples to illustrate a point. In that vein, imagine we could time travel to Independence, Missouri in the 1840s. Our mission is to give a group of pioneers a fleet of Jeep Wranglers to help them on their treacherous journey west —a la the Oregon Trail. If these pioneers tried to swap in the Jeeps for their covered wagons by hooking them up to a team of oxen, their crossing would be more arduous than if they had stuck with the covered-wagons. Only by adjusting their approach, ditching the oxen and learning to drive, will they reap the benefits of the Jeeps and enjoy a smoother journey (hopefully less dysentery). The same is true when adopting a remote work policy; adjusting our approach is pivotal to reaping the benefits.

Async is not something that happens on its own. Tools like Slack and Zoom can quickly lead to an 'always on, always connected' work culture that impedes productivity and drains employees. The primary benefit of an async work-style is the time it allows for deep work. Deep work is doing tasks that create new value and are hard to replicate. Deep work requires pushing cognitive capabilities to their limit, and are performed free from distractions. The opposite of deep work is shallow work. Shallow work is doing tasks that do not create much new value, are easy to replicate, and can often be performed while distracted.

Examples of SHALLOW WORK:

Processing emails in your inbox

Attending a status update meeting

Synchronous chatting on slack

Examples of DEEP WORK:

Researching on a new problem

Writing an investment memo


The conditions in which people do their best deep work will be idiosyncratic. So giving employees some control over their day will help to maximize their contributions. Giving lip service to an async work style and successfully implementing one are very different things. The change to async has to come from the top down. Overt prioritization by the leadership of async as the way teams should communicate is needed for employees to feel safe not replying to messages right away. Workflows that require teamwork will need to be rethought when adopting async, and the required changes will depend on the type of work. An accounting team will have to make different tweaks to their workflow than an engineering team. Fortunately, many of the companies who have successfully adopted async work styles have publicly shared their approaches. Looking through each of their approaches (Gitlab, Zapier, Automattic, Doist, Buffer) provides a solid foundation for operators thinking of making similar changes.

There will be an adjustment phase for any business adopting remote and async work styles. However, after a few weeks, companies will adjust, and the changes will start to bear fruit. It's important to note that remote work and asynchronous communication are not magic pills for business improvement, and each presents different challenges. In some cases these challenges can be overcome, and in others may outweigh the potential benefits of remote work altogether. Onboarding new employees and integrating them into a business culture is more difficult to do remotely than it is in person. Async decreases the 'human' element of interacting with co-workers and can leave employees feeling disconnected. These challenges are manageable but do require planning to overcome. Scheduling times for employees to engage via Zoom calls, and when the pandemic passes in-person meetings, is important for both onboarding new employees, and helping existing employees feel connected.

As this crisis ends, most businesses will resume work as they did prior. But with thousands of businesses exposed to remote work for the first time. How leaders choose to build in the future will be impacted by this exposure, particularly as businesses weigh expansion/hiring decisions. But remote work is only the first step, and it's too early to tell if leaders will also embrace more asynchronous work styles. We believe they should.

At El Cap we understand that constraints can be positive if we allow them to be. And while there is a lot out in the world to be worried about, looking for the silver lining feels more important than ever. Sometimes the grass is actually greener.


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