Refactor of Work

posted on 1 Jul 2020

Summary: Remote work is making tech companies reevaluate how they are organized, to function more effectively. Many practices and processes that work in the office today do not translate well to a remote environment. Leadership teams need to revisit these and take a holistic approach to the design of work. In doing so, they need to prepare for the changes ahead while establishing principles for this change: compassion, inclusion, mindfulness, transparency and trust.


It has only been three months since San Francisco announced shelter-in-place for residents and yet so much has changed since then. For one, an increasing number of tech companies are adopting a remote-first or remote friendly work policy as they continue to learn from the evolving situation. Some reports even suggest that remote work is here to stay due to productivity gains and cost savings.

A Vacuum

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of remote-first or remote-friendly policies by many tech companies. If this gains critical mass, it will be a disruptive change that impacts work as we know it today.

However, our industry does not yet have the same breadth and scale of collective experience to identify processes, tools and cultures that will thrive in this environment. We are all learning on the go. So we have opted for operational stopgap measures.

This reactionary adaptation is understandable. We had to shift decades of established habits overnight, and many don’t have a good mental model of what a distributed company culture should look like, let alone how to transition to one. There is a lack of holistic principles for dealing with this cultural change, which has created a strategic vacuum. This is getting filled with ad hoc processes and practices, as teams try to adapt.

Moreover, companies have a formidable challenge ahead of them - to evolve their cultures for remote work. This will sometimes require dramatic departures from established norms and rapid experimentation. Making these changes brings with it a slew of risks, as well as opportunities. Some are more cognizant of this and are taking proactive measures. While some are ignoring it altogether, hoping things return to status quo.

Revisit Assumptions

It is doubtful that things will return to status quo. In the talent marketplace, if enough companies move to some version of remote first, it will create a supply of jobs where people do not need to choose between work and life. They will have an option to better align the two instead of searching for the proverbial balance. And if workers start preferring this model, supply will follow the demand.

A number of large players have already made changes in this direction, starting a trend that others will have eventually have to follow. Before making any drastic changes though, companies should revisit their basic assumptions about work.

It is imperative to acknowledge that some changes cannot be driven from the bottom up - they need centralized planning with distributed input. Changing a company’s culture is one of them. Human behavior will inevitably be informed by the new incentives and disincentives that get established. And policies for those are usually set at the top.

Also, we need to understand and act with the understanding that remote work is not the same as working from the office with a video camera. But that is exactly how many are functioning right now. How many of us are jumping from one conference call to the next as if we are walking from one conference room to the other? Or interviewing in back to back conference calls that mimic the full day of interviews? Or trying to make a shared document work as a whiteboard? Or trying to replicate informal hallway conversations with even more frequent interruptions?

Principles for Change

To begin with, companies and teams need to establish their own principles on how to handle this change. Without those, even well intentioned changes may not have the desired reception or outcome. Some may come across as a ‘remote tax’ - whether it is in the form of compensation, career opportunities, or otherwise. In my view, here are a few principles to keep in mind while evaluating these changes:

  • Compassion: This is the single most important principle, in my opinion. In fact, it is a core value. With compassion, comes empathy for others. With empathy comes a deeper understanding for peers and their unique situations. Everything else follows from that.

  • Inclusion: Working to ensure inclusion of team members is even more important with remote work. By being remote, we are physically excluded from a shared experience by default. And it is easy to forget that. Processes will need to be revisited to make inclusion the default. People cannot feel included if they don’t feel heard. It is easier for people to feel heard in-person. We are able to establish a human connection that is beyond just words.

  • Mindfulness: Interrupts have become synonymous with the workplace. Some of the findings of the 2014 study by The Energy Project and Harvard Business Review, are revealing. 68% respondents did not feel they could focus on one thing at a time. 72% did not have regular time for creative or strategic thinking. And this was in 2014, imagine what these numbers would look like now! Remote work necessitates over-communication and it also comes at a cost of expensive context switching which hurts productivity. A culture that incorporates mindfulness will bring greater awareness of the impact of our actions on others. With more awareness, we will create processes that reduce interrupts and increase productivity.

  • Transparency: The workplace milieu provides innumerable avenues for organic information flow. While remote, it is harder to get a pulse of the company because each interaction is scripted or scheduled by design. In the absence of more natural mechanisms of sharing information, there will be greater need to share what’s going on, something that was erstwhile more accessible.

  • Trust: An often unspoken fear of remote stems from an issue of trust - will they actually get anything done if we go remote? Productivity over the last few months, despite the most wide-scale disruption experienced in recent history, should answer that question. Smart people want to do great work. An organization’s energy is better spent in hiring such people.


How companies choose to respond to the challenges over the coming months will shape work for many in the years that follow. There is little that is certain at this point. Yet, a refactor of the workplace is underway and we should not settle for the status quo.

Categories:  #management