Illustration by Justin Tran

Distributed work

The crucial difference between remote work and distributed work


Published on April 03, 2020

Remote work is a discipline for the individual worker, but distributed work is a discipline for the entire organization.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, a survey of office workers by 451 Research showed that two thirds of people worked from home at least some of the time but only 13% did so all of the time. We commonly refer to this small minority as remote workers in contrast to the vast majority on site. But a vanguard of small companies, mainly in tech, have shown it’s possible to successfully manage a company with a completely distributed workforce. Examples include Automattic, the supplier of WordPress website software and hosting, and InVision, the maker of the popular collaborative design app. 

For these companies, the social contract for employment is not about showing up physically, but showing up mentally and engaging fully from wherever you are. The employees commit to being part of the team and doing the work, and the employer commits to making both possible. Companies that merely tolerate remote workers rarely expend the effort to make them part of the daily rhythms and incidental interactions at HQ. It’s easy for remote workers to do the work (often with more focus than their on-site colleagues) but still not be full members of the team.

What would happen if all this got turned on its head, and everyone was remote by default? As weeks and months of enforced COVID-19 working from home roll on, this is no longer an academic question.

The pandemic is forcing us to reconsider the difference between remote and distributed work. Chris Marsh, Research Director at 451 Research, has spent the last decade investigating the full range of tools associated with workforce productivity and advising companies how to use them effectively. He sees the current crisis roiling the landscape of knowledge work. A flash survey just completed shows that 75% of companies have already implemented, or plan to implement, expanded or universal work from home policies. Even more surprising, 38% of those companies expect these changes to be long-term or permanent. Marsh characterizes this as a “completely profound change to the vast majority of companies.” When we’re all remote, we’re all equally distributed. 

The word “remote” is in fact meaningless if there is no center to be remote from. This has practical implications in terms of the tools we use to work together, but will also lead companies and their workers to confront more profound changes to their social contract. Companies will have to choose between granting workers more autonomy and trust, or ramping up more pervasive monitoring of activity and performance. Workers, in turn, will have to choose which companies they want to work for on the basis of how these decisions make them feel day-to-day and how effective they think they can be in their jobs. Either way, adapting to the challenges of distributed work amid a global economic crisis will require all organizations to retool their operational structures to be more fluid and agile.  

Distributed work needs different tools

The distributed work paradigm means that where you’re located should not be a factor in your performance and participation. There are still issues of time zone, but the lack of co-location itself puts a larger premium on asynchronous modes of communication and collaboration. “An outcome of what’s happened over the past couple of months, and this massive shift towards mass remote working, is just a huge loss of context around work,” Marsh says. “That context would otherwise have been captured by employees through meetings, through attending events, through water cooler moments.”

“This massive shift towards mass remote working, is just a huge loss of context around work.”—Chris Marsh

The remote workers of just a month ago didn’t have access to the same context, information, and social opportunities as on-site colleagues. But companies suddenly fielding a fully distributed workforce, says Marsh, have to “start on the premise that the tools, technologies, work practices, and behaviors we put in place need to provide a baseline visibility into that context for everyone, because we’re all in the same position.”

Perhaps more controversially, Marsh sees many companies’ immediate instinct to replace the missing physical context with increased usage of chat or video conferencing apps as dangerous. “They’re just a fallback for something that should have been there, but isn’t,” he says. “It’s just a bandaid for a much bigger problem. I think the cause is a lack of structure around work.” He acknowledges the importance of conversation and conversational tools to add context, but his research shows that, even before this crisis, workers already felt overwhelmed by too much chat and too many meetings. Non-managers in particular want more time to focus on their own work and to spend less time on email. 

“I think it’s really incumbent on the business to reduce the friction in the work execution experience, not the individual.”—Chris Marsh

“I think more companies should actually think about how they can address the things that people go to conversational tools for,” say Marsh, “so that they don’t have to go there.” The more people have visibility into goals and project status, the less they have to ask someone for it. “I think it’s really incumbent on the business to reduce the friction in the work execution experience, not the individual,” he emphasizes. “I think the individual has already been asked to do the specific things they were recruited to do, and not make up for an absence of better ways to get their work done.”

Distributed work needs a new social contract

As the world shifts quickly to a distributed work mindset, many things will change. More important than software adoption will be the emergence of a new social contract for work. This will be a two-way street, with trust allowing the traffic to flow. Workers have to retain trust in their employers without the constancy of the physical office and proximity of teammates, but they will also have to demonstrate to their employers that they are worthy of trust. 

Marsh has written that, “a detailed look at the ethical implications of work tracking through corporate devices” will be necessary as companies figure out how to support more remote workers. He’s clearly advocating on the side of ethics, not increased surveillance of worker activity. “I think that’s the wrong move,” he says. “I think that’d be one of the things that would make someone say, ‘I don’t want to work here.’”

In the short term, the COVID crisis will make employees glad to have the jobs they do, as layoffs and furloughs ripple through industry after industry. But in the uncertain new reality that follows, the growth of distributed working arrangements—and the track record of how employers handled the crisis—will create a new landscape for workers to navigate. “I see a lot of what may come out of this crisis as just catalyzing things that were already happening,” says Marsh. “And one of the things that was already happening was this shift in balance between employer and employees.”

Not only do people want to feel good about their employer, they want to work at a company where they can be effective and respected. The moves that companies make now will set the template for what comes next. At the moment, Marsh sees “a huge primacy on just keeping people feeling engaged, connected, and focused.” Whether companies go back to business-as-usual or not when the crisis abates, those that get this right will likely retain the best new practices, and critically, the workers that practiced them.

A key change, from an operational point of view, will be the increasing intersection of IT and HR teams within companies to establish tools and policies that increase worker autonomy and alignment. “Work execution culture, the sum of technologies and behaviors and work practices and workflows that those technologies allow,” Marsh says, “is becoming a much more important part of the employee experience.”

The effort to create an employee experience that works for a fully distributed workforce will payoff when people go back to the office, too. Given how much of our workday is mediated by digital tools and devices anyway, the problems are largely the same. The aftermath, Marsh suggests, “will put the focus on companies not just equipping workforces with tools, but understanding how they feel. Making sure they’re engaged, making sure they’re rallying around company goals, making sure they feel recognized and rewarded.”

For all of these reasons, this new social contract at work is more likely to be about empowering workers to pick up new skills and find new opportunities and less likely about tracking their keystrokes. But as companies become increasingly distributed networks, there has to be a countervailing force holding the whole ensemble together. “That autonomy,” Marsh explains, “has to be guardrailed by alignment. Otherwise, you’ll get people just going off and doing their own thing that doesn’t tie back to strategy.” But alignment has to go beyond company goals and OKRs to the structure of human relationships that constitute the organization. 

Distributed work needs a more agile org chart

Distributed work is not the same thing as “digital transformation,” and it requires more than “digital dexterity,” both industry analyst terms for aspirational technology trends in the workplace. But it is a form of “operational agility,” which Marsh describes as the need companies have “to be more responsive to changes in their markets, to new emerging customer requirements, and new competitive threats.” These needs have quickened with the COVID-19 crisis and may become part of the new normal, whatever that turns out to be.

“I think this crisis might be a catalyst for that happening more quickly,” says Marsh, “like which tools can enable agile self-organizing teams, the discipline of technical and non-technical people working together cross-functionally.” Org charts based on functions and lines of business can have a hard time setting proper metrics and incentives to sustain these collaborative relationships. And many of these cross-functional partnerships are fleeting in nature, spinning up when a need arises and dissolving afterwards. Whatever these new organizational paradigms turn out to be, they will be far more dynamic and adaptive than traditional corporate designs.

From a distributed work perspective, a company is just a collection of resources aligned on a common mission.

From a distributed work perspective, a company is just a collection of resources aligned on a common mission. Increasingly, companies are pushing their teams to work across functional and departmental bounds, and putting more teams in direct contact with customers. This extended idea of an org chart is another distributed working problem in disguise. If a company is aligned, if its people trust each other, it can be transparent to itself in ways that create value for customers and advantage against competitors. 

Transparency, like connectivity, is not just a more-is-better metric. Having access to information can help teams quickly change direction and self-organize. But being inundated with information can lead to overwork, anxiety, and paralysis. The autonomy of individuals and teams depends both on access and boundaries. The org charts of the future will be more like distributed networks and less like family trees.

Distributed work needs a smart workspace

Figuring these things out will make companies better—whether they’re distributed or not. But the ability of teams to self-organize and generate their own structures takes on an even greater significance in the context of distributed work. The balance between open access to information and protected spaces to workshop ideas is critical for the psychological safety of teams. Organizations need the tools and policies that allow teams and individuals to strike their own balance while helping everyone stay aligned to the higher-level goals they share.

This is the kind of problem that the Dropbox smart workspace aims to solve with a new flexibly structured and context-rich platform for asynchronous working—and the pandemic is making that need even more urgent. It’s hard to have consistent governance around information if that information is in a lot of different places. You also can’t get to self-organization from top-down policies. Organizational agility emerges from giving people access to tools that they can use in their own way. “I think alignment comes back to good visibility, good transparency, and more open culture,” adds Marsh. “And I think it requires more structure around work.”

“I think alignment comes back to good visibility, good transparency, and more open culture. It requires more structure around work.”—Chris Marsh

Much as mobile networks have distributed computation out of data centers and onto smartphones, Marsh sees a similar trend in the workforce. “You have to push autonomy to the edge, push more ownership over work to the edge,” he says. “It can’t be tied back to rigid systems that only enable you to do a certain number of things.” In some companies that have a lot of people out in the field working directly with customers, that edge means allowing teams to develop their own workflows that capture the shape of customer need. Ideally, those structures include access to enough information that frontline workers can move quickly without requiring a lot of real-time feedback from team members or other teams.

In many ways, a good measure of the success of a smart workspace is how it reduces the need for conversational interfaces. Email, chat, video conferences, and phone calls all have their role in work, but we overuse all of them—especially in the current experiment in mass distributed work. “I think a metric of smart workspace success should be the degree to which people are spending more time in a smart workspace and less time in messaging apps that integrate into it,” says Marsh. “Those tools are ways to find context. And the value prop to me of a smart workspace should be providing that.”

Remote work is a discipline for the individual worker, but distributed work is a discipline for the entire organization. Maintaining the context around work without the physical cues and rhythms of the central office requires us to be more thoughtful in our planning and more considered in our communication. These are both good things that will pay dividends when office life resumes. In retrospect, we will likely look back on this sudden uptick in distributed work as a forcing function to address the structure of how we organize information for each other. By providing more thorough context for our work, we simultaneously enable individual autonomy and increase collective alignment. Our ability to implement these changes in the face of COVID-19 varies widely among companies, but the rising awareness of the need to rethink the structure of work will have long-lasting impact.