Please, Make My Company Distributed!

Posted on Sat 23 October 2021 in blog

After No, We Won’t Have a Video Call for That, which covered how productive distributed teams operate, and the Getting out of Meeting Hell series, which focused on how you as an individual can get to being a member of a functional distributed team, let’s zoom out a bit.

Let’s discuss a slightly larger, organizational picture, just in case you ask yourself this question: “Why isn’t my organization distributed and asynchronous? And, as companies bleed talent right and left because competent people run for the competition that does get distributed work right, why don’t they wake up and become like that? Can someone please make my company more distributed and asynchronous?”

For additional context, let me interject the following observations from Kris Köhntopp, who posted them in German on Twitter (I am taking the liberty to translate here; emphasis mine):

What’s funny is that [what matters to being successful as a distributed company] are all learnable skills — written communications, sensible meeting prep and follow-up, correct definition of objectives and tasks, etc.

That’s a craft.

But it appears that organizations prefer to bleed their teams dry by attrition, rather than to learn, or to hire people that can help teams to write things down, professionally maintain a wiki, and teach and drive communications.

And further downthread, Kris says (again, my translation and emphasis):

This is all definitely feasible, after all there’s remote-first companies of substantial size and they work.

They must have built themselves somehow, they didn’t get to where they are by pure chance.

I agree with all of that (obviously), but things are complicated. So let’s drill into this a bit.

Building is easy. Changing is hard.

I’ve founded and bootstrapped a distributed company, and I’ve also been involved in making a localized company more distributed. Take my word for it: founding was daunting and scary and stressful, but in terms of shaping structure and communications — even if you have to figure it out as you go, as I did with my cofounders1 — it’s easy. Changing the communication structure of an established company is hard. And slow. Even if you have full support from the top.

So, if you’re in an organization that wasn’t distributed from the get-go, do not compare it to one that was.

Also, do not compare it to one that is two years ahead of yours in reshaping itself in a distributed and asynchronous manner. Also, if your company went distributed kicking and screaming at the start of the pandemic, do not compare it to one where the top leadership made a conscious decision to be more “remote friendly” or “remote first” or whatever their preferred term is, long before the pandemic hit. These organizations are ahead of yours. Their change may be happening just as slowly as yours, they just started the race earlier and are a couple of laps ahead of you.

But your company hasn’t even started the change to distributed and async work? You spent the last nearly two years in unfettered meeting hell? Your bosses think you’ll now go “back to normal”, because an office is the only “normal” they know? You know what to do.

Hiring people to help: aye, there’s the rub.

Now on to the idea of hiring people to help. There’s two ways to look at that: hiring people as employed managers to work and lead in the organization in a distributed and async fashion, or hiring people as management consultants to guide and advise the company in the distributed and async transition.

(Please note: the idea of hiring only regular employees that drive a distributed and async change “from within” — against the resistance or inertia of established management — is ludicrous, unethical, and unworkable.)

Hiring distie managers

If you make it a priority to hire managers geared toward distributed and asynchronous work, then if they’re worth their salt I can guarantee you that one of the first things that they’ll ask in their first interview is this:

“What’s my line manager’s (director’s, VP’s, etc) distributed and async work experience? How about my lateral peers’?”

And if the truthful answer is “they’re new to this,” it’s quite likely that your prospective new management colleague will politely end the conversation. Their skills are in high demand; they have plenty of options to go elsewhere. Why should sign they up for a job that’s going to come with a ton of needless friction?

And of course, that consideration applies in all management positions, all the way to the top. So for this to work, in an organization currently hellbent on localized-synchronized work (I use offissification for that state of affairs), it would need at least its entire C-suite to come around first. And it would then probably need to replace at least one-third of its current managers at all levels, to have any chance of attracting fresh blood in management.

You’ll notice that this isn’t exactly easy to do, plus it’ll probably take longer than you have the patience to put up with it.

Hiring management consultants

So that leaves the option of hiring people that are not part of the organization but are brought in to advise, ideally on all management levels. These people are called management consultants. And you should understand that they are commonly loathed by mid-level line managers. But let’s leave that aside for now. Let’s assume that you want to consider the possibility of a management consultant whose communication skills and empathy and talent are so outstanding that they are absolutely not hated by anybody.

Then, please put yourself in that consultant’s shoes. Before they get anywhere near you, they would have spent countless hours in — you guessed it — meetings with the CEO, with top-level management, possibly with department heads, to get buy-in. And then, they embark on a multi-month project where they must use the style of work currently prevalent in your company, because that’s the only way to even approach people. So they spend more time in — are you with me — meetings to convince and educate people. Oh, and they probably need to bill by the day or by the hour, in some arbitrary increment that your bean counters dictate, because otherwise they can’t get paid. Async work, on your own time and schedule, much?

So that means that under most circumstances, such a project will either involve a person who’s actually perfectly fine with localized and synchronous work, and for this kind of project that’s probably not a person you’d want to hire. Or else they’re miserably unproductive throughout the project, and that doesn’t exactly bode well for their health nor your project. (Which means a person understanding this probably will never start such a consultancy in the first place.)

Now, I want to mention that I suppose from the perspective of a consultant, there is one way to square this circle: charge exorbitant rates. If you can make a killing working two days a month, and you actually do work just two days of meeting hell per month and take the rest of your time off to recuperate, then that might actually work. But then it’s less likely — not impossible, but less likely — that your company will retain their services. Because unlike a consultant that you bring in to chop heads, monetary gains (that is, return on investment for the consultant’s fees) are much more difficult to put in numbers when you’re “only” making everyone’s life better, and attracting better employees, increasing productivity, building better products, attracting more customers, and hence making a bigger profit are mere knock-on effects from that.2

So, how do things change, then?

It’s my rather firm belief that these things change by evolution, not on an organizational scale but on one of market and society. Many of the companies still stuck in the office mindset will not change, at least not dramatically. They will continue to bleed talent, not attract much fresh blood, and face fierce competition from companies that do better and attract good people. Some will undergo a slow and sometimes painful transition and some will succeed at it. Some will fail and go under, or become irrelevant.

But expecting dramatic, sudden change at a large organization is just not realistic. And if you’re stuck in one that’s still pretending that this’ll all blow over, your best option is probably to make a change for yourself, than to try to wait for one in your organization.

  1. This is not to say that we invented anything, just that we had to figure out how to make things work for ourselves that already worked for others. Distributed companies existed well before my cofounders and I started a company in 2011. MySQL AB (incidentally, Kris Köhntopp’s former employer) established those practices in the 2000-2005 time frame. There is an excellent November 2011 talk from ex-MySQL CEO Mårten Mickos, in which he runs through the entire history of MySQL as an independent company, until its acquisition by Sun in 2008. Around the 27-minute mark, he starts talking about work in a distributed company. 

  2. And even if there is a demonstrable expected positive monetary effect, meaning in terms of numbers it’s an absolute no-brainer, you should consider that top management are people, and people don’t always act rationally.