A Different Perspective on Remote Working

Remote Working - Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

I have been a fan of Mark Mortensen’s work for a few years.  Mortensen is a professor at Insead and his work on teaming caught my attention. His recent article was on a completely different topic, remote working. Most perspectives focus on the binary viewpoint, is it better to work in the office or remotely? There are pros and cons and like Mortensen, I think these perspectives miss the mark completely.

The False Perspective about Remote Working

In his article, Mortensen outlines the common trade off. Time in the office creates more physical contact but less autonomy, and vice versa working remotely. Following this path you find yourself with a choice of going to the office or working remotely. The hybrid combination of the two has emerged but it still misses the point.

The Real Point about Working Remotely

Mortensen argues we are talking about two factors: autonomy and richness of interactions.

This shouldn’t be a choice of one or the other. The real question is how can we achieve both? For me this comes down to a combination of individual choice and managerial/company support. It is true that casual physical interactions are extremely valuable and we can also create rich interactions online. Some teams found ways of thriving working remotely during the pandemic. This is what we should be focusing on instead of binary conversations about the pros and cons of working in the office.

I have plenty of online 1:1 conversations with clients that I classify as rich interactions. The key for me is both parties being present, giving the meeting their full attention. How have you been able to promote autonomy along with rich interactions?

Comments (4)

My question is, what does autonomous mean? A high performer could be autonomous in an office environment. A poor performer might not be autonomous at home. I have a hybrid team; we accomplish more, quickly when we’re all synced and focused, whether remote or in the office.
I see a benefit to hallway conversations, but remote workers miss out on those conversations.

Great question Robin and I think Herman answered it very well. It is in my mind about autonomy to do your work in a way that allows you and the team around you to be at your collective best. As Herman said, with autonomy comes great responsibility.

I agree with Mortensen’s argument that centering the discussion around remote versus in-office misses the point (although I’m not entirely sure what the arc in his revised model is supposed to represent).

Through the years, I’ve been part of numerous projects with team members based on different continents several time zones apart. Yet, at times, interactions with remote team members (some of whom I have never met in person) turned out to be much richer than with others just a few offices down the hall.

Mortensen also points out that rich interaction has both a work product component and an affiliation/ culture component. The former is about facilitating an efficient work product-related knowledge flow among team members. The latter is about strengthening inter-personal relationships, trust, caring, and psychological safety among team members which brings huge benefits to the former.

That said, I find Robin’s question about the meaning of “autonomy” to be quite relevant. Autonomy defined by Mortensen as the extent to which each team member is given the freedom to decide when and where to work in itself may also be missing the point.

The overall work that a team is chartered with is typically broken down into ever smaller units of work (tasks) which are then distributed among the individual team members. This would be the Work Breakdown Structure or WBS in project management parlance. Regardless of “when or where” each team member chooses to work on their unit of work, what seems more interesting is the extent to which each member should work on their unit independently, in relative isolation of the others, while still achieving team goals (overall work-product quality, schedule, budget, etc.).

Some factors to consider:
– Even though a good WBS aims to minimize interdependencies between individual work units, interdependencies are hardly ever zero. For example: units depend on the completion of other units. Requirements and understanding evolve over time. Some work units are by nature just deeply intertwined.
– Decisions made by one member working independently may inadvertently affect the work being done by others.
– People do make mistakes; they introduce errors. When going undetected for a while there is continued investment in those errors that may necessitate costly rework and schedule slips.
– A team member may get stuck for a long time on a difficult part of the work assigned to them.

Minimizing the negative impacts of any of these involve interactions among team members which can take many forms: communication, negotiation, review, critique, consulting, etc.

What I’m getting at is, rather than focusing on autonomy as the freedom of team members to decide when and where to work, it may be more useful to define autonomy foremost as the freedom of each team member to make decisions about the *content* of their work. And, as is always the case, with freedom comes responsibility. In this case, the responsibility for each member to recognize when a decision they make, or are about to make, about the content of their individual work would benefit from or necessitate interactions with other members of the team and act accordingly. The “when and where” of work then becomes a secondary consideration about how to best make those interactions happen.

Thank you Herman, as I mentioned to Robin, your comments are as insightful as ever!

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