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Phases for transitioning to remote work

Created by Will Ceolin
Created on Apr 28, 20 - Updated on May 29, 20

Depending on the company culture, the transition to remote work might be easier or harder. Companies that embrace asynchronous communication and fewer meetings have less issues to adapt.

GitLab's remote guide says there are four phases a company goes through while transitioning to remote work:

  1. Skeuomorph
  2. Functional
  3. Asynchronous
  4. Intentionality

It's normal for companies to go through all those steps. Little by little your organization can start migrating to the next phase.

Skeuomorph

Do you remember the first iPhone? The whole UI was trying to imitate physical things from our everyday life:

The same happens with companies when they go remote: they bring their everyday practices to their remote office. Direct messages replace the small talk in the hallway. Video calls replace endless meetings. And the first thing someone will ask is: do you know any online whiteboard tools? Yes, they'll want to bring the whiteboard to your computer.

But whiteboards should be used with caution. They're not the best tool for asynchronous communication, storing, indexing, and retrieving data. Think about this: remote work is an opportunity to rethink your office practices. Something that works offline often doesn't work online.

Functional

When you start realizing that remote work is an opportunity for rethinking things, you begin the transition to the second phase: functioning differently than traditional organizations.

It's an evolving process that involves using technology for replacing things manually done before (or not done at all). You'll start to record your meetings; create a shared doc containing your meeting's agenda (topics, questions, etc.); open up public channels for company-wide conversations rather than doing so privately; start to write more documentation about your practices and processes.

By rethinking the way you run your business, you'll realize remote work can also be an opportunity to become more efficient by opening up, organizing things, and giving people more autonomy.

Asynchronous

You're doing things differently. You're more organized and efficient. But there's one thing still missing: communication is still hard. This third phase happens when you transition to asynchronous communication. It's when you realize most of your tasks don't require other people to be working on the same schedule as yours.

During this third phase, your company starts using more formal ways of organizing information. Instead of discussing a project on your company's chat, you'll open up a discussion on a project management tool where everyone concerned can join the conversation and you can later return to this thread to see what was discussed and decided. No information is lost or fragmented.

GitLab, for example, deletes Slack messages older than 90 days. They do it to force people to use official channels for discussing projects. Chats are just a tool for informal communication.

By doing so, companies realize they need to work on their handbook: writing down their practices, protocols, and processes. "Do you remember that decision we made last year when the regional manager from Scranton came to visit us?" Those questions don't happen anymore. All decisions are well-documented. Anyone who joins the company today has the same background information as someone who joined the organization ten years ago.

Intentionality

GitLab calls phase 4 by "Intentionality". It happens when there's an "extraordinary amount of intentionality, particularly in areas that are typically assumed to need minimal guardrails." But it could be easily defined as a "trust" phase: you trust your co-workers to manage their own time and tasks; you trust everyone to do their jobs; you trust things will run smoothly because everything is well-documented and people know what they have to do.

You start . There's little space for politics here. Things either work or they don't. It's all clear how and why our work is done. You're aware of the benefits and risks of remote work. You've seen the myths and understood they're not real. You know you'll have more bureaucracy work for hiring but you embrace it because of the benefits.

Making this transition requires maturity. GitLab's guide mentions both cultural and technical maturity.

The management team needs maturity to be transparent, trust their team, and abandon the "command and control" culture. They need to realize that a single source of truth for processes is necessary and there shouldn't be "closed doors" meetings where just a few executives talk to each other.

It also requires technical maturity to understand existing remote work tools. They need to have processes for accessing sensitive information (e.g. using a VPN).

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If you have any other insights on the phases companies go through while transitioning to remote work, please edit this page or share a practical example.

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