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Thoughtworks beyond the tech: Embedding a culture of effective remote working

Addressing the need for urgent cultural change

Remote working has suddenly barrelled into the boardroom, right to the top of the CEO’s agenda. The CIO’s ability to keep people working in the face of domestic and international travel restrictions brought about by the COVID 19 crisis, has become business critical.  

Unfortunately, however, few businesses had a pre-established or widespread remote working culture. It may exist in pockets, in IT departments perhaps, or people taking the odd Friday to work at home, but rarely do we see well established, daily remote working practices spread throughout the organization. This is in some ways a surprise, given the pervasiveness of cloud technology and fast home broadband connections. Moreover, independent studies tell us that home working can be more effective than daily office-based working: Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom, for example, led a two-year controlled study on the productivity effects of home working and concluded that the productivity boost was equivalent to a full day’s work1. So why is remote working not already more widespread where feasible, i.e. in organisations not directly serving customers or the public?

At Thoughtworks we have been honing our ability to work as remote and distributed teams throughout the 25 year history of the company. This is partly out of necessity: our business model means we work between many client sites and our distributed office locations across Europe, the Americas and Asia. Our comfort and familiarity with remote working is also, however, a result of our culture.  

Getting the technology capability right is absolutely essential for successful remote working but in many ways connectivity and equipment is the easy bit. The real challenge is the effectiveness of home working.  This is achieved by addressing mindset, environment and wellbeing.

Thoughtworks beyond the tech: Embedding a culture of effective remote working

A shift in mindset

Thoughtworks is a pioneer of Agile, which is not just a way of working but also a mindset: Agile is something you are, not something you do. Our founders, collaborators in the Agile manifesto, built the organization around the principles of empowerment, flat structures and collaboration. We do not have traditional hierarchies with managers and strict approval processes. Instead, we focus on outcomes, team and individual empowerment, and really giving people the levers they need to pull to achieve those outcomes.
To be really successful at remote working, we need to institutionally adjust mindsets. We need to examine our prejudices, evolve our thinking and empower rather than mistrust.

Huge pressure can be put on people to be ‘always on’ whilst at home. Bosses that can’t get hold of a colleague immediately might suspect them of ‘goofing off’ or being distracted by family. Workers might feel unduly guilty about taking a lunch break or making a cup of tea. Home working can make both employer and employee stressed out. To be successful we need to fix this, quickly, but mindset change requires honest examination of one's biases and in organisations it requires purposeful change management. 

As people, we’re social creatures. We’re hard-wired to expect physical contact. Not being able to see our colleagues can be uncomfortable and in turn, lead to oppressive forms of remote micro-management. Modern tools can help create a sense of ‘presence’, but fixating on what your workers are doing can damage trust and create a mental strain.

We can’t just tell people to change their mindset overnight — although, given the dramatic changes we’re currently living through, it seems likely that more leaders will reflect on their working practices. We can start by reflecting on our own mindset and encouraging others to do the same. There are also some practical things we can do:
  • Understand and move to more outcome-based approaches to management
  • Ensure that we are effectively engaging with and supporting people, rather than monitoring ‘presence’
  • Talk to our teams and ask them how they are managing their environment and work through any concerns we or they have
The bias towards having everyone migrate to a single place of work each day is understandable. It stems from the fact that this is the way we have worked for centuries; it’s the way we had to work. Today our reality is a world away from this. Technology has evolved to remove most practical reasons to visit the office. With powerful reliable laptops, video conferencing software, cloud computing, and ‘chat’ functionality and collaboration tools like Google Docs or Microsoft Teams, working together remotely has never been so easy.

Much of the workforce has lived through the technological and digital evolution, and were not born “digital natives”. Today’s 50-somethings saw the gradual introduction of the laptop, but before that it was all about pen and paper or a typewriter. Today’s 40-somethings saw the rapid growth of the internet, but will still have used pen and paper at university. The bottom line is that most of our workforce are more at home in the physical world. Those who have lived through this technology evolution are going through the change curve, to an extent held back by what we grew up with in our formative years and also the cultural influence of a more senior generation who had none of this technology. A mindset shift won’t happen overnight, but recognizing the need to change is a start.

Creating an optimal environment

Whilst organizations need to address their beliefs about remote working, there is an onus on the home worker to play their part in building that trust by creating an environment where they can be effective.

It is true that most homes are filled with temptations and distractions. The kids might demand help with homework, snacks or just make a distracting noise. The dog may stare at you longingly until you give him or her a walk. There is no shortage of fuel for the fire for the concerned executive. 
Individuals have a responsibility to evaluate their home situation to create an environment conducive to effective work. 

Here are some ways that organizations can help with this:
  • Encourage managers to talk to teams about where and how they work best. Respect individual working styles and environmental preferences - noise / silence. Wherever it is, help your employees to find a place where they can ‘go to work’
  • Think about core working hours. If you can flex the 9-5 schedule to accommodate different working styles and lifestyles, do it
  • Create a culture of accepting planned breaks. Encourage employees to plan organized down time for domestic essentials and conversations with family members
Whilst homes are full of distraction, so are offices. Interruptions - people popping up at your desk when you are in the middle of writing, for example - result in lost concentration. Productivity is always hit by context switching. The home environment can be often more peaceful and controllable (perhaps less true at the moment, but these are unprecedented times). If people want to shirk work and take advantage, they will probably do this just as easily in an office. By building a culture of trust and autonomy, with outcome-driven goals, employees will work the hours needed to perform their job well, with or without anybody to watch them.

At Thoughtworks, individuals do not have traditional ‘managers’, i.e. a person responsible for making sure another individual works. So how do we uphold our commitments to clients on demanding projects?
  • Set the team up so that everyone understands their role and the contribution that is required from them  
  • Have a Client Leadership Team whose role it is to ensure that the team is delivering the required outcomes. This team will address any issues and if necessary facilitate the team in investigating root causes  
  • The team is responsible for resolving issues collectively
  • Individuals have independent “Cultivators” who are responsible for helping individuals with career and performance, beyond day-to-day management
Home working presents flexibility and opportunity to maximise individual value. This requires us to address our established norms and assumptions. We need to re-think the norm and adapt to a new reality, to create the best outcome for the organization and the individual.

Promoting - and protecting - wellbeing

If we can embrace the concept of technology enabled home working, and we accept that people will be mature in managing their time and environment to deliver value, the final point to consider is wellbeing.
Bringing the workplace into the home presents unique mental and physical challenges.  

Employees’ wellbeing is a key factor in their productivity and performance. It is easy to assume that, without the stress of a daily commute, working from home leads to a more relaxed workforce (perhaps too relaxed, some might argue). Home working has absolutely been proven to reduce stress and contribute to healthier employees2 but both mental and physical health needs to be managed.  

Being at home can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation without the right support structures in place, so mental health must be high on everybody’s agenda. Employees need to know that support is available to them no matter where they are based.  

Thoughtworks adapts its engagement strategy to cater for its largely remote workforce. Regular “pulse” surveys are issued to glean how employees are feeling and we rely on regular feedback, rather than relying on traditional reporting and performance management processes. We also hold virtual social events after work like pub quizzes, to cement the concept that evenings are for social activities. By focusing on outcomes rather than presence, Thoughtworkers feel empowered to take their breaks as they see fit, which is as important for physical health as mental.

Short breaks, such as going for a run, walking the dog, popping to the shop – even during working hours – are shown to be beneficial to wellbeing and productivity. Compare these to the short breaks that employees would take visiting the office kitchen or canteen, potentially getting waylaid by colleagues for a quick chat along the way. Encouraging employees to rest their eyes from the computer screen and stretch their legs maintains their productivity. Once an organization has instilled a culture of outcome-driven working, leaders should not need to worry about the exact hours an employee works.

Thoughtworks beyond the tech: Embedding a culture of effective remote working

To optimize employee performance, therefore, business leaders may need to change their behaviours and expectations in order to support a healthy and therefore effective remote workforce. Here are four things that organizations can do in adapting to the “new norm”:
  • Refocus your HR and People Teams on remote engagement strategies and tools
  • Put mental health at the top of everybody’s agenda instead of a taboo subject or the remit of trained advisors by regularly discussing it at meetings and encouraging honest discussion
  • Ensure people are ‘clocking off’ at a reasonable time and maintaining segregation between home and work life by setting boundaries of expected working hours
  • Encourage employees to stay active and physically healthy
Making the change

Thoughtworks is not alone in this capability or this cultural reality. There are good examples of organizations who blur physical and digital working. It is certainly common practice in modern technology centric organizations such as the Amazons and Googles of the world. This is the future of work, and an environment that the digital native generation will expect and will thrive in.

It is a future, however, that has arrived abruptly. The change curve of remote working culture has undoubtedly been accelerated, but achieving effective and lasting change goes beyond setting up the technology. It will require proactive cultural adjustment and consideration of new policy, process, management skills and tools.

Tomorrow we can contemplate the productivity benefit that remote working may bring for the long term. Today we do not have a choice. We are facing an intense and prolonged need to all work from home at a time when the economy is suffering. It is therefore more important than ever before – whether we think we have mature home working practices or not – that we all make sure we are checking our mindset and helping our employees to be successful, productive and happy homeworkers.

 1Professor Nicholas Bloom TED Talk 2017
 2Professor Nicholas Bloom TED Talk 2017

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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