Our adaptation to distributed working

Rachael Geaney

Rachael Geaney

Senior Designer at Cogent

As we near vaccination thresholds and emerge from lockdowns, we need to decide how to evolve to the new normal of working in distributed teams.

We’re no longer required to spend most of our time in the office, nor do we want to. A staggering 78% of respondents in our 2021 Australia & New Zealand Product Teams Report want to keep working partially remotely.

Graph from the 2021 Australia and New Zealand Product Teams Report

Multiple variables like different roles, work requirements, locations, and business and client needs, impact how we work. We know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

At Cogent, we needed to create a new, evolving framework that aligns with Cogent’s values. One that clearly defines the optimal balance of remote and distributed work. Enabling the highest quality of work whilst protecting the health and well-being of Cogent, its people and our clients.

Understanding how we gather now

By using NOBLs and a ‘what work can be done in person framework’, teams across the business (People, Practice, and Partnerships) can get a fresh perspective on what’s more or less challenging to do in a remote setting.

Our stance on distributed teams has systematically changed, so how are our current distributed teams doing?

We run team retros to unpack what success looks like when working in distributed teams over different time zones. Our colleagues share new async techniques, tools and pain points that they haven’t solved yet. So far, the central theme that keeps occurring is async maturity and how it can impact workflow and staff wellbeing.

We’re using Matt Mullenweg’s Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy pyramid to help us evaluate how mature we are and how to help our clients asynchronous maturity prosper.

What’s essential for our people now?

The pandemic has created many new environmental, physical and emotional challenges that people are still learning to navigate. It has also given us a lot more flexibility with work and home life balance.

We’re talking to staff individually to unpack what’s important now vs before the pandemic.

We’re finding a variety of themes, from personal to the impact on the world. The insights from before 2020 still stand, with some further considerations influenced by the pandemic, like feeling included and human connection.

What’s happening around us?

Talking to our company peers and remote pioneers about the experiments they are running is essential in getting a sense of the lay of the land. People often surprise us with their generosity of information and collaboration because we’re not alone. A lot of companies are experimenting with new asynchronous tooling and iterating their distributed work models.

Most importantly, we released our 2021 Australia & New Zealand Product Teams Report to find out what’s changed in the last 12 months when it comes to how product teams do things.

This year we had 133 respondents from 100 different tech businesses in Australia and New Zealand. Here are some key insights around distributed working:

  • 78% of respondents want to keep working partially remotely
  • 82% of respondents believed their employers will commit to being partially remote post-COVID
  • Interestingly, only 19% of respondents want to work fully remotely, even though all respondents have now experienced this option
  • Overall, 65% of team members find it the same or easier to deliver business outcomes remotely versus in person. This is in almost direct contrast to Leaders, the slight majority (62%) of whom believe that it’s more difficult for product teams to meet business outcomes whilst working remotely. This suggests that Leaders appear to be less comfortable with remote working and are perceiving it to be a barrier to meeting business outcomes
  • Of the 35% of team members who say remote working makes it more difficult to meet business outcomes, the most common challenge cited is connection to the wider team, rather than their ability to carry out delivery work
  • Challenges creating informal interactions are frequently cited as a reason for not enjoying remote working. The lack of ability to build inter and cross-team relationships, gain immediate feedback, or to undertake in-person whiteboard activities are still cited as detractors for the remote working experience and remain problems to be solved
  • Despite this, 97% of respondents still indicate their preference for working fully or partially remote long-term.

Are we using the right tools for distributed working?

We’ve been astonished by how fast tools like Teams, Slack, and Zoom adapt their products to support async work. We ran a series of one-on-one discussions with Cogent employees, competitors and remote industry leaders to see what products they were using.

We affinity mapped the list of products to see what the common themes were. Inclusivity, collaboration, wellbeing, up-skilling and connection were the critical areas of focus for us.

We’re using this as a registry of products to test and choose what works for us, so we’re constantly iterating and evolving our processes as we learn.

Our Strategy Team standup is remote-first, even when multiple team members are in the office.

Are we using the correct language?

At Cogent, we have a habit of reinventing the wheel when it comes to terminology. So we created a taxonomy to help ensure everyone knows what we mean when we use phrases related to remote work and distributed teams. It’s not a rule book but a guide that will evolve as we learn more.

What does the science say, and does it align to what we’ve found?

We find scientific facts on the psychological & physiological impacts of remote work. At Cogent, well-being is a priority, so we use evidence-based research to ensure we make informed decisions about how we work in the future. We’re using the facts that we find to cross-check our recommendations.

What we know so far, from a Cogent perspective

  1. We won’t be committing to a one-time policy for all Cogent staff. We will create a series of principles that will evolve as we learn
  2. Cogent people won’t be required to be 100% remote or 100% in the office, and we won’t allocate arbitrary in-office days
  3. Our office will be redesigned to encourage connection and collaboration, and we will enable staff to come into the office with regular social activities and incentives
  4. We will also try to hire in geographical clusters to ensure our employees get a similar experience
  5. We will progress our async maturity and help our clients improve theirs by being deliberate and transparent about working
  6. Async maturity will be added to our hiring process
  7. We’ll be taking an evidence-based approach to our decisions and recommendations, and we will evolve and iterate as we learn

Distributed work is here to stay, and businesses need to embrace this now if you haven’t already. It’s clear that most people, right now, prefer a ‘hybrid’ working model, which matches what they understand their organisations plan to do. The risk of standing still means businesses may struggle with attracting and retaining the skills they need to help their businesses succeed. Now is the time to stop thinking of this moment as a temporary measure until “after COVID.” Instead, analysing and adopting processes, practices and tools for supporting teams in a sustainable and long-term way will benefit all parts of the business in ‘the new normal’.

Sound interesting? We’d love to chat about distributed ways of working.

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