I’ve heard and read many stories of people who experienced working from home as being tiresome. Stories from people who are missing contact with their colleagues. Stories from people who are struggling with tools to work in a virtual environment. I realized it all has to do with the maturity level of your virtual work.
I also hear stories from people who love virtual work. They like the tools, freedom, and feel much more productive working from home.
I have experienced both in the last few months. I worked in virtual environments that were very tiresome. Meeting after meeting, a lot of desktop sharing, and challenges in finding the right communication channel. However, I also worked in virtual environments that felt 180 degrees different.
I did a small survey, and 38,3% of the people said they perceive virtual working as something that is costing them energy!
It got me thinking, what is different in those organizations? I did some reading, listened to some podcasts, and I concluded that it is all about different maturities in virtual working. I believe there are four maturity levels of virtual work. In this blog post, I would like to explain the four different levels, including some typical behaviors and tools related to it.
Level 1 – Furniture Delivery
In the Furniture Delivery Level, basically people disappear for one day from the office. Organizations at this level are often banks, governments, large corporate organizations
Almost all organizations allow this kind of remote working. Team members work from home when new furniture is delivered, or when the heaters need a check-up or when they would like to work undistributed for one day.
The work done at this level is work that can be done offline. There is no need to be connected to the office. Work that can’t be done today can wait till tomorrow. Meetings are rescheduled if the person is not in the office.
Productivity is high for the person working remotely. S(he) can work undisturbed, and clean up the inbox or finally finish that document. Colleagues in the office often accept that the person is not in, and will just wait until the next day.
There is often no communication during this day. I have heard people say: “You can’t reach me, I am working from home.” This made me really wonder, which planet their home was on. However, in case of an emergency, the person can be called on his mobile phone.
Trust is not an issue here. Most organizations allow this kind of remote working, and as it is just one day, they are ok with the person being offline for the day.
People work from the kitchen table or the local coffee shop around the corner. There is no home office or room dedicated to work and with an office chair, second screen, etc.
Tools are not a topic here. People just use the tools they always use, there are often no extra tools available. They take their work laptop home and can use it offline..
Level 2 – Office to the kitchen table
Level two should be temporary. It is because of emergencies like COVID-19 or a fire. However, it is not sustainable. An organization should go back to level one or move as soon as possible to level 3.
Organizations at this level are often large and mid-sized organizations. Many organizations were forced into level two during COVID-19. Especially organizations with bureaucracy such as governments, find themselves often in level two.
Level two has happened to many people in the last few months. From one day to the next, people were not allowed into the office because of COVID-19. They were forced to work from home. There is basically no change in behavior in the way of working, and we use the same tools as in the office. Where level one is ok, level two is an energy drainer.
All work that can be done in the office needs to be done at home. Most organizations use VPNs to connect laptops to the office network. As a result, the computer can use all software as it is in the physical office. Organizations expect people to work from home, as they would work in the office.
As everyone works from home, the playfield is equal for everyone and so, people often feel like it is working. Productivity is low but will increase as people find their way around. However, it will never be the same as in the office. Some people really like the setup, as they can work undisturbed all day. People who are often dependent on the people who are happy with this setup find it hard to do their regular work.
Communication is often hard for three reasons. The first reason is that people are often not used to this kind of communication. Webcams are not turned on, bad quality headsets, and the software does not really support working from home. The second reason is that there are no clear agreements on communication. Does the organization use email, Yammer, Teams, or WhatsApp as a primary communication channel? Often they use everything, and information is distributed over many platforms. The third reason is that people are flooded with online meetings, and they are scheduled one after another. It is common to start the meetings at nine, ending at twelve—the same in the afternoon, starting at one and ending at five.
Trust becomes an issue here. As we are expected to work in the office, why is Susan not online for three hours? The organization has no other choice as to trust people, as the office is moved to the kitchen table. However, people do wonder why people are not online. Are they working or just having a good time?
When this level is introduced, home offices are often not in place. People work from the kitchen table, bedrooms, or the local coffee shop. However, after a few weeks, people (and often also the organization) will start investing in home office materials such as a second screen, an office chair, or an external webcam, etc… People are often not really happy about their workspace, it is difficult, but they (have to) manage.
The tools used are often tools from Microsoft. Most organizations have tools like Teams, Office 365 in place, as they often have multiple offices. Those tools are not wrong and allow distributed working. At this level, people share their screen to work simultaneously, and the person sharing his/her screen will do the typing. People often need to use laptops from the organization, as they are the only ones allowed to access the corporate network.
Level 3 – Using the benefits
At level three, distributed working is adding value. This is the level that some organizations are moving into currently, and have really started to like.
In level three, organizations are starting to use the benefits from distributed working. Where level 2 should be temporary, level three could be more permanent. Level three is the level where people really enjoy distributed working, and the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
At this level, there is often no office anymore. All employees work from home. All work can be done from anywhere. Tools are all in the cloud, and the only necessities are a laptop and a stable internet connection. If they would like to come together, they rent an office space or an Airbnb.
Productivity is as high as in level one, and often even higher. The people working at level three, like working in this setup. They often choose to work in this setup. They like the lack of commuting, are ok with not seeing their colleagues in real life frequently, and can be productive in this setup.
Organizations in level three understand the importance of clear work agreements on communication. They have clear agreements on which channels to use and how to use the channels. For example, no questions in Trello, only updates, and questions are asked in Slack. They inform each other actively and share information actively. The disadvantage of this is that it can sometimes result in information overload. People have good webcams and headsets and are aware that attending a meeting next to a coffee machine is not the best place.
There are no trust issues related to distributed working. It is like in level one, sure there can be trust issues, but they are not related to the fact that the team works from home. In this kind of organization, the focus is often on value delivery or just results. If people deliver as promised, everyone is happy. If people want to take a walk or go to fitness during the day, that’s not a problem. They can catch up in the evening, or maybe not if their work is already done. This kind of freedom is what they like, and is one of the reasons they want to work in level three.
If people like to work from home, they probably have a home office in place. Two, or even sometimes three screens. Desk and office chairs, and a professional background, not the laundry of last week. However, sometimes they prefer to work from the library or local workspace hubs. People are happy with their workspace.
All tools are in the cloud. Organizations use the tools that really support working virtually. No Skype for Business, no Office365, no Teams, but Zoom, Google Drive, Miro, Trello, and Slack. (Yes I am biased). They use the tools that work for them, tools that are built to support virtual teams from day one. At this level, people share a link to a document to work simultaneously, and all people work in the same document simultaneously. People can use any laptop they want, Mac books, Windows laptops, or Chromebooks. As long as they have a browser, it is often ok.
Level 4 – Work anytime and anywhere.
Level Four is the maximum upgrade of level three. Whereas level three assumes organizations are still located in one country or region, level four works from anywhere, any time and any place.
Level 4 is the most extreme. It is not better than level three, just more extreme. Some organizations will be pleased with level three, where some will take one more step. Many things in level four are the same as in level three. However, there are some essential differences.
In level four, there is also no office. Also, here, if a team would like to come together, they can rent an office space or just an Airbnb.
Productivity is the same as in level three and in some cases even higher. Where in level three, some kind of synchronous work is still assumed, at level four, work can be done asynchronously. The Follow the Sun approach can be used. Team members use tools like Slack or Trello to inform each other about progress, and there is no need to be online the same hours. Meetings are recorded to make sure everyone can watch them if they are not able to attend.
Asynchronous work requires optimal communication. People will inform each other actively about their work progress, impediments, and other relevant details. Short videos are recorded to notify each other, and Slack channels, for example, are used to communicate about projects. Working out loud is important in levels two and three, but it is an automatic habit in level four.
Trust is the same as in level three. It is not about checking if people spend enough hours behind the laptop, it is all about the results and value created.
Also, here, people work where they love to work. If they like to work from home, they probably have a home office. However, at level four, people can really work from anywhere. People often travel around a continent and work a few days from one city, and the next few days from another city, etc. Work can usually be done asynchronously. Therefore, the location and time zone are not relevant anymore.
Tools are the same as in level three, everything is in the cloud, everything is Bring Your Own Device. Maximum flexibility.
As with any model, the borders are a bit fuzzy. Most organizations will have parts of level one, level two, and some teams may already be at level three. However, looking at the different levels could help you to make the next step. To think about where to improve, to move forward to level three, or move back to level one. Almost every level is ok, except level two. Level two is a level where people can really experience a lot of stress.
Click here to download an one-page overview of the different levels.
Which level is your team or organization? How can you make the step to the next level? Just let me know, and what will your next step be?