Distributive work gets a boost

With its profile raised by the coronavirus, the remote workplace can be more fruitful

One of the significant consequences foisted upon the economy during the Covid-19 outbreak has been the rapid scaling of work completed outside of the office — in other words, at home. What is commonly known as remote work, now increasingly being referred to as distributive work, has been increasing over the past 20 years or so, but in its short history it never has experienced a shot of practice like it’s getting now.

My guess is that distributive work is conventionally thought of across most businesses as secondary in its productive impact relative to being on-site, not unlike the way online courses have tried shaking off their reputation of being course-lite.

However, the severity of social distancing to break the chain of virus transmission is forcing the knowledge economy in particular to rely on high-quality distributive work to stay alive as never before. Indeed, it is in the knowledge economy, made up of smart and skilled workers producing goods and services worldwide, where distributive work holds its greatest promise.

It may be useful to know the thoughts of someone who has pioneered and cultivated distributive work for years and is now a leading voice in the movement.

Matt Mullenweg was one of the founding developers of WordPress, the digital content management system, and founder of the diversified internet company Automattic, with 1,200 employees distributed over 70 countries. He continues to not only evangelize distributive work, but leads a set of companies that practice it daily. He is also convinced distributive work need not be just an on-the-bench option management reaches for during times of disruption, but a model of productivity capable of surpassing the performance of traditional office-setting work.

Mullenweg promotes worker autonomy as key to motivation and efficiency and is much more concerned with worker output than input. While retaining some in-person collaboration, but in a much more reduced and targeted manner, he recognizes the impediments of cramming a lot of people onto a single site. A myriad of distractions, such as office politics, intrusive co-workers and managers, long off-topic chats with co-workers, shared facilities, a narrow set of expected in-house behaviors, and a feeling of having little control over likes and dislikes, from the office temperature to the smell of someone’s lunch can all negatively factor into a worker feeling a lack of autonomy.

With that in mind, Mullenweg identifies five levels of distributive work from low to high effectiveness. To quickly summarize:

• Level 1, which is now old school, has workers using telephone and email off-site to augment their work, but with the belief that the “real” work is done at the office.

• Level 2 is an attempt to re-create the office elsewhere by use of VPN and conferencing software to supplement voice and email. Most business is still mired in Levels 1 and 2.

• Level 3 demonstrates an intentional effort to adopt the best software and equipment available to share knowledge seamlessly and transparently across the organization. This can include good lighting, microphones and communication tools like Zoom, Slack and P2.

• Level 4 places a premium on asynchronous and written communication, meaning to move away from an over-reliance on live interactions. The goal here is to improve the quality of decision-making even if its pace is slowed.

• Level 5 is where production capability is shown to be measurably improved over traditional work methods.

Mullenweg contends the manufacturing factory model of all employees looking busy at the same time and in the same place does not always translate well into the cognitive economy. By primarily valuing quantifiable and qualitative output and providing workers with the means necessary to cooperatively join forces across distance, the “workplace” can be not only redefined, but rendered more fruitful.

Looking for a humane and profitable opportunity amidst a global contagion may be difficult. Perhaps refining distributive work is one such occasion.

Bill Ryan, who writes about career, employment and economic topics from his home in North Sutton, can be reached at bill@billryanwritings.com.

Categories: Business Advice