A highly engaged business does not need an office

With the right software and the right attitude, any organisation can reinvent itself as entirely remote, argues Julien Nowak-Bourgoin

“The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order”, wrote H P Lovecraft when describing his monster, Cthullu. And it feels today that these lines were written for the modern startup organisation.

Operating 100 per cent remotely, with no office and the minimum amount of staff thanks to octane-powered automation technology, these organisations are reshaping what we thought was already a deconstructed workplace. They are taking the lean model to new and extreme levels and making a mockery of the most advanced Japanese plant while doing so. The result? An HR organisation that is recession-proof, with minimal overheads and clinically efficient in the two basics: people performance and engagement. 

And the best news about it? This model is duplicable with a very manageable transition process.  But it requires a software solution we can characterise as a brain, a heart and a pair of lungs.

The brain represents the environment where all the documents are going to be accessible quickly and easily by anyone within the organisation and securely hosted to make sure people who have nothing to do with the business cannot access them. Numerous companies offer this kind of solution, but for the majority of  businesses something like Google Drive makes the most sense. 

The heart represents the environment where all discussions happen. It is our digital office, accessible from any device. We want to be able to write down messages, share information and call either individuals or entire teams altogether. Slack and its alternatives are packed with everything most businesses will ever need. 

And lastly comes a pair of lungs to breathe healthily. They represent the environment in which people become accountable to their manager, business and themselves when it comes to working remotely. Software can record the time spent working and specifically on which tasks and projects. 

The next stage is to start the transition from an office-based culture to a remote one. Successful programmes tend to structure the process into four phases. 

First comes 'boarding', where people embrace the tools without any remote work. They still go to the office every day, but documents are migrated to the brain and communications are moved to the heart while individuals start to get used to tracking their time via the lungs. Consider two weeks for your team to get properly used to these tools. 

Next comes 'first movement' where employees start working from home on a part-time basis and on specific days. Feedback is gathered, blockages identified and questions emerge. This is the phase for regular discussions, talks and workshops and it should take around two to three months.

Once this phase has been properly managed and all questions have been answered, we can proceed to the “runway”. This is when transition really starts to happen with people free to work wherever they want. The office is still present as a base, for weekly and then monthly gatherings, but most of the activity happens remotely. 

With blockages removed and questions answered, the team can now focus on maximising the efficiency of the new model with automation processes. Talents can be reached with no geographical borders. Engagement starts to rocket as people enjoy a benefit that few other organisations provide: freedom and potentially relocation. HR and management can strategise on how to best leverage this, from talent attraction to stronger non-monetary remuneration packages.

The 'runway' usually ends within another two months and the organisation can then enter the 'flying' zone which involves terminating the office entirely. 

The result of doing this properly is a transformation into a culture of performance first rather than attendance. Trust defines the employment relationship and honesty turns into the cornerstone value. And with time being recorded per task and project, productivity gaps between individuals become evident and managerial decisions sharper.

This is how most startups end up with a productivity gap of +13 per cent according to Stanford University research. And if the long term societal effects of this transformation are still unknown, the real question is how long can your business afford to wait to transition to this model?

Julien Nowak-Bourgoin is founder of JPNB Consulting