• Vishal Singhal

How to design your company's remote working policy

There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has made us question the role of physical office space in our working lives.

Some companies have made huge commitments to remote working. One such example is Twitter, who announced that employees will be able to work remotely forever if they wish!

But it still remains to be seen what becomes the norm for remote working cultures, practices and policies.

I’ve been thinking about one framework or methodology for designing a culture with remote working. It is based on Paul Graham’s essay, ‘Maker’s schedule, manager’s schedule’, which he wrote back in 2009.

Paul talked about how there is a fundamental difference in makers’ and managers’ working schedules. Makers, such as software engineers and designers, are responsible for building things. Maker tasks require long periods of concentrated effort and it takes a significant amount of time to just get started with a making process. Disturbances caused by meetings have large costs as the maker has to then restart their process. Makers therefore work on schedules of half days or entire days, and need to remain undisturbed during this period to be most effective.

Managers on the other hand work on hour by hour schedules. They jump from one meeting to the next, answering emails and coordinating work in between.

Building on Paul Graham’s essay, I’ve instead thought about making and managing in terms of tasks rather than individuals and how this relates to remote working.

Previously, as a Product Manager, the majority of my tasks were managerial. Most of my days were spent coordinating between teams, interviewing stakeholders and thinking creatively about how to solve problems. I did however occasionally have maker tasks. For example, I would deepdive into an analytics task or write up a product change thesis, and these tasks were most effectively done in a long stretch of undisturbed work.

On the flip side, those who predominantly work on maker tasks also have managerial tasks. For example, a software developer may present what they’ve been working on, collect feedback from others or have meetings to understand the specifications of what they need to build.

Maker tasks are naturally well suited to remote working and poorly suited to in-office working. If you are working on a maker task, you typically don’t want to be disturbed. In open plan offices, it is the norm that anyone can approach you whilst you work, but working remotely, you can only be contacted digitally. Moreover, there is typically a lot of background noise whilst others have conversations in open plan offices and the only way to drown this out is by plugging in headphones. Whilst some people can work effectively with headphones, this is not ideal if you work better on maker tasks in a silent environment.

On the flip side, I would argue that in-office working is more effective for managerial tasks. Meetings are more effective in person for logistical reasons such as being able to use whiteboards to brainstorm. Humans are also naturally wired to react to and absorb non-verbal cues, which are observed better in person. Decisions are also made more quickly through off-hand conversations, and some of the best ideas come outside formal meetings.

Companies can use this framework of maker and manager tasks to first understand what type of work should be done remotely, and build policies and cultures around this.

For example, the purpose of maker tasks being carried out remotely is that the maker remains undisturbed for a half or full day period. Companies should therefore design policies to enable team members to go undisturbed. An example where this may not be practical is where a maker needs to be contacted about a work emergency. To tackle this, a policy could be designed whereby the individual is not expected to check their email or Slack messages during the day, but can be contacted via a phone call for something urgent that only they can deal with.

Employers should start by thinking about the number of maker and manager days different team members have. The table below presents a simplified methodology for this. The number of maker and manager days would vary depending on the seniority of an individual and the individual’s exact role. However, the table illustrates how companies can start to think about what people are working on, and how much of it can be done remotely.

There are a number of implications of designing remote working policies based on maker and manager tasks.

One implication is on the design and purpose of physical office space. If a significant amount of desk-based work is being done at home, office spaces should be designed to accommodate more collaborative work such as meetings and brainstorm sessions.

There are also questions about how employers can support their employees whilst they work remotely on maker tasks. For example, do employees need a better desk setup or a better WiFi connection for their remote work? And if so, does it make sense for employers to pay for these amenities given the potential uptick in employee productivity?

One thing that is clear is that there won’t be a one size fits all solution to remote working. A young start-up with 10 people may benefit from the energy of everyone being present together in an office and the fast decision making this enables. And larger companies' cultures will depend on the industry they are in, and whether there are large parts of their team that need to be physically present to get work done.

Over the next year we will see a lot of companies issue changes to their post-Covid remote working policies based on their experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the thing that really interests me is what becomes the norm over the next 3 to 5 years as things settle back to normal. To what extent do organisations stick to their remote working policies, and how do they go about designing and iterating on policies for their organisations.