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Why Remote Work is Not the New Normal

As we all struggle with Zoom fatigue, Slack overload, and months of not wearing pants (ok maybe not all of us), a very common discussion is whether this is the new normal. I’ve had this conversation with colleagues, friends, and family (ironically largely over Zoom). My perspective is that this shift to fully distributed teams is not the new normal. It has been happening for years – all COVID did was accelerate it.  

Now to be fair, my perspective is shaped in large part by my experience over the past few years. I had the good fortune to lead engineering at InVision – a company with hundreds of employees and no offices anywhere in the world. Before that, I had my first experience with a nearly completely distributed team when I worked with the Trello team at Atlassian. Those experiences showed me that distributed teams can be incredibly effective – but it takes a lot of hard work and intentional focus to make it successful. I hadn’t been planning on leveraging my experience with distributed teams when I joined SailPoint, which had an office focused culture – but here I am 4 months later, and I haven’t been back to the office since the day I interviewed.  

Admittedly, I was a bit worried about how effectively and quickly an office focused company could pivot to a completely distributed world. Ok, I was wondering if it was going to be a total disaster.  

But it wasn’t a disaster.  

My onboarding was seamless – I got a laptop and everything I needed delivered to me. IT provisioned my accounts and they worked the morning I started. I was able to hit the ground running. I was productive (well, at least I think I was) and working at home as effectively as I had been at InVision just a few weeks beforehand.

I’m sure the question that comes to mind is: how did we/SailPoint adapt to distributed teams so quickly? The answer is that the investments SailPoint made into IT and HR processes that optimized life in the office carried over to remote work. For example, we used our own SaaS solution, IdentityNow to automate role and privilege assignment. So when I started, I had all the access I needed to do my job.

TLDR: The investments required to make distributed teams more effective are not that different from the ones that make co-located teams more effective.

So what’s next in our distributed team journey 

We’re an extremely collaborative and supportive team – but we need to get better at how we collaborate in a distributed context. As I mentioned earlier, Zoom and Slack fatigue is something I’m sure you’re feeling. I know I am – but I also know it doesn’t have to be this way. Zoom and Slack (and similar tools) are great for communication – but in my opinion, they are not great for collaboration.

The reason I believe this is that they both require synchronous attention – you have to engage fully with them as things are happening or you miss out. Sure, you could scroll back in the Slack channel after you get back from your weeklong vacation to see what you missed – but are you gonna? Like seriously who is gonna do that?  

I strongly believe that to enable teams to work more collaboratively you need to invest in a collaboration platform that is open, transparent, allows for self-discovery and asynchronous work. You also need to pick one and standardize your whole team on it. I can’t overstate how much value a good collaboration platform and supporting strategy can bring your team. It’s a huge benefit to a collocated team and critical for a distributed team. Allowing people to collaborate deeply asynchronously is a real game-changer.

So that’s why collaboration is our next area of focus in improving how we work as a distributed team – what’s yours? COVID has presented us with historic challenges – but there are some opportunities here for us too. Improving how we work together as teams is one of them, and embracing the benefits of distributed teams is another. With that said, I do look forward to getting a beer in a crowded bar – even if I have to wear pants to do it.