The Human Workplace – a Blueprint for Remote Companies
A remote organization is built on trust. Trust is the single most important driver for collaboration and high-performance. Once you trust yourself and your peers, a whole new range of leadership possibilities open up.
We also know that remote organizations are mostly more effective. Today on a venture capital network exchange one tech founder shared: “Since we’ve been working remotely, we’ve delivered in a week what we normally did in a month”. This is not a surprise for me anymore. I have the feeling that I know why it is like this.
For the last 15 years I’ve been thinking about “how to organize collaboration”. I grounded my thinking in a lot of publications by well known companies such as Google, Zappos, Buffer, McKinsey and many more. Even more than reading and researching, I’ve experimented a lot and gained lots of experience and insights. At Zalando, I facilitated the agile transformation and scaling Tech from 120 people to 2.500 in 3 years. We had a hundred of teams to work with and with every one I made a unique experience. Overall the experience has been stressful and overwhelming – which shows that I was in my growth zone: meeting the unknown, experiencing something new and trying to be comfortable in uncertainty. I enjoyed this very much.Over the last two years I’ve conducted my own research and studied pattern of high performing teams, also at Zalando.
What I want share in this article is the insight of those 15 years of work.
It’s a blueprint for how to build high-performing remote organizations based on trust and the patterns and principles of some of the most successful companies around the world.
The blueprint is designed to cultivate…
Trust between members of the organization
Self-responsible organization members
Empathy for “new hires” and the questions they have when they join the organization
Clearly distinguished organizational aspects
Hyper-growth readiness and the ability to work well together at scale
…and saves you a lot of management overhead (/headache).
It helps you as founder to think, organize your thoughts and build up a mental model that enables you to develop your organization with focus and clarity
It helps you to maintain, explain, align and develop your culture despite or esp. during hyper growth — it helps you to build “a learning organization” that is resilient and responsive
It helps you to co-create a human centered workplace where people’s happiness and health lead to high performance and outstanding business results. It doesn’t do this for performance reasons alone, rather for love & care for humans.
How do we cultivate trustful relationships
We build the organization based on a positive human mental model and principles such as trust, honesty, appreciation and self-responsibility. These human principles are the source of the organizational principles.
Example: The human principle of self-responsibility leads to the organizational principle: Everyone can take ownership and therefore can & should make decisions independently but aligned. As a result, we structure the organization in a way that allows people to pick their topic/teams (see “How we structure”) and decentralize decision-making (see “How we make decisions”).
We do this because we believe workplace happiness and health leads to high performance / valuable contribution.
One company using this blueprint is BRYTER. In the following remote session it’s co-founder and CPO Michael Hübl shares their insights and practices of how they “cultivate trustful relationships”:
“In 2018, we decided to go fully remote. Our entire company operates remotely. We have a remote-first structure in our DNA which means we know how to build, run and scale a business remotely. We know how product development, customer success and marketing teams work in a fully virtual environment. We know how it feels to provide an enterprise-ready solution – anywhere. So we want to share our learnings and experiences with you all. In this online session, we will run through how we organize the collaboration of 70+ people in different countries and timezones. We will talk about the importance of communication and knowledge sharing in order for all of us to make rapid progress with our work and product.”
BRYTER is the leading no-code platform to automate expert knowledge. Its intuitive toolbox enables professionals to build, manage and sell interactive applications without programming skills. BRYTER is especially geared towards experts in law, finance, tax and compliance working with complex, conditional and scenario-based content who want to automate recurring and standardizable decision-making processes. BRYTER operates offices in Berlin, Frankfurt, and London and supports professionals in over 50 international law and consulting firms, corporates and public bodies with the automation of professional decision-making.
In this webinar Mic mentioned the “Caring Circle” as an advanced practice – which brings together a lot of the practices Mic shared in this remote session in a simple and powerful format.
With the “Caring Circle” you can learn how can we care for each other in challenging times, deepen human relationships and build a sense of togetherness remotely?
We see our customers as human beings. With empathy, we think about what they need in their workplace to get their job done. How they feel when they are using our product. What success means for them and their company.
That’s why we have a customer success team and call our customers “champions “— it is part of our job to help them to become champions.
We believe that customer empathy enables us to build a product that adds value for our customer.
How we structure
We work in cross-functional groups where we have every competence at hand to act, deliver and make decisions independently. Sometimes this is an ideal state, but we know the closer we come to this, the better we can collaborate.
We learn together in communities of practice. This is our home base of like-minded people where we give and find support, mentorship and care.
We believe that a responsive and scalable structure enables healthy hyper-growth and collaboration at scale.
How we make decisions
We make decisions “together alone”. Following the principles of trust and self-responsibility everyone can make a decision when:
we follow the companies north star(s) / objectives
it is based on a real personal topic, need or tension
we make sure it is safe enough to try and we do the risk assessment for this
we are willing to follow up on the consequences
When a topic is more complex or more people are involved, or we do not know how many can be affected, we activate our collective intelligence. We follow processes and procedures – lean and small in the beginning, and more formal and powerful ones when needed – to collectively assess a decision and mitigate risks.
We believe that distributed decision-making enables us to take the right decisions fast so that we will stay effective and react fast at scale.
How we do leadership
Leadership means to care about culture, structures and context —it means to take care of co-workers without violating their self-responsibility and the trust we have in each other.
When we take leadership we want to strengthen ownership, self-responsibility and trust in ourselves and others. It is a coaching mindset that enables others to use the given processes and procedures of the organization. It is about co-creating local and structural / organizational improvement and optimizations. It is about taking ownership of conflicts.
It is like gardening.
We believe we need and profit from ownership and an entrepreneurial spirit on all levels, in order to be successful as a company.
How we improve personal & professional
We learn from each other and with each other. We learn from like-minded people and people with more experience. We learn from the experience of others. We reflect our experience (the good and the ugly) honestly with others and learn.
We do not have a failure culture – we have a learning culture. We organize as communities of practice and go through events and sessions self-responsibly: following our human centered principles. We grow as a human, not as a function. And we grow together.
We believe that when we learn, the organization is learning. And we need this learning to be competitive on the market.
How we plan and align work
We plan work based on direct customer feedback. We work in short iterations to handle complexity and respond to change fast.
We use clear objectives and key results to align our work. We own our objectives and have a clear understanding on how business impact / success looks like.
We have clarity of who is doing what and regularly reflect about how we can improve our collaboration, keep the flow and stay in the high-performance zone.
We believe that to navigate well in complexity, react to change fast, build the best customer value possible, we need the freedom and skill to adjust on a daily basis in alignment with the common north star so that we can work effectively & efficiently.
What we see is – and what we want – is: the more you implement the blueprint as your organizational model, the more business impact you create.
In summary, what you get is
A way to organize and grow your remote company – without stopping operations
A human workplace blueprint that boosts your business model
A way to keep your trustful culture during fast growth
It attracts talents and seniors that want to take ownership and responsibility
Readiness for healthy hyper-growth and working at scale
In the last days a lot of people I trust encouraged me to publish the blueprint now. Thank you Mic, Benjamin, Juke, Mira, Raffa and Andrei. I also have the feeling that it is the right time. So now I am curious what reactions and questions arise in you after reading this article. Send me a direct message with your feedback or use the comment function to share your reaction and insights.
How can you scale an agile organisation without loosing agility?
How can large organisations minimise management efforts and bureaucracy by reinforcing self-organisation beyond agile methods?
How to nurture a culture of innovation beyond an agile team, minimise hierarchies and create an attractive working environment for young talent?
Organisations all over the world are trying new ways to increase effectiveness and organisational agility. Self-organisation, increased autonomy and effective collaborative work methods are only part of the emerging patterns.
Sociocracy 3.0 offers a rich menu of possibilities that can be adapted to each organisation’s unique context and that build on Sociocracy practices, non-violent communication and lean & agile methods.
Do you want to support the development of agile and resilient organisations that offer new organisational dynamics and work conditions? Are you looking for practices that can help you make this happen?
In this course we will look at different organisational models and practices including Teal, Sociocracy 3.0, liquid organisations, anti fragility, agile etc., and we will explore innovative tools and real life cases (Zappos, Haier, Buurtzorg…) that help you amplify your perspective and resources to support digital and cultural transformation processes. The course has been developed in collaboration with ThinkingWithYou and 9Brains.
For this course we have prepared different practices that we use to support our clients in their transition journey. We invite you to think of new ways of designing and developing your organisation, to discover different models, manifestos, structures and organisational practices that are emerging in new work contexts.
Discover new ideas and inspiration for the design of your organisation through an experiential learning experience.
Discover inspiring models and viewpoints from Zygmunt Bauman, Nassim Taleb, Edgar Schein, Bob Anderson, Wilber, Beck and Schneider. Find out about concepts and models including Antifragility, integral theory, the Schneider model and Cynefin.
Explore examples of manifestos, develop your own and discover new things about your own organisational context in conversation with others. Find out about paradigms like Teal and organisational practices like Sociocracy 3.0.
Discover a selection of examples and best practice and apply what you learn with concrete challenges (salary review, vacation management, motivation & recognition of teams etc.)
The result of our collaboration with the Wellbeing Alliance to encourage alternative management models is now available
One of our main goals as a company is to help develop and encourage other ways to run businesses, which reflect or incentivize alternative business cultures based on new conceptions of the relationship between people and the services or products they deliver as well as the relationships between the companies and all their stakeholders. So when we were asked by the people at the Wellbeing Alliance to facilitate the development of a guide on alternatives to traditional business, we found this project to be very much aligned with our mission.
In this context started by developing a collaborative process aiming to include many stakeholders including a steering group of business and wellbeing economy experts. The purpose was to determine the scope, target audience, structure and content of the guide. Based on the input gathered we defined 7 key business dimensions, developed a self-assessment tool and a solutions framework, and carried out interviews with representatives of the organisations whose case studies are featured in the document. The idea behind the guide is to inspire decision makers of mid-sized organizations to explore the Wellbeing Economy space. This innovative document is a constant work in progress and will be regularly updated based on suggestions, recommendations, examples etc.
The guide begins with the observation that business today is at a crossroads between maintaining the traditional top-down structure and approach to labor, production and resource management on the one hand, and more humane and ecologically attentive approaches to business on the other hand.
The first risks leading to more burnouts, overworking and general misalignment of the companies’ priorities with those of their employees, and perpetuate a chronic overuse of resources and other types of impact on the environment.
The second aims to realign the priorities of the management with those of the staff by including the latter in the decision-making process, and with the needs of the environment by incentivizing a reorientation to more sustainable business and production practices.
But perhaps the most important aspect of this guide is to encourage companies to ensure that such transitions remain compatible with flourishing businesses and a functioning economy. Indeed, taking the wrong path toward human and environmental sustainability could cause the economy as a whole to incur costs it cannot afford.
The guide proposes to build a bridge between the two models at play, and highlights the importance of building it from both sides and with incremental steps, in order to both preserve the necessary underlying economy and not shake up the entire ecosystem, which might go too far, lead to several nefarious consequences such as pushback or resistance from the existing systems, or the transitions themselves getting out of control and causing negative side-effects or backlash. But mostly the guide stresses the need for a collaborative approach to such transitions, including every member of the company in the transition and striving for a model that integrates all aspects from labor to production and resource management.
In order to achieve this, seven general principles are outlined that aim to cover every aspect of business and its impact on employees and the environment.
The first is a recommendation for companies to redefine their business objectives to include not just stakeholder satisfaction but employee well-being and environmental sensitivity. These are important because such aspects have short, medium and long-term effects on everything from consumer demand to producer costs and regulatory frameworks, which will then in turn affect the conduct of the business.
The second principle involves ownership and governance, and recommends determining what the ownership structure of the company should look like. Companies nowadays are usually owned – and their priorities are therefore decided – by a small number of actors who are incentivized by shareholder satisfaction and dividends. But these incentives often end up at odds with the wellbeing of employees and with objectives of environmental impact.
The third principle, linked with the previous one, promotes participatory leadership. Traditionally companies are run through a top-down structure including the top stakeholders, heavily incentivized by corporate profits and dividends. So the idea here is to include employees not only in the ownership structure but also in the decision-making processes, in order to give them a say in their own work and their own objectives. Several tools exist already to develop this kind of participatory leadership.
The next principle mentioned is the potential of the community surrounding the business. Many modern companies forget that their activity affects not only their usual stakeholders (shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees and local authorities), but these people’s families, neighbors, and even sometimes entire local economies. It then becomes important to integrate the well-being of all those groups into the equation. A company needs to find its proper place inside its local community and acknowledge its role and impact in that wider circle.
Next the guide touches on the issue of product and service design, which aren’t always best suited to the wellbeing of people or the environment. The recommendation here is to embrace a more circular production cycle. This is one where resources are recycled as much as possible, where important parts of the products themselves can be reintegrated into the manufacturing process, with a view toward achieving a completely environmentally neutral supply chain.
Another crucial aspect of such new models of management is the bottom line. Indeed, whatever the business model a company chooses, that will ultimately be its main incentive. Redefining the corporate objectives is a crucial step toward solving this issue, but there will always be aspects that are difficult to quantify and therefore incentivize. As such, the next principle recommends including social and environmental impact in accounting and ROI calculations, so as to motivate the entire business to actively pursue and achieve these objectives. Indeed, if financial success is linked to social and environmental impact, it is in the company’s best interests to take on and implement impact policies.
The final principle detailed in this document is that of learning together.Indeed, there is no single path to success, and some of them are bound to fail. But in order to truly take note and advantage of such issues, they must be noticed and addressed in the best way possible. Not just at the scale of a single employee but at the scale of the entire company. The economy is a vastly complex animal, after all, and it’s normal that not every single factor can be considered in every decision. It therefore becomes important to make decisions based on incomplete information and adjust course later. But the best way to learn from these mistakes is to include everybody, allow them to fail on occasion and encouraging them to learn from such failures.
Of course, no substantial change is possible without some way or other of measuring said change. For this reason the guide also provides a self-assessment framework for a business’ progress on these fronts. It’s not completely equivalent to an external assessment and should be understood as such. But it is a way to subjectively measure it and, if handled honestly, can nonetheless provide valuable insight. In short, it involves evaluating the company’s performance on seven different axes and plotting the status of the company’s transition on a radar chart, with the center point (all indicators at 0%) being the purely traditional business aspects, and the points along the outer edge (indicators at 100%) representing fully transformed aspects. This tool has its limitations, of course, being subjective and open to interpretation, but it can give an indication of how the company feels it has come along. The dimensions to be plotted on the radar chart reflect the seven dimensions detailed in the main part of the guide. Of course, one single measure is pointless with such a tool. So the most important thing is to plot the perceived status of the company’s transition at various stages in order to get an idea of the change over time.
The guide finishes with a selection of possible solutions to address the question of this transition. It is by no means exhaustive and any solution adopted by such a company will need to be adapted to suit that company’s context, environment, staff and other factors. The list contains, for each of the dimensions addressed by the guide, some existing tools, processes, consultancies, guidelines or regulatory frameworks that any business can choose to adopt. For example, one solution proposed for the dimension of leadership and participation is Sociocracy 3.0, a series of participatory decision-making processes and tools aimed at ensuring more agile, flexible, effective and yet still democratic management practices and choices.
This guide aims to help provide businesses with insights, ideas, principles and tools to ensure an effective and successful transition to a more humanly and ecologically sustainable mode of action. It is targeted at managers, decision makers and change makers within companies around the world who are committed to pursuing such alternative business processes. It provides an analysis of the principles involved, case studies to illustrate each of them, a self-assessment framework and a selection of tried and tested solutions to choose from. Remember, though, the guide remains a work in progress and will be updated regularly. It is not intended to serve as an absolute guide and in no way guarantees successful transitions or significant increases in impact, but as a guide to help people reflect on their companies’ status, aims and progress. It is in no way intended to be the sole solution and its precepts do require adapting to each business according to the specificities of its activity or sector. But if adopted properly by sufficiently committed and motivated people, there is no reason why this can’t be a first step toward a more sustainable, humane and ecologically respectful economy. And those who adopt its recommendations may eventually become the pioneers and role models upon which the future economy will be built.