It's not about working remote; it's about going horizontal

Organisations struggling with remote work wrongly think it to be a matter of adjustment. However, there is a deeper force at play, one that goes back to our natural instincts as human beings.

Published on
April 1, 2020
Reading time 5min
A person lying on the floor while working on her laptop

Organisations are scrambling to figure out remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic. They are rushing to install apps like Zoom and Slack, sending guidelines on conducting remote meetings, and agonising over their business continuity plans.

There are two positions to take during this crisis:

  • Treat the changes like a transient blip that will fade in a few months and look forward to business-as-usual.
  • Look at these changes as the future of work and make plans to embrace it wholeheartedly.

We believe in the latter.

In the last few weeks, we have seen some of our clients struggle with remote work. It is not the lack of knowledge that is holding them back. It is the residue of an old way of working.

Consider decision making. The "thinkers" deliberate on the matters and pass down the decision to the "doers" who carry out the orders, after seeking several rounds of approvals of their progress. Now, try doing this remotely. The number of calls nicely follows the work hierarchy, similar to Conway's Law on the design of systems software. Yes, you may be using remote tools, but they are a compromise, and they are slowing you down.

It is not just about decision making. It is also about leadership, meetings, workflows, performance, relationships and learning. Try doing these remotely under old-fashioned bureaucratic controls. It's no wonder that such companies are waiting to get back to business as usual.

Yet, remote work is thriving in an increasing number of companies. What's so special about these companies? They have gone horizontal.

Horizontal work environments value people over positions, purpose over compliance, autonomy over control, collaboration over silos, and sharing over hoarding.

In Going Horizontal, author Samantha Slade makes the case to move to more naturalistic and non-hierarchical ways of working: “Simply put, we need horizontal workplaces because we are naturally horizontal species. Working against this instinct is what has led us to a world where 85 percent of people are disengaged from their work."

Horizontal, or non-hierarchical, work environments value people over positions, purpose over compliance, autonomy over control, collaboration over silos, and sharing over hoarding. Going horizontal is the future of work.

Digitally native companies like Google and Spotify embraced a horizontal work culture right from the start. Therefore, they don't stress out when work goes remote—it is business as usual. It is the traditional, authoritative companies that struggle to cope.

Let's revisit decision making. In a horizontal organisation, self-managing teams, sensitive to changes in the environment, plan the work to be done. Team members share the work and self-regulate on the progress and quality of the output. Yes, there are many meetings and check-ins, but they are for making progress and not for directing orders. And, yes, there may be a little hierarchy involved, but it is not to wield authority, but to coordinate resources or offer support. Time to go remote? No sweat.

So how do we go horizontal? Here are three suggestions from our ongoing effort to reinvent ourselves at PebbleRoad:

  • First, we had be aware that there are new ways of doing work. Our first contact was with Frederic Laloux's fantastic book, Reinventing Organisations. The book opened our eyes and the flood gates to related resources. The book's website also has a video series on how to reinvent a traditional organisation. The current Covid-19 crisis hopefully triggers leaders to look in this direction.
  • Next, we had to get educated on the different ways to go horizontal. Luckily, again, we chanced upon How to Survive the Organisational Revolution. Authors Ard-Pieter de Man, Pieter Koene and Martijn Ars describe over six new organisational forms that support horizontal work culture, including the Spotify model, which we are adopting to our context.
  • Finally, have to systematically catch every old practice and transform it, from big ones like authority and transparency to small ones like onboarding and expense claims. Samantha Slade's Going Horizontal, Aaron Dignan's Brave New Work and Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree's Corporate Rebels are an inspiration to us in this regard.

Going horizontal is a shared commitment to move to a more naturalistic and humanistic way of working. And when we do this, remote working will not be a compromise; it will be an opportunity to shine brighter.

Maish Nichani
Maish Nichani
Engagement Director

I enjoy helping organisations achieve their potential in an ever-changing and complex world. I lead product and transformation conversations.

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