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How to survive and thrive with an entirely remote workforce. How do you work together when you are, in fact, alone?

Mike Walsh talks to 

Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Amp

Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier and 

Sandeep Dadlani, the company’s Chief Digital Officer

 and has an article published in HBR 

He identifies 3 components necessary for the succesful transition to a digital workforce 

Communication, Structure and Data

1. Communication is key 

The need to communicate effectively is key 

Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Amp says that they have  created a daily situation room, where they track everything that’s changed overnight, internal to the business, as well as  in the external world.

It  is then published on an open channel on Slack. 

At Nexttech Learning  – there is a daily meetup and weekly meetup – with structure – and detailed reporting .

A huge advantage of working centrally is the interpretation of body language, non-verbal agreement, and interpersonal connections 

when you work remotely you require a different kind of attention 

Who makes decisions?

How can you problem solve ?

when you can’t see your team, 

when you’re not sure what’s happening, 

when you don’t know if they’re at work or not

Everything needs to be trust based and outcomes based – and data is the pathway  to making things work . 

2. Structure is key 

Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, says that when it comes to building trust, a little bit of structure goes a long way. At Zapier, distributed teams use a framework called DACI, which stands for driver, approver, consulted, and informed. 

Anyone involved in a decision will play one of four roles: a person responsible for driving the work and collecting the relevant data; an approver who gives the go-ahead; consultants who can provide expert opinions; and finally the informed, who need to know about the outcome because it impacts the work that they do. 

Knowing decision roles upfront speeds up team interactions and avoids ambiguities that can cause delays or friction.

Transparency is critical at both of these organisations. 

3. Data is key 

Major decisions at Zapier are documented in a decision log called Async, which is an internal tool that they built. The purpose of Async is to surface important conversations that might get lost in fast-paced Slack forums. It replaces internal email and acts as a searchable archive for anyone on the team to reference old discussions and keep up with company updates. 

According to Foster, Slack is where the teams at Zapier talk about work, while Async is where they share work with the rest of the team.

In this respect, distributed organizations are typically ahead of more traditional ones — where documentation can be sparse or buried in private email chains. 

“In theory,” explains Foster, “this means we should get better at making decisions over time because everyone can benefit from the organizational decision-making muscle.”

Supply Chain at Mars 

Week six of Covid buying groceries online had become 15% of the American market,

The old supply chain 

Sandeep Dadlani, the company’s Chief Digital Officer – 

“Our supply chains are built of wonderful leaders who have known each other for many years, who pat each other on the back, and who know how things run because they’re in the factories. They watch the trucks, pick up the phone, and get calls from the retailers. They nudge their other friends and workers to push another batch out or to get another production line changed.” 

But, as the crisis accelerated, there was a behavioral shift. Now that the logistics and technology teams have lost their in-location perspective of the supply chain and can only access raw data about inventory, supplies, materials, and packaging, their interactions have changed. 

Conversations between remote team members have become more focused and less subjective, productivity has improved, decisions have become more data-driven, and new, more probing questions are being asked: “Why is inventory at this level? Can the raw materials in these factories be moved elsewhere? Can we drive a higher throughput?” It was, in other words, what the digital transformation team had been trying to achieve for some time.

“Organizations like ours have to pivot to identify trends, pick the right business models, fail a few times, and then succeed,” he says. “At Mars, we call it the Digital Engine: find the problem, solve the problem, and then scale the solution as fast as we can.”

Notwithstanding the importance of agility and response time, as companies and teams become more digital, there is a corresponding need for leaders to be able to grasp the nuances and risks of data-driven thinking. 

We need to upskill in statistics and  data literacy

Data literacy needs  dedicated training and education. 

At Mars, Dadlani was shocked when an email intended for his technology team inviting them to a course on machine learning accidentally went out to thousands of employees at the firm, and — much to his surprise — many of those unintended recipients showed up, which changed his thinking about how ready everyone in the organization was to take on the challenges of new technology.

Foster has actively encouraged data literacy programs at Zapier, offering employees a five-part mini-course called The Golden Path to Data, which provides training on using data tools, creating queries, and interpreting results. 

As a further incentive to upgrade skills, requests to the data team are prioritized for people who have actually done the course.

Every team needs  a data power user in it, which can help the team respond to new questions and challenges faster. And that increases the decision-making velocity that’s happening inside the organization.”

Data will never be a substitute for genuine social interactions or company culture, but as we build more global, distributed, and virtual organizations, what it offers is something just as important: a common language for transformation.


Mike Walsh is the author of The Algorithmic Leader: How to Be Smart When Machines Are Smarter Than You. Walsh is the CEO of Tomorrow, a global consultancy on designing companies for the 21st century.

Posted on July 23, 2020

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