Remote Work Is the Future of Work
Remote work is an early-inning trend for enterprises and SMBs, bringing with it the demand for a new generation of enabling technologies. Some of these enabling technologies can evolve from existing applications that support remote work (think Zoom) but many more are needed to make distributed workforces as efficient and effective as traditional in-office teams.
What follows is a look at the dynamics of remote work and distributed workforces, and a quick tour of what’s still needed for communication, knowledge management, and productivity software to support enterprise-class virtual offices.
Trends Driving Remote Work
There’s been a lot of talk about remote work since the first time someone emailed “I’m working from home tomorrow”. Naturally, SaaS applications and high-speed internet connections have been key enablers.
These days, about 5% of U.S. workers regularly work from home. Yet there isn’t an established model for how remote work happens. And we often see the terms “remote work” and “distributed work” used interchangeably.
To keep it all straight, it’s useful to place companies on a continuum, with the number of remote workers as the unit of measurement. On the extreme left are companies where all employees work at one office, and no one works remotely. On the extreme right are organizations with no physical offices where all employees work remotely all the time -- a fully distributed company.
Most companies fall somewhere in the middle. Some are fully remote (meaning, all employees work outside of the traditional office setting), some are split into multiple offices, some have a physical office but offer their team members the opportunity to work remotely occasionally. What’s hit my radar lately is how open companies are to all of these different options.
Remote work is often driven by cost savings. In Silicon Valley, it’s expensive to recruit locally and many companies choose to open satellite offices or hire remote workers to tap talent in different geographies. Generally, companies will start with remote engineering, sales, or success teams.
Companies also adopt remote work as a competitive advantage in hiring. The success of remote work as a recruiting tool means that over time many professionals have gone from valuing work flexibility to accepting the idea that all work can take place online -- especially for Gen X and Millennial professionals, who are quicker to fully embrace tech at work.
Clearly remote work is here to stay -- and new startups are rushing to provide enabling technologies that accommodate the whole spectrum of remote work models. There’s a ton of innovation going on.
Opportunities to Develop the Tech Stack Further
We’ve already seen some innovative companies tackling the challenges that arise moving from an in-person office to a virtual one. Zoom delivers the richness of face-to-face meetings. Miro brings the whiteboard. Tandem imitates the office setting, where you can bug your colleagues in real time and feel like you’re working shoulder-to-shoulder.
The tech stack needed to support a distributed workforce is still in the early stages of commercialization. I’m not going too far out on a limb to say that the faster the stack matures, the faster more SMBs and enterprises will embrace remote work.
I’ve given some narrow examples of specific work activities being reinvented online using new software applications. After spending time thinking through the requirements of fully distributed workforces, I see two massive market opportunities where a new breed of applications are sorely needed.
Communication and Knowledge Management. If you speak to distributed / remote companies, their #1 challenge is communication and keeping everyone in sync.
The communication aspects of remote teams are interesting. Remote work often means that team members are in multiple time zones or on different schedules, making synchronous communication much more difficult. Email provides asynchronous communication, but obviously there’s plenty of room for improvement there.
Communication gaps can impact knowledge sharing as well. As teams become more distributed and communication becomes more of a challenge, knowledge management becomes a cornerstone to sharing info and keeping everyone in sync. Employees co-located in the same space and on the same schedule have the luxury to visit a coworker’s office to ask a question. When teams are spread across different time zones, a question might not get answered for hours, which is a big blocker to productivity.
Then there’s the issue of knowledge being housed in an increasing number of individual applications. Employees are not just searching in one application for answers, they’re searching across many. Having a thoughtful approach to organizing knowledge should be central to every team’s remote work strategy.
Companies manage knowledge in many ways. The most productive teams make it a habit to document all conversations and decisions and share this widely with their colleagues so everyone is equally informed.
Many teams/companies choose to store knowledge centrally in a wiki. Some particularly popular solutions right now are Notion, Guru, Tettra, Slab, and Slite. Other companies choose to keep knowledge distributed in the applications where people do work and add a search layer on top to help employees find the knowledge they are looking for. Some new entrants here include Command E and FYI. Shared knowledge is very much an unsolved problem, with new innovation still to come.
Productivity Suites. As more work moves online, it’s natural to think about our productivity online. SaaS productivity tools have typically been best-of-breed solutions that addressed one problem very well.
The shortcoming with best-of-breed solutions is that you often have to context switch as you move from one application to the next. Often, where you produced work was separate from where you collaborated or stored work, which makes for a frustrating experience as you lose mental bandwidth switching from workflow application to communication application.
As we spend more time doing work online, it’s natural that we’ll want solutions that increase our productivity by combining all aspects of our work into one platform.
We see some limited examples already:
- Airtable. Self-described “part spreadsheet, part database” supports tons of use cases in remote work
- Notion. As we mentioned above, all-in-one notes, tasks, wiki, and spreadsheets
- Taskade. All-in-one platform for task management, communication, notes, etc.
As these examples suggest, there’s both a demand for and race to become the dominant all-in-one online workspace. For companies and employees to fully realize the potential of distributed work, we’ll need to say goodbye to siloed applications and fragmented knowledge.
I believe the remote/distributed work trend is one that has staying power. I see an opportunity for startups to capitalize on the opportunity to provide the “picks and shovels” that help companies build out their virtual offices to cater to this new working style. I welcome the chance to talk with founders focused on innovating on the remote work tech stack.
Originally published October 1, 2019.