Work in progress: 3 guiding principles for active remote working

A conversation with Rodolphe on communication, trust, and living synchronously

For a lot of us, our first experiences of remote work were just something that happened to us. It wasn’t something we had any choice in. 

We didn’t get to decide when work happened, or set hard boundaries when work time bled over into home time. We didn’t have much of a choice of what the structure of our days looked like, because other people decided that for us as they crammed our calendars with call after call after call. And somewhere along the line, we developed this creeping feeling that if there wasn’t a little green dot next to our name, were we really even working at all?

All of this happened because when we boxed up our desks to work remotely in 2020, we also boxed up all of the rituals that came with them. We tried to unpack them in a remote-first context, forcing our typical working hours, methods of communication and brainstorming sessions to fit. Trouble is, we didn’t really know what the shape of true remote work looked like yet.

It’s something that Rodolphe Dutel, founder of Remotive, knows well — because he did it too. Now, as he heads up his own remote-first company, he reflects on some of the things that need to change if we’re going to get remote work right.

Here’s Rodolphe’s Remote Works story.

“Remote work is about learning new codes of conduct in how we express ourselves.”

Rodolphe Dutel, Founder at Remotive, France

Rodolphe says he almost got fired from his first remote job. He’d moved to Buffer after two years at Google, curious to experience something different after a steady diet of corporate culture.

Rodolphe was used to a working world that had clearly defined borders. Working hours were regular. Communication was direct and to the point, often with little room for superfluous detail or feeling. Ways of working were structured and hierarchical. But by the end of his three-month trial period at Buffer, he realized that wouldn’t work in this new remote-first context. He had to adapt quickly, or leave.

“I’d been working in corporate America, in organizations with 10,000-plus employees,” he says. “I learned to be very formal, very direct. When I joined Buffer, I didn’t know how to work with people you don’t see every day. I didn’t know the codes of conduct for asynchronous work — I’m not sure I had the empathy either. It was about learning the difference between explicit and implicit communication. It was about understanding and navigating the cultural nuances we all have of expressing ourselves — about relearning hierarchy and permission.

“I realized slowly but surely that we had the power to make a lot of things happen remotely, but we had to put in the work and focus — the groundwork — to do that.”

“Trust is the baseline principle of remote working. You have to assume good intent at every step.”

The groundwork, or part of it at least, was trust. Trust that his team members were getting their work done. Trust that if someone didn’t reply immediately, it didn’t mean they were slacking off. Trust that people don’t need to punch in on the clock for eight hours a day. 

“Working in corporate America, there was always this reward attached to being responsive,” he says. “If you want to be visible, you have to be responsive. And if you want a promotion, you have to be visible. It was all gamified to an extent.

“But with remote work, we’ve seen a shift in that power dynamic — because you can’t reward visibility when you don’t see the people you work with every day.

“Trust became my baseline principle.  You have to assume good intent at every step. You have to trust that maybe someone isn’t responding to you because they have something else to attend to, which is equally important — if not more — than you. 

“To make that work as a system, you’ve got to build empathy. If someone is managing their workload in, say, 30 hours — that’s great. But you also need to detach that from the guilt. 

“We need to plan according to our energy, rather than because of the 40-hour work week. We need to design processes with empathy that get away from this culture of urgency in the first place. We need to lead with the things we want to achieve on a quarterly basis, instead of constantly sprinting for the next deadline.

“We're not heart surgeons, so we can delay most decisions by 24 hours. That’s why remote work is a gateway to a better way of working — asynchronous work. And async, for me, is just the next logical conclusion.”

“If you don’t own your calendar, then someone else is setting the rhythm for the only non-renewable resource you have — time.”

Rodolphe quit Buffer in 2017 to work on his own company, Remotive, which he founded in 2014. Remotive connects job seekers globally with remote-first companies — “because talent is everywhere,” he says, “and they’re voting with their feet. They’re looking for a job board where they can see what’s going on on both sides of the table.”

So what’s on the table at Remotive? Rodolphe is a firm believer in practicing what he preaches. He favors working in the mornings, but he’s led by his own energy — “if you have a cloudy mind, you’re better off doing it tomorrow,” he notes. He opts out of what he needs to, depending on where he feels he can deliver the most value.

“It took me a long time not to feel guilty about that,” he says. “I try to lead by example. So as a leader, are you going to say that your Tuesday afternoon is blocked out for rock climbing or childcare or whatever — and that no matter what, nobody can reach you? That sets a precedent.

“But if you’re not walking the talk, people are always going to default to being present — and that’s where the guilt comes in. And everyone’s been petrified to let go of that during this pandemic, because if your entire team is online and you’re not, then that singles you out.

“It creates this stressful online environment that allows those that shout the loudest or get paid the highest to gain the upper hand. We’ve seen so many organizations go from no remote working at all to forced working from home — which is different to giving people an active choice in how they work remotely. Forcing people to work from home is a desocialization process where our old ways of working have collided with our environment. It’s not true remote working — it’s building a culture based on fear instead of freedom and flexibility.”

“So it's documenting and owning topics rather than owning hours. It’s about zooming out, and going to do that thing you want to do, without guilt or restrictions. Because when we’re working asynchronously, we need to use the time around work to be a little more synchronous with our direct environment.”

Being synchronous for Rodolphe means sailing. He tries to get out on the sea a couple of times a week. He’s sailed across the Atlantic twice.

“We really need to learn how to disconnect from the virtual world,” he emphasizes. “Because the next dilemma will be when we get to retirement age and realize that we’ve spent the last 40 years behind a screen, ruled by a calendar that has been decided by other people.

“And if you don’t own your calendar, then someone else is setting the rhythm for the only non-renewable resource you have as a human — time.”

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