Prior to the pandemic, only 6% of employees worked from home, and about 3/4ths of workers had never worked from home according to data from the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI). But by May 2020, fully 35% of the U.S. workforce had been sent home because of Covid, driving the total remote workforce over 40% and exceeding McKinsey estimates from a year before regarding the max percentage of work which could be conducted remotely. In many cases, these transitions were made with very little communication and with almost no training for supervisors about the differences between managing remotely vs. in-person. These simple, unforced errors would turn out to be among the most significant contributors to what's been dubbed the "Great Resignation," a mass, voluntary exodus from the workforce of now 24.2 million employees between April and September of this year. And it's a phenomenon that's showing no sign of slowing down; September quits, preliminarily reported at 4.434 million were a record, beating the prior record of 4.270 million set just the month before. But for those who were already working remotely prior to the pandemic, like the folks at small enterprise, Kolabtree - a six year-old online marketplace that connects businesses and academics with more than 800 freelancing scientists and technologists around the globe - not only could they have seen this coming, but they could have helped many to avoid the critical errors that have led us to this point.
I had a chance to visit with Ashmita Das, CEO of Kolabtree, to speak about a range of topics from the future of work to the root causes of the "Great Resignation." We spoke at length about remote work. It is, after all, a topic Ashmita knows a thing or two about. Not only have Kolabtree's associates worked remotely from day-one, but their entire business model relies on connecting people with others - remotely.
She and her team were reminded early on that traditional in-person management relies heavily on visual inputs - things the leader can see and observe with their own two eyes - and that remote work largely removes the opportunity for visual observation. This reality required Kolabtree leaders to shift their entire thought process from inputs to outcomes. Ashmita warns that "for insecure people, it doesn't translate well." This has been true in the Covid economy where resigning workers have complained of an increasingly toxic management environment marked by heightened micromanagement and constant check-ins by suspicious bosses. But when pragmatic leaders successfully shift their focus from hours worked (inputs) to work completed/performed (outcomes), the result can be, as it has been for Kolabtree, quite remarkable in terms of increased productivity and improved associate engagement. Ashmita summed it up quite succinctly when she told me that at Kolabtree, "there's no time tracking; what matters is what you produce." But it's also about flexibility.
Workers fleeing businesses today could not be clearer about their desire for greater flexibility. Ashmita, too, warns business leaders against rushing to implement historic extremes. Needlessly mandating rigid, traditional work hours or other practices in the midst of a pandemic has been a giant turn-off for many workers who have elected to seek other options, voting with their feet. Kolabtree recognized the value of flexibility and independence early on. Their associates work when they feel they are most productive. "If you're a night-owl, work at night," says Ashmita. It's all a matter of trust.
That trust is the central feature to making remote work possible is, in fact, what Kolabtree figured out early and what so many in a worsening "Great Resignation" have yet to grasp. The entire Kolabtree enterprise whether from Kolabtree to its associates or vice versa, from their collaborators to them or vice versa, from them to their clients or vice versa and, finally, from their collaborators to their clients or vice versa, is built on and relies upon trust. Kolabtree must trust that their associates from many miles away will get their work done right, on time. Their clients must trust that a scientist they've never met in person will deliver critical work done to exacting specifications, when promised. And Kolabtree's collaborators and associates must trust that the company will do right by them, every time. Without trust anywhere in the system, the whole works falls apart. With trust, things hold together, and risk is diminished across the entire works. Ashmita Das understands this implicitly and operates accordingly. It's why she views what she and her team are doing as the future of work.
In speaking with her and thinking about all that I've seen change during that last 18 months of work, it occurred to me that what may have changed most about attitudes towards employment is a shift in the way that work impacts one's identity. For virtually ever, who one works for has been the principal element of their work identity. Had you asked almost anyone a year or more ago about their work, they'd very likely have told you where they work. Alternatively, asking the same question today will increasingly result in people responding by telling you what they do. For people focused on outcomes rather than inputs and moreover those, like Kolabtree, who make a living connecting problems with solutions, this is a very welcome trend - particularly as the social contracts of the last century, one of the last tendons connecting workers to the brands that employ them, increasingly prove to hold empty promises for the employee of today.
So, for those looking to learn a thing or two from those who went remote before remote was even a thing, here's the big takeaway: Shift from inputs to outputs; learn to be flexible; and build trust by the bucketful. Above all, remember that increasingly, workers derive greater psychological association from the work they do than from who they do it for. By making it more about them and less about you, they'll stay happier and stay with you longer.