Five levels of work

I don’t know about you but I’ve been a fan of Matt Mullenweg for ages now. He doesn’t write often but when he does, it’s thoughtful and makes you think. I received a notification for Matt’s latest post on my WordPress dashboard last month. It was silly of me to not review this sooner (damn you, tabbed browsing!) as it was one gem of a piece!

The advice is so timeous and relevant to the times we’re living in now and beyond. Sure, COVID-19 has changed the way we work but I believe it’s for the greater good and this model could possibly lead the way for remote teams of the future.

Before I go ahead, I would like to clarify that Matt’s version is probably adapted from other sources. I will list them below for reference but the key reason I like Matt’s version more is because of it’s simplicity. I resonate with it since I’m implementing a version of this at my workplace.

Here’s Matt’s five levels of autonomy (or ahem, “distributed teams”) for you:

Level Zero: Autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Imagine construction worker, barista, massage therapist, firefighter… Many companies assumed they had far more of these than it has turned out they really did.

Level One – Unprepared (most companies): This is where most colocated businesses are — there’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly, though in the case of many knowledge workers, people can keep things moving for a day or two when there’s an emergency. More often than not, they’ll likely put things off until they’re back in the office. Work happens on company equipment, in company space, on company time. You don’t have any special equipment and may have to use a clunky VPN to access basic work resources like email or your calendar. Larger level one companies often have people in the same building or campus dialing into a meeting. Level one companies were largely unprepared for this crisis.

Level Two – Heading There: This is where many companies have found themselves in the past few weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve accepted that work is going to happen at home for a while, but they recreate what they were doing in the office in a “remote” setting, like Marshall McLuhan talked about new media mediums initially copying the generation before. You’re probably able to access information from afar, you’ve adapted to tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but everything is still synchronous, your day is full of interruptions, no real-time meetings have been canceled (yet), and there’s a lot of anxiety in management around productivity — that’s the stage where companies sometimes install surveillance software on laptops. Pro tip: Don’t do that! And also: Don’t stop at level two!

Level Three – Leveraging the New Medium: This is where you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. That’s when you see people invest in better equipment — from a good desk lamp to solid audio gear — and in more robust asynchronous processes that start to replace meetings. It’s also the point at which you realize just how crucial written communication is for your success, and you start looking for great writers in your hiring. When you are on a Zoom, you often also have a Google Doc up with the other meeting participants so you can take and check real-time notes together. Your company has a zero-trust BeyondCorp security model. In a non-pandemic world you plan meetups so teams can break bread and meet each other in person a week or two a year.

Level Four – Asynchronous: Is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. You begin shifting to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations. You tap into the global talent pool, the 99% of the world’s population and intelligence that doesn’t live near one of your legacy physical office locations. Employee retention goes way up, and you invest more in training and coaching. Most employees have home-office setups that would make office workers green with envy. You have a rich social life with people you choose. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work. If you get good at baton passes work will follow the sun 24/7 around the world. Your organization is truly inclusive because standards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way.

Level Five – Nirvana: Finally, I believe it’s always useful to have an ideal that’s not wholly attainable — Nirvana! This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organization could. You’re effortlessly effective. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health, when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers, and just have fun.

Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy by Matt Mullenweg
SN: Modified for clarity and context.

In my opinion, the Five Levels of Autonomy should be the go-to framework for all remote/distributed teams. Some time in future, if not right away. It’s a model that will take some getting used to but there’s no way around it. Could it better? Sure, but over time. Not overnight.

But is the world ready for such a radical model? (At least that’s how it would seem to entities that haven’t dared before.) I’d say absolutely yes!

Other sources you should refer to for a variant of this model:
1. The Five Levels of Remote Work — and why you’re probably at Level 2 (by Steve Glaveski); and

2. The Novel Imperative for Physical Distancing at Work by Steve Jurvetson (this one is basically a gist of the podcast episode where Matt originally mentioned the model)

By Sunil Nair

Nurturing leaders of tomorrow.

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