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Black Swans and the Paradigm Shift of Remote Work – COVID-19 Lessons, Part 2

Remote work is a paradigm shift with profound implications. Here, Toptal’s Chief Economist identifies the main challenges of the traditional work paradigm. In doing so, he reveals how breaking these constraints leads to closer collaboration and more innovation than ever before.

Read Part 1 of this series here.

COVID-19 has catalyzed a massive shift toward remote work and living. The abruptness of this shift brings its own unique risks, as it vastly restricts the ability to make an orderly transition and embrace remote work on its own terms. Remote work does not mean doing things the same old way but in a home-based location. It demands its own best practices, tools, and fundamental ways of conceiving the term “work” in the first place. Here, I take a step back to deeply consider this change and adapting the mindsets and practices that unlock the transformative potential of remote work.

From Remote to Unconstrained Work

Rather than saying “remote work,” a more useful term may be “unconstrained work,” as the final goal is to realize the full, unconstrained potential of an individual or organization, with remote work being a means to that end.

  • Time constrains collaboration, as timezones dictate whom we can work with, and the traditional 9-to-5 schedule clashes with the personal work and sleep rhythms of many people.
  • Location constrains the supply and demand of talent to local communities, contributing to geographical clustering of opportunity in technology-driven fields and the ability for companies to fill their open roles.
  • Disciplines constrain our ability to innovate by locking companies and individuals into their specific field of expertise, despite many innovations occurring through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

These constraints together make work far more process-based than results-based. Managers must too often focus on assembling talent at a specific place and time rather than creating processes that unlock the highest possible results. The end goal isn’t the mere act of working remotely, and few teams are or will be one extreme or the other. In essence, the highest-performing teams will have a careful blend across the three dimensions of time, location, and disciplines to find their ideal balance and achieve their highest, most unconstrained results.

This point risks disappearing during the forced shifts brought about by COVID-19, through which teams and individuals must abruptly do everything remotely without the means to experiment with their ideal balance. They might therefore long for the traditional workflow that existed before this crisis, without realizing this opportunity to address and eventually break free of previous constraints.

The First Black Swan Event: From Observations to Crises

The origin story of the term “black swan” begins not with a crisis event but from an observation—it was assumed that all swans were white until a black one was discovered. That singular observation changed how we fundamentally defined the animal. A single observation can falsify an idea long held as gospel, throwing into relief the fragility of our understanding of many things. Challenging our theories by seeking out counterexamples is far more conducive to surviving and thriving in the context of extreme change than our more instinctive habit of seeking out data that supports them, as it makes us far more adaptable.

This philosophy relates to crises—situations we deem unpredictable (i.e., previously unobservable) and that upend our previous understandings. As discussed in Part 1, however, while we can never predict the final catalyst for an extreme event, we can identify practices and contexts that place us at a higher risk of such things occurring.

In the case of remote work, a single counterexample (or even several) won’t rewrite our definition of complex concepts such as “work.” These observations gather up over time, changing some people’s views but not others’, until a catalyst finally unleashes—and then the world is never the same.

These paradigm shifts are more subtle than a “right idea” replacing a “wrong idea.” When Einstein’s colleagues criticized his theory of relativity by stating that space and time were linear, they were technically correct, but only in the context of the prior paradigms. Space and time are human conceptions, so we get to say what form they take. Einstein was not saying that Newton was “wrong.” He was instead proposing that alternative definitions for space and time might allow us even more significant discoveries than what the prior framework allowed.

We are now witnessing the onset of a paradigm shift for work, one (incidentally) centered around the concepts of space and time given how much it concerns when and where we work.

The COVID-19 pandemic—a black swan event in its own right—may prove the final catalyst that pushes this remote revolution into the mainstream consensus of what truly defines work.

Paradigm Shifts of Remote Work

Challenges of the Traditional Work Paradigm

Traditional work is still based on a paradigm of the industrial revolution (to the chagrin of many)—repeated, ultra-specialized tasks with interchangeable parts. The industrial work paradigm needed everyone on the factory floor together, working in tight synchronization, with the manager’s job mainly relegated to optimizing processes—ensuring everyone worked in proper tandem for a predictable output. The 40-hour week resulted from years of debate, strikes, and negotiations throughout the industrial revolution. Henry Ford finally instilled it in his own company, and Congress settled upon it as the national standard in 1940. All of this occurred while the main contribution for most people at work was their bodies, not their minds.

Management practices during the 20th century were essentially sophisticated iterations of that same work paradigm. Still, new ideas and anomalies beneath the surface have pointed to a new approach that could represent a transformative opportunity on par with the first industrial revolution.

Many criticisms of remote work describe traditional office work done from home. If your paradigm is traditional office work, and you have designed your organization’s culture and processes entirely around it, of course, sudden remote work on a large scale will prove challenging. What we need to realize is that this new paradigm sheds our previous constraints on work to allow results- rather than process-based work if we are willing to modify old assumptions and habits.

1. Breaking the Constraint of Time: Real Output and Creative Rhythm

The consequences of the industrial revolution work paradigm are severe. Studies have shown that the majority of people are unhappy with their jobs, that on average, they achieve less than three hours of real work over the course of a standard workday, and that it takes 23 minutes to get back into real focus after being interrupted. In essence, I do not doubt that this increases exponentially for more complex and essential tasks. Distractions can, of course, happen at home too, but you have vastly more power to control them in a remote environment.

Dr. Matthew Walker explains our highly diverse sleep cycles in Why We Sleep: “Although every human being displays an unyielding twenty-four-hour pattern, the respective peak and trough points are strikingly different from one individual to the next.” He argues that the industrial revolution inspired an “un-level playing field of society’s work scheduling, which is strongly biased toward early start times.” This schedule not only robs many people of their most productive hours but also disrupts their mental functioning throughout the entire day, to serious productivity and health consequences:

“[J]ob performance of owls (people with late to bed, late to rise sleep rhythms) as a whole is far less optimal in the mornings, and they are further prevented from expressing their true performance potential in the late afternoon and early evening as standard work hours end prior to its arrival. [O]wls are more chronically sleep-deprived, having to wake up with the larks (people with early to bed, early to rise sleep rhythms), but not being able to fall asleep until far later in the evening [bringing] greater ill health caused by a lack of sleep therefore befalls owls, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, heart attack, and stroke. . . . We require more supple work schedules that better adapt to all chronotypes, and not just one in its extreme.”

By extension, this also punishes those who count on these people—their clients, team members, and loved ones.

The traditional 9-to-5 paradigm is therefore far worse than a mere “constraint,” and any team wishing for the best results (and health) of their members must move past it. Achieving clarity on when you truly provide your best results is optimal. For me, these are the first three hours of the morning, in which my mind is freshest and most likely to break through the toughest challenge I am facing. I dedicate the soft midsection of the day to more linear, task-driven work—late afternoon through early evening brings about the other side of the U-curve, in which I find myself able to make real progress on important tasks again. Within this structure, I divide time into a series of sprints of approximately one hour of deep focus, followed by brief rest. This sprint-based approach is highly optimal for delivering our best performance but can be quite tricky to pull off in a traditional office or coworking space.

Breaking the Constraint of Time: Real Output and Creative Rhythm

Everyone’s rhythm will differ—some of the most brilliant people I’ve met are borderline nocturnal. What matters is that you find your rhythm, the discipline to adapt to it, and the confidence to defend it.

What goes for people goes for teams. Taking each person’s unique rhythm into account when scheduling meetings and tasks may not be mathematically possible, and I have never turned down a request for a meeting or task on the grounds of my ideal flow. Instead, I attempt to be as transparent as possible with clients and team members on how I best function so that we can maximize the value I can bring them. Synchronized moments of communication, such as a brief daily standup, will still often be necessary (the key, as with everything, is balance). The burden this places on team members will be vastly reduced by removing the constraint of where they work.

2. Breaking the Constraint of Space: The False Dichotomy of Sitting in the Same Office vs. Truly Connecting

We have witnessed various iterations of workspaces over the past century, from open factory floors to offices, cubicles, and the more modern variants of coworking spaces. The forced constraint of being on-site disadvantages certain people the same way early-morning workdays do—from working parents to introverts, who require more privacy to be comfortable and productive. The key, therefore, is to find the right balance on the team level and determine what maximizes performance and health on the individual level.

Working away from a traditional office takes adjusting, even for those who work best with it. I have found it critical to consecrate a particular location—a home office, if possible, but some form of a designated area if not—for work and nothing else. If you need to check the news, social media, respond to a quick personal email or text, get out of the space. Program yourself that that space exists for productivity.

What might first seem ironic (through the lens of traditional work) is that these approaches for when and where you work allow you to separate work from the rest of your life better than traditional office life does. Once you master these elements of self-discipline, you will more effectively be in one zone or the other in any given moment, rather than the in-between that unfortunately defines a great deal of office life. Space and time must be understood relative to productivity, rather than rigid notions rooted in work paradigms of factory floors.

None of this is to say that in-person collaboration will or should stop. On the contrary, this new work paradigm liberates it to times when it best serves a real purpose, and when all participants are more engaged. I love in-person brainstorming sessions, to the same extent that I hate unnecessary meetings that break the flow of real creativity and follow the natural principle of gas (expanding to fill the space allotted).

Offices, or some variant thereof, will always be there but will continue to harness technologies for more seamless virtual collaboration with those not physically present. From the other direction, collaboration platforms get more powerful by the day, and some even adopt the user experience of virtual office environments (and they haven’t even begun using real virtual and augmented reality). The standard definition of a team will simply continue to blur distinctions, the differences among them becoming increasingly invisible. Those who understand and act upon this early will reap the rewards commensurate with those who first realized the most effective means to harness the internet for their business models.

3. Breaking the Constraint of Disciplines: The Power of Cross-disciplinary Collaboration

While the previous two constraints are physical in nature, the final one is less visible but just as restrictive on results: our tendency to focus only on our own areas of expertise and ways of working when considering solutions to problems. This constraint often closes in further the more experienced we become, partly due to the hyper-focus of many educational programs and our own natural tendency to create and stick to a specific view of the world. Many innovations, however, come from the intersection of different disciplines. Nanotechnology, for example, involves the intersection of physics, biology, organic chemistry, and other disciplines. The field is producing breakthrough innovations in key areas such as health and alternative energy.

This constraint culminates from the prior two. If we break the limitations of full-time and on-site, we are more able to bring in team members from outside our direct discipline. A firm of physicists may lack the resources or the need for a full-time biologist, and having the biologist sit alongside them all day may risk transferring their assumptions. Having biologists available at critical moments to help imagine new solutions, however, can open entirely new pathways for innovation.

Working More Closely in a Different Way

Black swan events are not sudden external events but the culmination of forces that have been building up for years and await their catalyst to unfold. In the case of COVID-19, the result may be the increasing number of professionals and companies realizing that finally discarding the industrial revolution work paradigm opens vast new frontiers of possibilities, but only if we approach the new ways of working on their terms. The world becomes far more connected when we break the older restraints of space, time, and our specific disciplines. We liberate ourselves from the overarching constraint of working based on processes to instead focus on the best ways to create results. What we lose in not sitting next to each other all day we gain in powerful new ways to collaborate, and breaking these constraints reduces the ability of crises such as COVID-19 to restrict our ongoing ability to work.

Each person that reinvents their career and every business that transforms their competitive advantages with these principles adds another data point against the old industrial revolution work paradigm. Soon enough, we will realize that we can retain and build upon the best of what that system offers without limiting ourselves to what was possible when it was first invented.