Leading A Remote Workforce: Here’s What Silicon Valley’s Digital Companies Can Teach Us

WFH striking fear and loathing in the L&D department? These companies were born digital and have been doing it all along. Here’s what you can do now to train, motivate and manage distributed teams.

Is the remote workforce here to stay? These digital organisations have been doing it all along. Here’s what they can teach us.

Just this week both Google and Facebook announced that they would enable their global workforces to work from home until the end of 2021.

Facebook, Twitter and others are planning to make this a permanent change for employees.

And according to a new CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey report, 25% of the tech sector wants to permanently work from home.

This is a game-changer.

But is WFH the new normal? And is it even … new?

The COVID-19 crisis has forced a great many organisations to suddenly adapt to having an entirely remote workforce.

The concept of ‘The Office’ may well have been on its way out long before COVID-19 hit.

The fact is that remote workforces are not new. Many organisations that were ‘born digital’ have operated this way in some form since their inception.

Yet many organisations with traditional brick and mortar headquarters, are now struggling with how to best manage people and enormous workplace change without missing a beat on productivity.

The spotlight is shining on organisational leaders and L&D to navigate all of this.

Goodbye Command And Control – Hello Engagement

So, how do you engage with your learners when our work base, enshrined in our lives since the industrial age, is evolving so rapidly?

It’s helpful to jettison back in time, to when the concept of the Company Headquarters was conceived, and bosses were called supervisors – a term that feels somewhat ironic, given our current, unsupervised work environment.

During the manufacturing age, a new study on time and motion led organisations to conclude that in order to increase the efficiency of the workplace, the ultimate (though rather Draconian) scenario was that large, open floor plans with desks that faced supervisors, was the way to go.

It conjures up images from the famous Apple Macintosh Superbowl ad, ‘1984’.

It’s no wonder that decades later, management guru Peter Drucker posited the question: “How do you make society both more productive and more humane?”

As much as the big office environment seemed set in stone as the perfect vessel for productivity, it has continued to evolve as we learn more about how people work best.

It gave way to shared offices, workspaces, cubicles and work lounges – even the hotly debated hot-desking (an absolute no-no these days), along with meeting points and brainstorm rooms.

We’ve tried it all. And yet, we cannot seem to settle on the perfect balance to generate the right amount of supervision whilst delivering engagement, the driver of creativity and teamwork.

Perhaps we need to shift our attention to those organisations of varying sizes (Google has over 118,000 employees) that continue or are about to lead rather large workforces completely remotely.

Yet, insights about how to best manage and motivate remote teams is scarce.

Here is what we’ve learned:

Reframing Remote: The Rise and Rise of The Distributed Team


Australian-born enterprise software juggernaut Atlassian, operates globally with a combination of distributed and ‘co-located’ team members.

“Remote work is here to stay,” says Dominic Price, Work Futurist at Atlassian. “No matter what product you sell, people are your most valuable asset. And being remote-friendly is a good way to maximise it for a number of reasons.”

Chief amongst these is:

  • Hiring the perfect candidate if you’re flexible about where they live.
  • The tech to support remote work is getting better by the minute.
  • The cost of office space continues to rise.

The key is to actually stop thinking about ‘remote workers’ and instead think in terms of ‘distributed teams’.

And this has been the key for many digital organisations, even prior to COVID-19 accelerating remote work.

Attracting and hiring great talent is critical, but it has been a challenge in the Australian tech sector.

Atlassian has built an attractive proposition, and knows their audience: The younger cohort, who want flexibility and the latest tech to support remote work. And they’re important, because Millennials will comprise 75% of the workforce in the next 5 years.

The key is to actually stop thinking about ‘remote workers’ and instead think in terms of  ‘distributed teams’.

As you would imagine, Atlassian’s focus is in providing access to the best tools and perks, including the latest technology to enable remote work.

However, one can get too complacent relying on a sea of tools such as Zoom, MS Teams, Slack et al.

They know all too well that technology in and of itself is not the silver bullet. Technology is an enabler.

As Price pointed out at TechFest in Sydney, “A fool with a tool is still just a fool.” So take care and train your people, because a tool in the wrong hands can make bad people ‘faster at being bad’.

But it can also make good people better, and training just might take care of the rest.

The Atlassian management have invested in and extensively studied their teams – examining what motivates and makes some more successful than others.

In a recent interview with Inc Magazine, Price explained that what they’ve realised is that ‘being under a microscope doesn’t lead to intrinsic motivation.’

People still need the right supports, a level of engagement and a drive to learn and perform.

In other words, keep your people engaged, and they’ll be effective no matter where their desk is.


For workflow automation company Zapier, there is no such thing as ‘remote work’ – only work.

One of the legions of high-growth technology start-ups emerging out of Silicon Valley, Zapier bills itself as a ‘global remote company’ that has always been 100% remote.

COVID-19 did not force the company to manage a complex transformation in work style.

It turns out, measuring productivity is incredibly difficult.

Co-Founder Wade Foster observes in his blog, How To Manage A Remote Team, that organisations get tripped up by the idea that if you’re not present and accounted for by 9 a.m., you’re not working.

“As a manager, you need to learn to manage by expectations rather than by ‘butts in seats’, so make sure you can show trust in those you hire.”


Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of website-building platform WordPress and Automattic, believes the future of work is distributed.

With 1,100 employees in 77 cities, Automattic is no small enterprise.

Still, Mullenweg believes a fully distributed company model keeps its employees engaged, and ‘can work for everyone’.

In a recent Inc Magazine interview, Mullenweg observed that it’s easier to ‘slack off’ in the office as opposed to home.

“When you’re working from home, and all your colleagues are seeing are the results of your work, if you don’t do the work, it’s very obvious.”

He ponders the traditional office environment where certain habits employees may use to signal hard work – such as showing up early and staying late – as ‘false proxies’, noting that where and how you work doesn’t really matter.

“Your culture is not the Ping-Pong table,” Mullenweg says. Instead, he maintains that an organisation’s culture is always happening. In L&D terms, this sounds an awful lot like learning in the flow of work.

Johnson Controls

Johnson Controls, with 105,000 employees around the world, transitioned 100% of their workforce to remote work when COVID-19 began to spread

With the world’s largest portfolio of building products, technologies, software and services, the company rolled out a planned and structured technology strategy to simplify remote work.

They made several smart technology decisions which included a Zero Trust security strategy, and transitioning to *virtual learning to transform the group learning space into the individual learning space.

Common Themes And Takeaways

So what we can learn from organisations who are partially or fully remote? Here are the common threads:

1. Team:

Invest in the health of the team. Team dynamics are amplified with distance, so a shared understanding of the common goals, the unique values and metrics, as well as ensuring roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and agreed upon.

2. Trust:

Get comfortable with autonomy, and place emphasis on openness and sharing of information and insights in a timely manner.

Remote work stops working when you can’t trust the person on the other end of the line. Hire people you can trust and trust the people you hire.

3. Technology:

You’ll need the right tools, systems and automation to simplify processes and make sure everyone stays on the same page and can continue to execute without a physical person standing next to them (like Apple’s 1984 ad).

And convert the group learning space into the individual learning space by upping the ante on social, video tools.

Know that we are all missing most are the less formal, water-cooler conversations that lead to creativity and tacit knowledge transfer.

With Social Distancing, Social Learning Has Arrived

How do you work together when you are alone?

Humans are hardwired to band together in a crisis. During COVID-19, the power of camaraderie and connection in the shape of virtual catch ups, online groups and support for vulnerable neighbours has emerged stronger than ever.

The same goes for work and workplace learning.

“Your culture is not the Ping-Pong table,” Mullenweg says. Instead, he maintains that an organisation’s culture is always happening. In L&D terms, this sounds an awful lot like learning in the flow of work.

Now that we are all used to seeing each other – and our cats – through a video interface, it will make it much easier to adopt new technologies.

These tools previously considered an investment for ‘further down the track’, are turning out to be best practice, and superior for engagement – that cornerstone of memory encoding and successful learning.

Connecting as a community in the learning space requires innovation, technology and content.

 Technology To The Rescue? Why This Is Good For L&D

Digital has disrupted practically everything else, so why not add the physical office space to the list.

There is no question, that this has ignited the digital transformation that was already underway, making it Mission Critical.

As we all become accustomed to an almost minute-by-minute use of the Google and Microsoft suite of tools, Zoom and Skype, the next transition is to leverage this to upskill and fill skills gaps.

But it is also an opportunity to leverage technology the knowledge and skill of your greatest asset – your people – for the rest of the team.

With the organisational will to support workforce productivity and development at its highest right now, this is perhaps the most opportune time to review your suite of tools and apply some newer technologies to facilitate this knowledge sharing.

Whether that is a social learning platform to help teams learn in the flow of work, or a tool that leverages virtual reality (VR) or mixed reality to ‘bring to life’ learning experiences that may be dangerous, expensive, or contravenes social distancing rules.

It could be the right time to embrace video-based learning, virtual reality tools or gamified modules to create a sense of physical presence. Or sharing tacit knowledge by your team’s subject matter experts through social learning platforms or LXPs.

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