Unlocking the next gear of knowledge work

The physical office is in the tail lights of knowledge work

Ever since the pandemic got us all thinking and talking about the merits of remote work, I’ve been insisting that there’s a bigger picture to think about than just the “where” of work. Creating near-infinite flexibility in the location dimension is only one facet of unlocking what I believe will be a dramatic “non-linear” acceleration in the productivity of our work. 

I believe that a moment of productivity inflection is upon us, catalyzed by the disruptions of the last three years, and that it will compare in magnitude with the birth of knowledge work itself in the middle of the 20th century.

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To be clear, when I describe an “acceleration” in the productivity of knowledge work, I’m not just talking about what may happen at any single company, and the implications for its prospects. I’m talking about a tectonic shift in how all knowledge work happens everywhere, resulting in an acceleration of our collective progress as a civilization. Because all the invention and innovation that moves the human race forward largely comes from knowledge work, to “unlock” a new gear in the productivity of all knowledge work would be a pretty big deal.

Beyond the “where” of work

The question of remote work productivity has been put at the center of a polarized debate that is ultimately not about productivity at all but about trust. Whichever way you want to see the wind blow at your company, the theoretical case for work location flexibility leading to increased productivity is compelling. It boils down to three key themes: 

1. We recover time from the activities that no longer need to happen because we are travelling to the office—i.e. the commute. 

2. Increased location flexibility gives individual workers the power to utilize more of their total available minutes for work, and to maximize the quality of their attention. 

3. Letting go of the Office as the presumed venue for communication with coworkers opens the door to increasing the team’s total information processing capacity.

Though I’ve been thinking about the evolution of knowledge work for some years long before the pandemic, and believing passionately in this “next gear” theory, I had no firsthand experience. I have held the belief that a substantial acceleration would happen if certain constraints were removed from the way we work, but had never seen it happening. Nor could I have told you how the unlock would work. 

Until now.

With almost three years under our belts as a “fully-distributed” company with no offices, and having reached a size of over 600 employees, I’m excited to share that I believe I’ve now witnessed some examples of this acceleration at Oyster.

These experiences have led me to believe that theme #3 above (“increasing the team’s total information processing capacity”) is going to turn out to be the rocket fuel of the next gear of knowledge work. 

This essay is about theme #3, my relevant observations at Oyster, and their implications to designers of the employee experience of the future.

Asynchronous is a doorway

You have undoubtedly already heard the term “asynchronous communication” a lot in the last few years. In the post-pandemic era, this term has become synonymous with the future of work and has become a guiding principle for companies who are letting go of the Office. 

Like most of you, I’d assumed that the systemic benefits of “asynchronous” would come from the fact that each of us could simply replace some of our synchronous conversations with written exchanges. That way each of us could recapture more of our available minutes to use in a more productive way. For example, if five Zoom call participants could get back those five aggregate hours to use in some other way, they might deliver a greater total productivity.

But now I see an even bigger picture. Asynchronous vs. synchronous communication is just one framework to think about the ways our communication can evolve when we are free of the Office. The greatest value to knowledge work of asynchronous communication is not from the reclamation of minutes by people who have replaced a Zoom call with a document. What’s so important about asynchronous is that it is the new “doorway” through which we are being invited for the first time to totally rethink how we want to collaborate within our teams, with all the constraints of the Office removed. 

Constraints both physical and social. When you can separate the flow of information from time and location requirements, amazing things can happen for productivity that we haven’t yet seen.

Even as our communications at work had become increasingly digital in the last two decades, our mental frameworks for sharing information together, making decisions, and problem solving had not evolved as much. It’s like we still had the Office “in our heads” in terms of the formality and social aspects of communication and collaboration. Lots to think about when you view that as potentially limiting, especially among companies that have fully let go of the physical office.

The physical office is in the tail lights of knowledge work

Often, looking backward to history can make the future easier to see. Along the evolutionary arc of knowledge work, we can observe a prior “gear shift” of some importance that may help us appreciate the changes that the present gear shift will bring.

The “Office” (both metaphorical and literal) is now in the tail lights of knowledge work. This doesn’t mean that all knowledge work companies have left the office behind. We know they have not and there will always be some use of the office. 

What is meaningful is that a sizable cohort of companies have cleaved themselves off from that outdated paradigm and are now free to discover and architect entirely new ways to work with fewer constraints. Today, that looks like more remote-first and distributed organizations and even the rise of the “hybrid” office post-COVID. These companies are inventing the future of work. Oyster is humbly among them, and eager to share everything we learn.

The onset of the “Office Chapter” in the history of work was itself an incredibly important gear shift back in the middle of the 20th century. You might say that knowledge work was created by the special “unlock” to productivity that the Office Chapter brought. 

“That people should come together in offices to do this new kind of work made a lot of sense. When the goal is to make optimal use of information, the focus naturally shifts to the mechanisms of communication and information flow. And, in the middle of the 20th century, physical proximity was inescapably a factor in communicating well with others. In these new physical environments created just for the purpose, the pursuit of more business information and better ways to use it produced all of the norms and practices that we readily associate with ‘Office Work’ today, like meetings, memos, presentations, managers, and the deep ritualization of hierarchical decision-making.” source “The Wedge of Technology and the Next Era of Work

People first came together in physical offices because that was the best way to work on “information problems.” This was true because both communication and access to shared information resources were dependent upon being in the same physical location. Picture a team of people working together in a room with their books and printouts. Picture NASA of the fifties and sixties. That simple “unlock” turned the second half of the twentieth century into the most productive period for humanity, ever.

Reinventing the dynamic between information and communication

We’ve established that the Office Chapter fundamentally enabled knowledge work, and provided the first venue for people to come together and work on information problems. What made this innovation so globally impactful was that the model was repeatable and scalable, and any enterprise' could adopt it. Because of course small groups of humans could always do knowledge work before, if in less structured and less formal ways. The Office (writ large) gave us a whole system organized around the specific problems of information exchange and abstract problem solving. And it worked brilliantly. Again, remember that we put a man on the moon this way—and with a little help from very early (very large) computers that were only a bit more powerful than pocket calculators.

The same things that made the Office so effective, bringing people and information resources (and “tools”) together in one place, are ironically now what is holding us back. I believe one key to unlocking the next gear will be in adjusting (perhaps profoundly) how we think about communication and information at our companies in the future.

The above table looks at tectonic changes to the ways we organize the information we need to do knowledge work and how we communicate amongst our teams, both before and after the Office Chapter. The upward gear shift of knowledge work productivity wrought by the Office Chapter clearly came from changing both how we collect and organize information and how we communicate amongst our teams. Productivity is a function of both the information we collect (which creates a context for doing knowledge work) and the methods of communication employed among the collaborators in that information context. Change those things and how they work together and you can unlock the next gear of knowledge work!

Building on the foundations of internet-based communication

The ways we collect and organize information to support knowledge work have of course already evolved dramatically over the last forty years—since the dawn of the age of information technology. And so have our methods of communication, since the advent of email, then Slack, etc. While incredible gains in our work productivity have already resulted from these advances in both information collection and communication, the full “unlock” required that something non-linear happen in our reliance upon physical colocation. The influence of software, the Internet, email, Slack, and Big Data, along with tools like Confluence and Notion had brought us to a point of readiness, but it took the pandemic to drag us out of the Office and free us of all its lingering constraints.

Again, the productivity of knowledge work is a function of information and communication. Because of this, we can understand how significant innovations on both these fronts, since the advent of software and the Internet, had gotten us to where we were right before the pandemic.

Early internet-based communication innovations like email, chat rooms, and forums did wonders for communication among humans on Earth. These tools taught us the foundational “digital behaviors” that we have subsequently brought into the domain of work. Tools like Slack and Workplace (and the ways we use them at work today) sit on top of these foundations.

But in spite of the great strides we have made in work communications in the digital age, I believe we have hit a plateau at work. The rate of improvement we have seen in how we can collect and serve up information has far exceeded the improvement we’ve seen (so far) in how we communicate and collaborate in that grander information context. 

But why would this be? Why is the communications component of knowledge work stuck on a plateau? Because we’re still locked into mental models that waste both of the most precious ingredients of knowledge work—our time and our attention. 

Early glimpses

Not surprisingly, some of the most accelerative things we’ve done at Oyster relate directly to how we generate and share information within.

Though we’ve been hyper-deliberate in designing how we work at Oyster (as a fully-distributed company), I believe the principles of the productivity “unlock” that we’re beginning to see will be widely applicable to lots of companies. Yes, even some of those with offices.

One big theme for us is that we developed a very autonomous and scalable capacity for generating the information context our growing organization needs. Information lives on multiple platforms at Oyster, but one knowledge management platform, Notion, has been particularly remarkable for us. The wide adaptability and accessibility it extends to all our employees have made our three-year old Notion instance into a unique expression and enabler of our business. It’s where we have our internal “home page,” which has become a gateway for information transfer at the company.

One of our specific information transfer use cases is our onboarding process. We worried a lot about onboarding at Oyster from the very beginning, partly because we wanted to compensate for the fact that we didn’t have any offices. We were self-conscious about it and worried that starting your job at Oyster wouldn’t feel special. So we iterated it a lot. With all credit to our extraordinary Workplace team, today I would say that our onboarding experience impresses new joiners in ways the Office never could. New joiners start with a reassuring sense that things are well organized and they can easily access information about their teams, colleagues, and new organizational culture. 

And from an information transfer standpoint, it’s purposefully designed to offer both the general and specific information each person needs to both ramp to productivity and become socially acclimatized.

Another accelerator is our pervasive use of asynchronous video, Loom specifically. To appreciate the acceleration, you have to go beyond thinking of asynchronous video as a replacement for synchronous calls. It can be that. An asynchronous conversation can have “legs” of different types. But the gains don’t just come from the recapture of time for people who no longer have to attend synchronous calls. The big (information transfer rate) gains come from the combination of both symmetric and asymmetric conversations. Videos can be legs of conversations or they can be broadcasts. I think we’re only scratching the surface at Oyster in unlocking the power of that continuum. 

Being able to rely on some of the software platforms that support our work to generate useful signals and communications has also been an accelerator. Automated messages sent by platforms can spare human beings from having to originate those messages or seek out the information they contain. These can be simple notifications or quite elegant summarizations, such as the single email I enjoy getting from Asana that encompasses the disparate projects I’m involved with. A holistic, “event-driven” strategy, where a variety of signals can be used to generate automated useful, timely “communication” can be a huge accelerator to the knowledge work organization.

“Internal Communications” as a term has been around for a long time, and the function has traditionally reported into Marketing, as a presumed relative of “External Communications.” At Oyster, we thought about it differently, realizing that how we communicate at Oyster was going to be importantly different. Not just because we weren't going to have any offices, but because we were excited to make up new things. At Oyster, Internal Communications reaches for a much higher ambition, which is to be the “active agent” for information distribution within the organization. As part of their ownership of the employee experience, Internal Communications falls under the Workplace team. The work that our Chief Workplace Officer, Mark Frein, and our Internal Communications Manager, Kris Martinez, have done in this space is astonishing and independently worthy of case study.

The future of work is making work work for us

The future of work is excitingly a work in progress, at both systemic and organizational levels. It’s encouraging to think that fairly simple changes in behavior, communication, and information exchange could unleash new levels of productivity at our own companies. But we are also reminded that old habits and old mental models die hard. The work of change within organizations will need to be more active and much more creative than expected. But the promise is real.

It’s important also to remind ourselves that productivity is not the only purpose of work. We have other demands and expectations, especially of late. It’s been fun to theorize about the effects on productivity from changing the relationship between information and communication. But we know that productivity, as a team, happens in a greater social context, to which we bring our different and bigger human needs. If you believe, as we believe at Oyster, that the best work and the greatest productivity happen when human needs are being met at work, then bringing those things into balance will be critical as we chart a course for the future of work.

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