The Five Levels of Remote Work: How to Climb The Ladder

In response to COVID-19, companies around the world have been thrown into the world of remote work. If your whole company isn’t working remotely, you’re the exception. Even before today, there was a gradual move towards remote work. 18% of people already worked remotely more than one day a week. However, most of those weren’t working for a remote-first company. They’d be expected to be on the same meetings that their in-office coworkers would be. They’d be working on a company laptop on the couch or kitchen table. If you’re only working remotely semi-regularly, you can get away with a sub-par remote work setup. However, if you’re working remotely for the majority of your time, you need to have robust systems in place to ensure your productivity stays high, communication is even better than it would be in the office, and employees are trusted to deliver. In remote-first companies, 30% of employees say they’re noticeably more productive, getting more done in less time. If you can make it work for your company you’ll be able to reap the benefits.


The Five Levels of Distributed Work according to Matt Mullenweg of Automattic

If you don’t already know, Matt Mellweg is the CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress, which powers 35% of all websites today. Automattic is a fully remote company, and Matt is somewhat of a thought leader in the distributed work sphere. Recently, he published a blog post describing his view of how distributed teams work by creating five levels of remote work. The “Five Levels of Distributed Work” make it easy to understand where your company is on the scale and what you should be doing to move to the next level and improve your remote efficiency. In this article, I’ll walk you through the five levels and show you how to get the best results from your remote team. Let’s jump in.

The 5 Levels of Autonomy for Distributed Teams


Level Zero: No Remote Policies

Firstly, we have level zero. Level zero autonomy is any job that can’t be done remotely. Jobs requiring manual labor or in-person services can’t be done remotely. Just think about how much you miss your favorite barista.

Level One: Remote Unfriendly

How to Tell If You’re a Level One Company:

  • Employees don’t have the proper equipment
  • No systems in place to ensure communication is effective
  • Vital information isn’t accessible from home

The first level of remote autonomy is where most businesses are (particularly before COVID-19). At this stage, remote employees aren’t supported. Work can get done, but expect people to be working from their laptop on the couch. Workers won’t have a remote stipend to purchase good home office equipment and will be treated like their in-office colleagues. Meetings will be held with people in the office and remotely, and won’t be productive. People will be asked to join the meeting even if they’re not required to be there. Another key sign you’re a Level One company is that employees don’t have access to key information without signing into a VPN, or asking someone in the office to find information for them. If you expect to get to Level Two, you’ll need to empower your remote workers to access information, make decisions, and get work done without needing to rely on being in the office.

Level Two: Recreating the Office Environment from Home

How to Tell If You’re a Level Two Company:

  • Accept that remote work can work
  • Find tools to facilitate remote work like Zoom, Slack, or timetoreply
  • Real-time communication is the norm

The second level of distributed work autonomy is where companies start to facilitate work-from-home by investing in software to facilitate remote meetings and communication. The goal is to recreate the office experience online. Chase Warrington, Head of Business Development at Doist – a fully remote company – says that most team leads want to know how to re-create the office environment, referring to anything from culture and chit chat, to group meetings, to the “hey got a minute”.

“My advice? Don’t try to completely recreate the office setting.

Pick and choose a few key aspects, like the social part, or the virtual watercooler, but ditch the rest.

Plan fewer meetings with fewer people, and encourage people to opt-out if they feel it’s not necessary for them to be there.

Move as many regularly scheduled meetings to a transparent asynchronous tool, and let people check in on their own time. Plan a few recurring meetings where anything that needs to be handled synchronously (face to face) can be discussed.

This prevents the “hey you got a minute” mentality, and gives you a designated space to discuss such topics.”

Your team will be expected to open Slack at 9 am and not close it until 6 pm (unless you expect them to be “always online” – this may put you back to Level One). At Level Two, employees are expected to be able to jump on a “quick Zoom call” at a moment’s notice. This can hurt productivity as people can’t relax and get into a state of deep work that’s needed to complete complicated tasks. If people aren’t visibly online or don’t reply to a Slack message within the first five minutes, they’re assumed to be watching TV or taking time off work. Level Two is where many companies are right now after being forced into distributed work without much prior warning. It’s better than Level One, but it’s still not ideal. If you can get to Level Three, you’re going to see an increase in productivity as well as employee happiness.

Level Three: Making Remote Work Normal

How to Tell If You’re a Level Three Company:

  • Best practices change and are focused on remote success
  • Employees have access to high-quality home office equipment
  • New tools are vetted for collaborative features

At Level Three, your company is becoming remote-first. Your team expects to work from home and are only asked to come to the office for serious matters. At this stage, you know that your team needs to be empowered to work remotely, so the company may provide financial help so employees can upgrade their home office equipment to purchase items like a high-quality microphone, webcam, or desk chair. You’ll start using software and tools that enable real-time collaboration, such as Google Docs, Figma, or Trello.   figma     These will all help employees work on projects at the same time from the comfort of their own home. You’ll be able to run meetings and have everyone on the same live document or project board and make live updates or let your team add notes they see fit to. Despite the improvements at Level Three, there’s still a tendency to schedule meetings. After all, remote work is still relatively new, and meetings feel like a good way to stay up-to-date with your team. However, to get to Level Four you’re going to need to reevaluate your communication policies.

Level Four: Asynchronous over Real-Time

How to Tell If You’re a Level Four Company:

  • Communication is asynchronous
  • Long-form communication prioritized over Slack messages
  • Employees are empowered to make decisions without asking management

At this stage, your company will be a remote-first and asynchronous in all aspects of communication and work. That means your team isn’t expected to be “always on.” They’re trusted to communicate promptly and help colleagues when needed.

Chase adds, “At Doist we have employees in all timezones and there is a general understanding that we’ll all check Twist every 24 hours and reply in a reasonable amount of time, but that’s up to each individual to decide. We trust each other and support our teammates, and the rest takes care of itself.

That said, information completeness is more important than speed when it comes to communication. This means better, more impactful decisions can be made. The goals and KPIs you set for your team should be results-based, and you should stop worrying about how much time they’re spending at their desks. 

“I always advise new team leads of remote teams to focus on outputs over inputs. The tendency is to focus on things like hours spent at the desk, calls made, meetings attended. This makes remote managers feel good, because it’s easy to quantify these points. But if you instead shift to projects completed, deals closed, revenue driven, and other “outputs” that actually matter, you can save everyone (mostly yourself) the wasted time and energy, not to mention pressure, that comes with working this way,” concluded Chase.

Tools like timetoreply can help you set goals around email responsiveness for both client communication as well as internal communication.   timetoreply   At Level Four, your main goal should be to keep your team out of meetings. If you’re tempted to invite your team to a meeting, consider if it’s truly essential.   Most meetings could be an email, and if you let your team know your goals, they’ll be able to communicate it over email or Slack in a more thought out and complete way than would be possible in a meeting. Turning meetings into emails is also an effective way to ensure your whole team has a chance to provide equal input – it won’t just be the people who speak the loudest in a meeting guiding projects.   If you’re wondering if Level Four is even possible, have a look at some existing remote-first companies for inspiration.   Here are some of our favorites:

  • Automattic: Matt Mullenweg’s article was the inspiration for this post, and Automattic is one of the most successful and largest remote-first companies out there
  • Basecamp: The founders even wrote a book on effective remote work
  • GitLab: Their open-source handbook shows exactly how they run their remote-first company
  • Buffer: With employees spread across 15 countries and 11 timezones, Buffer proves that asynchronous communication really does work (and scale).
  • Twist: A tool for teams that prioritize focused work, structured communication, and company-wide transparency.



Level Five: Nirvana

How to Tell If You’re a Level Five Company:

  • You outperform your office-based competitors
  • Employees are supported, and wellbeing improves
  • Your team know their goals and consistently deliver without even being asked

Matt’s final level of distributed work autonomy is Nirvana. Level Five is achieved when you work more effectively than what would be possible in a traditional office-based company. It’s out-of-reach for many, but still possible. As remote-first companies are a relatively new concept, time will be the decider on whether remote-first companies can outperform traditional companies in the long run. However, at the moment, Nirvana is what you should be aiming for! As long as you incorporate the principles outlined in Level Four, you can then focus on supporting your employees’ wellness to ensure they can show up every day and do their best work. Providing the tools they need and allowing them to create their ideal workday will be a major factor in whether Level Five is achievable.


How timetoreply Can Help Your Remote Team Thrive

Ensuring your team has the right tools is a significant factor in whether you’ll succeed as a remote team. Even a distributed team needs to be extremely responsive to sales leads and customers. If your asynchronous habits slip into customer support and sales, you’ll struggle to close deals and improve customer satisfaction. timetoreply Remote can help. Our email reporting tools let you set goals for your teams and see data on how well they’re performing. You’ll be able to see data on metrics like average First Reply Time, Overall Reply Time, and their response time trend over the last seven days.     measure email reply times     It’s an ideal way to ensure your remote team stays motivated and maintains the level of customer service that your clients and leads expect. You can get set up in 5 minutes and get started. You’ll have instant access to real-time data and be able to make smarter decisions to help your remote team succeed in their work. Start your free trial here, or schedule a demo with our team.


Wrapping Up

Remote work is hard, at first. However, if you create systems to ensure your team has everything they need to do their best work from the comfort of their home, you’re going to see great results. Matt Mullenweg’s Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy is a perfect framework to think about your approach to remote work. If you stay at Level One or Two, you may see mediocre results. Your team won’t have the right tools to do their work, and communication will be strained without good processes. However, if you can get to Level Three – or even better, Level Four – you’ll start to understand why fully remote companies like Automattic choose to work that way. Your team will be able to create their perfect workday to improve productivity, and with the right tools like timetoreply your customer service won’t suffer either.       timetoreply trial

Get the guide now!

Follow these five steps and you'll get visibility into your teams' email performance, understand your current response times and email volumes, be able to set KPIs, identify areas for improvement, set alerts to ensure nothing slips through the cracks and more!

Your resource is on it's way

Get the free template now!

Download the free Response Time Policy template and start putting a framework in place to improve your response time to customers.

Your resource is on it's way

Get the guide now!

Shared mailboxes can be a nightmare. But follow these five ways to make managing collaborative email easier and more transparent and you can make sure that your shared inbox is transformed into a tool for your team's best work. 

Your resource is on it's way

Pin It on Pinterest