For many companies, the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and the resulting need for remote working has caused serious upheaval. But for some that have already undertaken significant digital transformation, the impact has been relatively minimal, such as for blockchain software developer IOHK, thanks to its decentralised working approach.
While there are many companies developing software built on blockchain distributed ledger technology, IOHK has taken things a step further, by not only using the technology as a core focus on its business, but taking inspiration from it to structure and manage its business.
The company doesn’t just support remote working; it’s entire way of operating focuses on decentralised working, and amid the coronavirus pandemic this blockchain-inspired approach has proved to be an invaluable mode of operation.
“Blockchain enables accurate transactions and recordkeeping – enabled and verified by a global network of participants, avoiding any central, single point of failure and ensuring that control is vested in the hands of many, rather than a single, centralised entity,” Tamara Haasen, chief of staff at IOHK, tells Verdict.
“IOHK not only develops blockchain software solutions, we apply the same principles of decentralisation that blockchain relies on to the way we operate as a company, and are progressing towards operating in a decentralised way as we move into our next stage of growth.”
The decentralised office: How blockchain inspires IOHK’s take on remote working
As it moves towards its final goal of true decentralised working, IOHK’s model is essentially remote working on steroids.
“We employ almost 250 people based in more than 20 countries globally, but have no central company office,” explains Haasen.
“With no central office, our employees and contractors work from wherever they are based, and teams work out which schedules work best for them. We aim to make day-to-day employment practices at IOHK as transparent and formula-based (rather than decentralised) as possible.”
This works using what the company describes as a remote, distributed business operating system, which provides an overall structure to ensure that an all-remote team can match – or even beat – the productivity of a traditional company.
“A remote, distributed business operating system encourages people to share information, communicate daily, find information, track goals, deliverables and still have fun and form personal connections in a seamless and sustainable way,” says Haasen.
“We have codified protocols, HR manuals and documentation that captures this and forms an integral part of our onboarding and training process.”
A key part of this is ensuring that employees connect and collaborate, rather than functioning as isolated nodes.
“It’s a system too that must ensure people stay connected and engaged. We have even talked about designing a system where we have ‘employee’ portals that includes our own individual workspace, inclusive of avatars – in the future,” she says.
“We want to continuously explore new ways to engage a remote workforce and make them feel like they are still part of a team even while working in a virtual environment.”
This isn’t the only plan IOHK has in the works. As part of its end goal of decentralised working, it is developing new models that help support transparency.
“We are also exploring new organisational models for the next stage where we can encourage a culture of transparency, with meritocratic rewards based on culture, individual ownership and collaboration. The aim is to ensure IOHK becomes an organisation that is owned by its ‘employees’ and everyone has a stake in its future growth,” explains Haasen.
“Furthermore, we also believe in an open source model of software development, crowdsourcing community knowledge to improve the system through open test nets and code checks. This open source development approach creates technologies that are validated through collective wisdom just as blockchain validates transactions through consensus.”
The company’s approach to transparency and decentralisation is also being extended to how it collaborates with other companies, meaning that it will be able to support partnerships without changing its working approach.
“When it comes to cross-entity collaboration, we have decided to use an external consultant to assist in that process,” she says.
“We want to build a cooperative system between the Cardano Foundation, Emurgo and IOHK that works for collaborative efforts now, but also with an eye on building a structure that is sustainable in the future. This structure must interoperate with our own entities’ external structures as well.”
A typical employee day
It would be easy to think that the typical day for someone working at IOHK is more-or-less the same as any other office worker currently in lockdown, but there are key differences.
“An employee at IOHK may start their day with a digital coffee morning, where they are matched with another team member who could be anywhere in the world,” says Haasen.
“These short meetings serve a dual purpose. They ensure a better understanding of the role of colleagues, ultimately helping both parties in their own work. Just as importantly, they provide an opportunity for social interaction, outside of regular, work-focused meetings – something particularly important in a company where direct, face-to-face interaction isn’t regular.”
More familiar is the prevalence of regular virtual meetings and collaboration tools, although the company does not expect its employees to follow fixed hours.
“Staff work very independently and set their own hours, so that rather than having timesheets, we have goals that everyone must work towards in their own way. This gives employees the freedom to work around their other commitments, such as family or study,” says Haasen.
“There is a myth that remote working and lack of set hours leads to lower productivity. Yet giving employees trust and responsibility gives them greater motivation and self-sufficiency as well as the flexibility to work when they are most productive.”
Remote wellness: Cultivating support and community
With so many companies in lockdown, ensuring employee wellness during remote working is now a significant priority for many businesses, and IOHK’s methods for achieving this offer vital advice for any company that is struggling.
“The way we communicate is important. Finding creative ways to create virtual ‘water cooler’ chat is something our company has done well,” says Haasen.
“We have created internal social messaging channels, where recipes, pet pictures and fitness tips can be shared to break isolation barriers and boost morale. We encourage the use of webcams where possible because seeing faces helps boost team bonding and IOHK encourages each company team to have at least one weekly call using webcam.
“We also circulate fortnightly newsletters which highlight all of the exciting things happening inside of IOHK, from new joiners to favourite podcasts and shout-outs to successful work and updates on weekly events.”
However, core to the company’s success as a remote working-only organisaton is, according to Haasen, the fact that IOHK has “made culture a first-class citizen”.
“We now have a culture officer in the company that works to ensure our processes align with our cultural values. He is always finding news and inclusive ways for our teams to collaborate, and to personalise people’s experience, something we’ve found to be particularly important for a global company of remote workers,” she says.
“We also have monthly AMAs (‘ask me anythings’) to ensure the company goals, per division function, are being communicated to our teams. It allows people to ask questions and ensure decisions made are passed through all the teams.
“Our HR team also run open hours weekly where anyone who wants to have a chat can check in with our HR specialists just to talk.”
Ensuring work-life balance
Possibly the most impactful approach, however, is the company’s focus on a structured working day, which prevents employees work and home lives becoming an incoherent blend.
“People can struggle with when to stop working and we encourage all our staff to have a structure to their working day, whereby they can log off and switch off easily,” she says.
“This takes a little practice for those new to it, but flexible working gives people the chance to choose when to switch off and create their own ‘unplugging’ routines around their lifestyles. IOHK advises people to shut the door on their work-life by having a different space to work within the home where possible, so that everything outside that space is where work life ends and private life begins.
“Employees are also advised to turn notifications off and set schedules for their work day.”
Consensus-based pay: Building transparency into salaries
The other major issue for employee management at any company is, of course, salary. And here IOHK has a rather radical approach: consensus-based pay.
“Our HR operation operates on a pay system which is more trustworthy and transparent than traditional pay systems. Our centralised HR department decide the pay formula and pay rates for different roles,” explains Haasen.
“The formula used to calculate these rates in different global locations is transparent and tied to a recognised third-party formula. Territory-to-territory pay disparities are based on clear and public criteria.”
She argues that this approach not only provides greater fairness and transparency, but helps take the company beyond simply remote working and into decentralised working.
“A decentralised working model means more than letting people set their own hours or work from home: everything from pay to promotions should be based on transparent criteria such as the experience, performance and market value of the employee, agreed on centrally,” she says.
“This means that people are judged solely on skills, circumstances and performance – so what they get out is in direct proportion to what they put in. A decentralised organisation is a truly meritocratic one.”
However, as with many of the company’s operations, this approach has not yet reached its final form.
“Soon, we would like to open up the pay formulas (which includes clear levels and steps per function per role) company-wide so people have full transparency of their career path and the levels/steps of payment associated with moving through these levels.”
“Business as usual”: Weathering the coronavirus pandemic
Given IOHK’s focus on decentralised working, how is it withstanding the coronavirus pandemic? For the most part, Haasen says, there has been little change.
“The current global pandemic and the rise in staff working remotely has brought existing business working models into sharp focus. However, our existing decentralised approach has meant that most of our programmes of work are business as usual,” she says.
“In fact, given the executive team is not travelling as often, we have a chance to really ‘be present’ to get those larger, operational tasks sorted that require executive coordination and management.”
In this way, the company is far better set up to be flexible amid the coronavirus crisis than many traditionally run organisations.
“A decentralised company with a remote, flexible and self-sufficient workforce can be far more adaptable to unforeseen situations that necessitate office closures or impact on people’s working hours,” she says.
“For example, if staff now need to take time out of the day to go shopping for elderly neighbours or volunteer for a hospital, or other duties, this doesn’t impact their productivity, as they have the ability to adapt around these new commitments.”
This has been particularly valuable for employees who are currently faced with homeschooling their children while keeping up with their regular work commitments.
“We remain flexible which, during this crisis, is particularly important where families and children are more present. We have chats sometimes where all participants are invited to include their kids on the call, which is particularly useful in the present circumstances where parents are homeschooling.”
Transitioning to a blockchain-inspired decentralised working model
IOHK’s decentralised working approach may have proved vital during the coronavirus outbreak, but it was developed long before the disease reared its head, motivated by the potential talent acquisition benefits and the fit in terms of industry culture.
“The blockchain industry attracts people who are passionate about cutting-edge technologies, who can see things from an evolving perspective. It’s crucial for us that we attract as many of these ambitious people as possible, no matter where they might be based,” says Haasen.
“This approach embodies our core principles and philosophical approach. As a blockchain company, we also like to practice what we preach, and so it is important that our business structure reflects the decentralised approach we believe in so strongly.”
But how difficult was this change to achieve?
“Most companies find it difficult to move from one structure to a new model – usually companies are incredibly rigid and hierarchical. That is why change management is an art, and often takes specialised consultants to come in to guide this process,” she says.
“Luckily, at IOHK, we have open-minded senior management that are willing to work together and with teams at every level to test new organisational models that might be a more non-traditional approach. This is not to say that we reinvent the wheel – there is a reason why certain organisational structures worked in the past.
“We’re working together as cross functional teams to determine what is the best approach for a company trying to test new practices and move to becoming a more decentralised, autonomous organisation.”