Lessons from the Five Levels of Autonomous Work Theory

Published on 29/04/2020  Group GSA

The adaptation from working in the design studio to working from home (or the workshop/ garage) has meant lightning speed behavioural change and technological connection to ensure project continuity. And, the technology piece, especially with Australia’s poor internet speed, has flabbergasted even the most optimistic. Despite such obstacles, our multidisciplinary design studio of some 200 strong, has adapted and enabled project continuity by transitioning to home working in a matter of days. The problem-solving attitude of our designers has had much to do with the success of this transition. Disruption creates ingenuity.

Matt Mullenweg, a founder of WordPress and Automattic amongst many other achievements, has been working remotely since 2004. He prefers the descriptor ‘distributed teams’ rather than ‘remote worker’ as in the case of his organisation – employing 1200 people across 75 countries – there is no central hub or head office. Sixteen years of this type of collaboration and output has proven this model can be commercially successful.

We explored his Five Levels of Autonomous Work Theory in the context of our design studio and swift transition to a distributed teams model amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic. He explains:

Level 0 relies on the worker having to be present to perform the work task, for example, a builder.

Level 1 is depicted by rarely working from home and only in an emergency where a knowledge worker can stay connected without going to the office, most likely using a mobile. They will most likely put off work until they go into the office.

Level 2 relies on video conferencing and digital communication tools. Many people are in this situation now. Everyone is still online 9am-5pm, however the tools at home may be worse than in the office and perhaps impacts their output. Interpreting Mullenweg’s advice is to tough it out and move to Level 3.

Level 3 takes advantage of the best practices for remote working – using digital communication tools to share screens and allocate responsibilities, with meeting notes or drawing mark-ups reviewed collectively, creating a shared understanding of accuracy in real time. This level may result in people investing in better equipment to make their work position feel more comfortable and permanent; adopting a sense of ease and normality in using technology. (Note: Mullenweg’s view is spontaneity in a conversation is lost by muting.)

Level 4 is about choosing the time you work. Mullenweg found that people are more effective when they plan their day based on what suits them. It also means an organisation can employ people all over the world and get things done around the clock.

Level 5 is characterised by working more efficiently than any other organisation. It focuses on designing the environment around health and wellness. For example, Mallenweg describes burning candles, doing squats and pushups in the privacy of his home throughout the workday. This level is about working when it suits you and not indexing time; but achieving high output because of good mental and physical comfort. 

There are many obstacles to physical distancing and some of these are psychological. Collaboration and communication are not to be forfeited because of Covid-19. In fact, organisations are collaborating across borders more than ever and it is difficult discerning who is in which geographical location. As such, communication and collaboration become equal regardless of geography, hierarchy or team structure.

Culture is enhanced in situations where workplaces span states, countries and time zones; enhanced because of increased team equality. No longer are meetings dominated by the most senior team members or the most extroverted. Mullenweg expresses this as a benefit of distributed teams, explaining “the beauty is you get folks from any part of the company drop in and use asynchronous threads,” with even the most introverted sharing brilliant ideas comfortably.

There are many theories that have found distance impacts collaboration. One study found the greater the distance the smaller the influence participants have over decisions because of perceived social differences. Working from home during the pandemic challenges this phenomenon because everyone is in the same predicament, so collaboration is thriving. This is radical – yes!

Working from home is also assumed to reduce productivity. Evidence from our monthly figures has refuted this assumption. According to the Five Levels of Autonomous Theory, we should be looking at output rather than time as a measure of productivity.

Our own design studio has adapted to sharing information and drawings in real time not only amongst ourselves but also with our clients, making meetings more efficient and clearer. The amount of time we save travelling to meetings, by virtual collaboration is noticeable.

We have recently undertaken virtual site visits enabling remote defect inspections. These could be considered Level 0 activities in the Five Levels of Autonomous Work Theory, and yet we have adapted.

For instance, we recently completed a defects inspection remotely by video conferencing, involving a great deal of trust between the designer and builder. As designers, we look at spaces with both peripheral and focused views which is harder to achieve through the limitations of a camera lens. The quality of the technology and light conditions can limit the ability to pick up some imperfections, such as paint colour and finish quality. The camera view is also controlled by the builder, which requires instruction to recreate the way a designer progresses through a space to look for specific details.

While nothing will replace attendance on site, we have found a good result can be achieved by good communication and a trusting relationship with the builder. A positive outcome of distributed work is adapted and resourceful collaboration between the designer and builder.

Our unprecedented current environment has shown how fast change is possible when committed. We should leverage from this confidence. Once this pandemic has been overcome, how will keep this momentum in adopting the higher levels of the Five Levels of Autonomous Work Theory and be prepared for the next big thing.






Article contributors: Sonja Duric, Peter McCamleyJenny Deacon, Suzi Wedd, Rose Lamond