RWaaS combines people, processes, AI, and suppliers into new virtual services. (Freepik/flaticon)

RWaaS: A Revolution in Remote Work

We treat workers like shrink-wrapped software, boxing up jobs and shipping them off to their workplaces. Now that remote work is acceptable, what happens when these jobs are finally unboxed?

It’s hard to find a silver lining, but one positive and far-reaching impact of the pandemic is the widespread adoption of remote work. Individual managers will embrace or resist remote work on their own timetables. But as a society, the pandemic accelerated us into a future that would have otherwise taken years if not decades to arrive. Remote work is here to stay and it constitutes the most disruptive change in a generation.

Entrepreneurs and investors love disruptive change. But we don’t always treat it as such in the moment.

There are good reasons why entrepreneurs pursue incremental opportunities. It’s difficult to fit a new venture into a complex system. There are innumerable intentional and unintentional consequences to our decisions. Measured incremental changes are the only responsible way to approach it.

But remote work isn’t a matter of an incremental change in how we develop ventures. It’s a revolutionary change in the environment. Zoom didn’t make remote work, remote work made Zoom. In these rare times, the ground shifts underneath us.

Yet our incremental methods tend to entrench incumbent problems. As the argument goes, we haven’t solved the problem of remote work. Tooling, security, compliance; productivity and collaboration; better sprints, better meetings, better workplaces. All worthy problems. But if these opportunities sound familiar it’s because you could’ve rattled them off before the pandemic, before this massive societal change.

We’re left wondering whether there’s space for an onslaught of new ventures tackling problems that were already part of the pre-pandemic world. Or why these new ventures aren’t valued as part of a new category. If we’re still framing remote work in terms of these old problems, then these remote work ventures do not yet comprise a new category.

To find high growth opportunities, we have to embrace problems that would have previously seemed inaccessible. Remote work is an opportunity to imagine what work becomes when the physical constraints of co-location are no longer imposed, when work is finally unboxed.

So how do we get into this revolutionary mindset? We need to shift our perspective.

Workers Are Not Work

The world revolves around co-located work. Every characterization of remote-from-the-office work uses this frame of reference. The jobs are the same but the places change. To imagine new opportunities, we need to shift our attention away from the attributes of remoteness and focus instead on the attributes of work.

Characterizations of remote work focus on remoteness, but the jobs stay the same. (Pixabay)

Consider how work is distributed. People often find their workplace dehumanizing for this basic reason: People are told where to work and when. Even before the pandemic, a large majority of US workers rejected inflexible workplaces, other things being equal.

More fundamentally, to be physically co-located is to conflate people with work. People become the medium for workplace innovation and design. People need to be organized into evermore productive and efficient collaborations. People need to be continually refactored for efficiency.

But people also have agency and choices. They can move freely across different jobs and different workplaces. And due to these competitive pressures, the jobs themselves become interoperable across different workplaces: millions of boxes of work holding similar titles, similar roles, and similar functions, interacting through similar operational and organizational structures. Even though people are not software, we end up designing our operations as if they were.

This dehumanization, the conflation of workers and work, is the high-level problem that remote work may one day solve.

The economic imperative for change is deep. Over the decades, productivity growth rates have been decreasing around the world. Is it surprising given all these cool new tools and technology? Not at all. The ability to innovate and improve productivity is seriously constrained by the co-location of physical workers.

Through the natural experiment of the pandemic, we learned that the most productive companies were able to substantially increase their productivity during this crisis, while relatively unproductive companies became worse off. This suggests the productivity gap will widen as leading organizations continue to innovate with remote work. Every other company will need to outsource these innovations through centralized providers just to keep up.

Sound familiar?

Meet RWaaS: Virtualizing Work

Now imagine what happens when this work becomes virtual, abstracted from the physical locations of workers. Just as shrink-wrapped software became SaaS, remote work becomes RWaaS (pronounced razz).

Take one job function, say product management. Reflect on the best product managers you’ve ever worked with: Consider their knowledge, their methods, their values, their network of collaborators and resources. Think of all of the recurring and similar problems these people solve over the course of their careers.

Now remove the expectation that these people have to be co-located with other workers. Could some of those same discrete services be applied by a team across many organizations? How would you scale that knowledge, those methods, those networks? And if there are efficiencies to be found here, what roles would be immune from this virtualization?

As virtual services, many of the same market and economic dynamics that produced SaaS will also shape RWaaS. Accordingly, we can use this analogy to imagine aspects of these new virtual work services:

  • Centralization: Once work becomes virtual, individual roles may become factories in their own right (like Product Management Inc). The same competitive pressures that draw top talent will consolidate demand around leading RWaaS services. The productivity gap, discussed above, will drive this transformation.
  • Economies of scale: Once work becomes centralized, new economies of scale are realized. What was once an indivisible unit of value (the worker’s job) becomes a far larger collective of different services, a new value chain with each unit in the chain providing more granular services. The value of the entire chain may thereby be optimized.
  • Distributed resources: The supply chains feeding these services become distributed. We’ve discussed these networks of people. But much like SaaS entails an API economy, RWaaS entails distributed networks of workers, machines, artificial intelligence, and complementary services.
  • New features: Traditional roles are chunky, inflexible, and difficult to change once established. They’re updated annually (if ever), instead of evolving with the problem-solving environment. The features of RWaaS may be far more fluid and dynamic. RWaaS providers could rapidly deploy new features without the need for employers to make top-down changes. Most of the innovation in the roles would be abstracted away from their customers entirely.
  • Integration protocols: As discussed above, worker mobility has already standardized many roles. This trend would accelerate as RWaaS services rapidly operationalize best practices, in much the same way that cloud providers simplify the adoption of their services.
  • Elastic supply: It’s difficult to adjust the supply of work when there’s a one-to-one correspondence between workers and their jobs. This is inefficient for both workers and their employers, as it forces rigid allocations of people and resources. Just as SaaS enables an elastic supply of computing, RWaaS will enable an elastic supply of virtualized work.
  • Pricing: Elastic supply will support new pricing models. RWaaS services will offer pricing that looks more like SaaS than traditional salaries and wages. This flexibility will allow providers to more effectively allocate resources. It will allow companies to respond more quickly to market opportunities. And unlike the zero-sum game of co-located talent, it will allow workers all across the economic spectrum to participate.

New Problems, New Opportunities

Absent an entrepreneur’s vision and problem-solving, RWaaS is as meaningless as SaaS. It’s not a solution, but rather a new operational model, a new way of designing solutions. The question becomes, as new ventures begin to embrace RWaaS, what new problems and opportunities emerge?

One obvious factor is that co-located work isn’t going anywhere either. As co-located teams are supplemented with RWaaS providers, numerous new challenges emerge: How will intellectual property be protected? How do companies both embrace the efficiencies of RWaaS while supporting their internal talent? How will they remain competitive as core RWaaS functions become commodities? Consultants and professional services have confronted (and largely solved) many of these challenges. Expect RWaaS providers to adopt similar practices.

Another glaring problem is worker abuse. Veiled behind RWaaS are networks of real people. Analogous services in the gig economy have suffered a race-to-the-bottom, with workers on the losing end of the productivity stick. In my view, the problem here is in the old world, in the one-to-one correspondence between the gig workers and the work. But RWaaS providers will face similar objections and trappings.

The concerns are well founded. Knowledge work and technology has left many people behind. RWaaS offers entrepreneurs the flexibility to tackle this problem head-on. People of all different skill sets and backgrounds may work as collaborators under a RWaaS model. Unlike the discrete winner-takes-all economics of co-located work, the value chain under RWaaS is more continuous. It offers opportunities for work across all levels of the economic spectrum.

Worker empowerment is a fitting call-to-action for a revolution. When we look back on all the pain and hardship of 2020, we’ll find this silver lining. We’ll recall what work was like before this revolution, when people were treated as inseparable from their work. Freed of the physical constraints of co-location, it’s impossible to imagine what work will become or the productivity gains that may be realized.

But none of this is fortune-telling. The revolution happened. The widespread adoption of remote work is our history. The widening productivity gap will force companies to embrace evermore innovative models. RWaaS is merely incremental thinking applied to that new reality.

Work, not people, will become the object of design and innovation. This change in medium, much like the internet, social media, and mobile before it, is revolutionary.