Semco Style & Remote Work: Alternative Controls

In a remote environment, giving autonomy and freedom back to employees is critical. Instead of handing people a rulebook, let them play on a field with clearly defined boundaries and manage what goes on within those boundaries. Alternative Controls allow companies to trust and empower their employees, which can lead to increased trust, performance, and discretionary effort.

Andy Golding·April 21, 2023·5 min read

Busting Bureaucracy is how the Semco Style Framework positions "Alternative Controls". I would be hard-pressed to find a better way to describe it.

Bureaucracy is the enemy of nimbleness, it’s like trying to swim with a straight-jacket on.

Why then is it so omnipresent inside companies and why does the level of bureaucratic red tape seem to scale alongside a company?

And how can Alternative Controls help break this cycle?
The bigger the business the more controls are required to keep all the moving parts…right?

This is the pervasive thinking and also the start of a slippery slope towards red-tape-ridden and away from the ‘entrepreneurial vibe’ and ‘freedom to just execute’ most people love about start-up and scale-up environments.

For a company to thrive, I believe that focusing on alternative controls is critical. For remote companies even more so. Many of the traditional ‘controls’ that companies use are irrelevant in a Remote work setting. You cannot clock people in and out of their home office or measure butts-in-seats as a productivity metric because if you do track their login and activity time, you obliterate your employee’s psychological safety). Thus, the need to create a productive, constructive, fun remote work environment that relies on alternative controls.

Semco Style offers up Alternative Controls as a way of running businesses, without excessive rules, protocols, and processes. SEMCO, the company itself is an example of how a big business can run effectively and profitably with most of the power, and decision-making authority living in the hands of the ‘average employee’.

Alternative Controls is the power of being in control without controlling. Whilst there are numerous interesting concepts within this module of the Semco Style Roadmap, these are three that I believe all Remote companies should take heed of:

1. Keeping Rules To A Minimum

This one resonates with me on all levels. If you are going out of your way to hire smart, capable humans you should also be going out of your way to give them the space and psychological safety to be brilliant, think freely, and try things that might fail, but might also leap you forward. Too many restrictive rules make this impossible.

Yes, there will be a few (and I mean only a few) people who step out of line and over boundaries. Beware of making rules for the few that inhibit the brilliance and motivation of the many. Rather deal directly with the few and allow the many their freedom. This will pay off tenfold in trust and discretionary effort.

2. Write, Erase, and Rewrite the Rules

Remote work is an organizational operating system that most companies are still figuring out. The willingness to write, try, fail, scrap, rewrite, and try again is imperative. Especially in defining your (minimal) rules and ways of working. Semco Style gives a great framework for not getting overly attached to rules in general (as we explored above) but also for being consistently vigilant about assessing the effectiveness of the few rules you do have in place.

3. Choose What to Control

You cannot control everything that happens in a company and constantly rushing to attempt to control is going to feel like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. Decisions should be made closest to where they are most impactful. Upper management making decisions that affect a small group of engineers that they barely interact with makes very little sense. The decisions should be made by direct leads of the engineers and/or the engineers themselves. This group of people has the most insight and most likely the best solutions too.

Choosing what to control is paramount in a remote environment that inherently (unless you’re being tyrannical) gives autonomy and freedom back to the employee.

The way I prefer to think of alternative controls in a remote environment is to not hand people a (figurative or literal) rulebook and ask or expect them to constantly reference it but to put them on a playing field, clearly show them the lines that are ‘out of bounds’ and let them get to play as soon as possible. When play goes out of bounds, correct it, but let the players manage the vast majority of what goes on in the field themselves. This is the power of being in control without controlling.

𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘭𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘢 𝘴𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘭𝘦𝘴 𝘦𝘹𝘱𝘭𝘰𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘩𝘰𝘸 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘚𝘦𝘮𝘤𝘰 𝘚𝘵𝘺𝘭𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘣𝘦 𝘶𝘴𝘦𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘢𝘱𝘱𝘭𝘪𝘦𝘥 𝘪𝘯 𝘳𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘵𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘳𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘵𝘦 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘱𝘢𝘯𝘪𝘦𝘴.

Have a look at the other articles in this series:
Semco Style & Remote Work: Trust as the Foundation
Semco Style & Remote Work: Self Management
SEMCO Style & Remote Work: Reflections of a Newly Certified Expert Practitioner

About the author: Andy Golding is the remote-work manager for SaaS procurement firm Sastrify. She is an author, TEDx speaker, and commentator on employee experience, ‘humans-at-work’, and all things remote work.


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