What do monkeys have to do with successfully working from home?

A recent article from Harvard Business Review online studied how the COVID-19 inspired surge in working from home has impacted business. We’ll probably do a better examination in  a future article, but one of the things that surprised the authors was this: Despite all the fears and past bad experience implementing work from home, it appears that the change was far less disruptive to business than many people (read executives) expected.

To quote the article, While much more research will be needed to confirm what we found, these initial results suggest that a combination of impressive human ingenuity, leadership, and organizational support during the pandemic have made virtual work a success.”

In other words, everyone pulled together and made it work (at least to some degree), and there’s been far less negative disruption than almost anyone expected.

Why did remote work succeed this time, despite it being so widespread and chaotic, when so many previous, small-group experiments failed to live up to the promise? That’s where the monkeys come in.

The Hundredth Monkey theory is “a hypothetical phenomenon in which a new behavior or idea is said to spread rapidly by unexplained means from one group to all related groups once a critical number of members of one group exhibit the new behavior or acknowledge the new idea.”

Several things contribute to the sudden, widespread adoption of an idea or a new way of behaving. Several of those were part of the move to working from home brought on by the dire events of 2020:

People wanted to make it work.

Many high-level executives expressed grave concern about “letting” people work from home. Productivity would drop. People would draw paychecks for doing nothing.  Teams would disintegrate. While some of that occurred, the opposite was usually the case. People pulled together more than usual because everyone was in the same boat. A lot of smart people underestimated the natural human inclination to band together and behave positively in the face of a major, dramatic, change.

The change impacted everyone, regardless of position, in the same way at the same time.

A lot of the past experiments in remote work were done in bits and pieces. Some of the employees (usually middle management and below) were working in ways that the Senior Leadership didn’t really have visibility to. On hybrid teams, we never got a chance to see how it would work if the default behavior was to those working remotely. They were always adjusting to accommodate those in the office. Suddenly both the administrative assistant and the VP of Sales had to deal with the same challenges. It’s amazing how many problems get fixed when the CEO needs help getting on a Zoom call.

The timing sucked, but it came at the right time.

In the last year, there has been a wave of technology improvement that made it far more efficient to work from home than ever before. New versions of Slack, Microsoft Teams, and especially Zoom created a way for teams to collaborate easily and from anywhere. Zoom, in particular, went from being a largely niche, untried, low-end product to the definitive tool of the pandemic in less than six months. Can you imagine what work would have been like without these tools?

In order for the hundredth monkey to achieve its goal and a society or team to permanently change its culture there has to be a common obstacle to be overcome or goal achieved, the change needs to come throughout the tribe (often with the youngest members leading the way) and it must be easy to identify and implement the new behavior.

If that sounds like the first half of 2020, that may explain why this seismic shift has caused less drama than many of us expected. Good job.

Kick back and have a banana you happy, clever monkeys.

If your team is still struggling to make working from home work, let me suggest the Remote Leadership Certificate Series. It’s a comprehensive training program to help you become a successful remote leader.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. You can pre-order Kevin and Wayne’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, now.

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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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