Thursday 17 December 2020 2:29 pm

COVID and remote-work - is decentralisation the future?

Vaccines for COVID-19 are here, but for many, remote working may be here to stay. The global pandemic has had an enormous impact on how most businesses operate.

Organizations have shifted from office-based work and centralised operations to a remote and more agile way of working. One oft-quoted figure I saw early in the pandemic was that businesses accelerated their digital transformation agendas by 6 years within a matter of weeks, as businesses were forced to abandon long-entrenched work cultures and traditional office environments. That’s a phenomenal rate of change. 

Now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, businesses will be reflecting on what their offices will look like once normal life resumes. After all, the shift to remote work required significant investments, and in some cases, restructuring. In the meantime, employees have had plenty of time to adapt to the new work-life balance. While some people will want to rush back to the office as soon as possible, not everyone will want things to return to how they were. Whether organizations will “return to normal” will come down to their distinct work culture, as well as how they’ve made use of their technology investments. 

Not every company faces the same dilemma, as some were spared the logistical and technical headaches associated by the shift from centralised workplaces. For example, at Binance, we have been a decentralised global organisation since day one. Remote work remains an essential part of our culture, and more than 1,200 team members in over 50 countries and regions collaborate regularly across multiple time zones. While we do miss the opportunity to see each other face to face via company-wide trips, and some of our routine business meetings have been disrupted, we’ve been fortunate that the pandemic has not caused the kind of impact that other organizations have experienced.

I’ll outline some key components on how we manage ourselves as a decentralised organisation, and what has worked well for us in particular. 

Decentralised by design

To be a decentralised organisation, Binance employees need to be able to act autonomously, serving as experts in their fields and thereby eliminating organisational inefficiencies caused by decision-making bottlenecks. Binance employees own and lead projects that they initiate and need to be self-motivated to keep innovating on existing solutions. This independence allows team members to execute very rapidly and efficiently. Individual team members will often form small project teams on the fly with relevant colleagues on an ad hoc basis. Collaboration is vital, but projects move faster with a nimble team at the helm. This approach requires a high degree of trust amongst team members, as well as careful consideration during recruitment.

A fully decentralised team provides opportunities for companies to ride out unexpected disruptions. With such capacity in place, many more companies may have the incentive to decentralise further to maintain continuity in their business lines and serve the changing needs of the workforce. The first step to making this long-term change is to accept and commit to the cultural shift that decentralised structures demand.

Decentralised culture needs decentralised technology

Of course, culture is only part of the story: having the technology to enable decentralised work is equally important. Unfortunately it’s a little more complicated than installing collaboration tools and video-conferencing apps on everyone’s machines. A truly decentralised organization needs to be built on decentralised technology. During its early days, Binance made a decision to move from a monolithic sub-architecture to a microservices-based solution.

Though there are benefits to monolithic systems,when a software team needs to amend individual components, it can cause friction and slow the entire team down. What’s more, tweaking any single part of a monolithic system risks impacting the entire system, potentially causing issues when multiple components are being worked on simultaneously.

Decentralised infrastructure has allowed our developers to work independently from any place where there is an adequate internet connection, while other teams can work independently on specific parts of our service, without worrying about impacting the whole. In an industry that is live 24/7, having a geographically distributed development team that’s always online means we’re able to react quickly to any issues. There is always someone awake who can respond quickly during local working hours.

User impacts of a decentralised platform 

As a trading platform where price movements can be measured in fractions of seconds, our users expect our services should be able to keep up. There’s no point having a responsive team that can respond quickly to emerging issues if users don’t see the benefits. To make this work for both our internal and external users, we use cloud-based server infrastructure which allows us to have servers closer to where they’re being used, therefore reducing latency. 

As a young company without any legacy infrastructure to replace, we were able to build from the ground up using cloud-based infrastructure. This allows the Binance DevOps team to manage thousands of servers around the world. More than this, it enables us to address local compliance requirements by deploying local servers that are tailored to the needs of a specific jurisdiction—without impacting other servers.

Building resilient systems is paramount, especially as interest in cryptocurrencies grows and site traffic spikes in response to market moves. Our developers ensure that the system maintains fast response times, making sure that increased pressure on the system is imperceptible to our users.

Preparing for the decentralised future

The process of decentralising for the long-term requires a robust infrastructure and supportive culture. A lot of businesses that are looking to become less centralised may balk at the work and cost of moving away from legacy systems, but given that COVID-19 has already forced most businesses to take their first steps towards decentralisation, the time is right to consider whether it’s the right fit for your business. 

As vaccines deploy and the end of the pandemic nears, I don’t think many people expect businesses to revert back to the way things once were. It will be up to individual businesses to decide what suits them, but employees will have had a taste of the autonomy and work-life balance that decentralised workplaces can provide. When it comes to work, we could see employees demanding that we keep a few of the changes that lockdowns prompted.

Josh Goodbody serves as the Regional Director for EMEA at Binance where he leads regional growth.