6 minutes Read by Amir Ashkenazi
If we get it right, the shift to remote work could be positive.
We can already feel that we are in a period of change, even if we can’t analyze it with historical context yet. You cannot fight the future and we cannot try to hold on to 2019. We have to move on.
The US went from being only a 6% remote workforce to 22% during the Pandemic. That increase in a short time frame is amazing. The new format for work was embraced by a lot of employees. In a continuous year-long survey of US workers published by the Chicago Booth Review, 60% said working from home was better, substantially better, or hugely better than they expected, 26% said about the same, and 15% said worse.
The cracks and limitations are becoming apparent as remote work becomes the preference. Companies bring people back to the office to make up for lost manpower. Every week brings another declaration of reopening offices like we are declaring victory, from leaders across business and politics. There will be no return to normal because workers are clearly resisting returning to the office. Normal has changed to remote.
I started my sixth company in 2020. We were mostly remote by May 2020. Every company I found will be remote because of the opportunity to choose. Remote work is actually the best option if done well.
What the world could look like
If we flipped the traditional model and companies were remote for five days a week, what would that look like? The workforce could be more diverse. Increasing disparity in real estate, wealth, and mobility could be mitigated by the ability to work from anywhere. The implications on the individual, company and local level would be significant. On a global scale, they transform.
A better workforce can be hired by companies. The talent pool expands to the best people from anywhere in the world and the cost of office rent can translate directly into an investment in people. It’s easy to fall into the trap of building a product for yourself. A diverse team is more likely to create a product with less biases.
The data shows that working from home makes your workforce happier. A majority of home workers say it is easier to balance work and life at home, compared to 16% who say it is harder and 20% who say it is about the same. Companies that have been focused on employee mental health, balance, and the “whole human” should be embracing remote work to support those efforts. For employees looking for flexibility in where they live to employees with responsibilities for families and elderly parents, the office is only a constraint that restricts their options.
Rather than investing time, money and energy into an office space, we can channel those investments into people. Increasing standard of living, providing more resources that actually help the team get work done, and intentional team-building offsites are some of the things that must be done.
That sounds great in theory, but the past two years have been rough. What are we going to change?
I am aware of your situation. We need to talk about how we make it work in practice.
Taking on the right mindset
We need to be clear in confronting the challenges that come with any transitional period.
If you have the choice, start with the question, “How can I build a company that helps people thrive?” instead of trying to decide if you should be remote or hybrid or all together in-person.
Building modern working environments means that we need to start from the ground up, just like design thinking teaches us not to build assumptions into our questions. Most people think taking full advantage of remote working is about trade offs. The benefits of remote and in-person work can’t be seen in the same light. You can either be connected to your coworkers or have the flexibility to work from home. You can work side-by-side, or you can share screens.
If we are really going to rethink what work can be, we need to break the either/ or constructions.
For instance, let’s take connection. Think about a colleague. How did you make it to that point? Is there coffee breaks? Is passing each other in the hallway possible? Trust and friendship are slowly built in an informal environment.
If connection is the goal, what creative ways can we use to foster that connection without compromising on the benefits of remote work? There are ways to give people better ways to signal when they are free to talk, as well as setting aside time during meetings outside of the agenda, which can lead to more connection.
At my company, we meet every week to share demos and catch up. There is a weekly game hour where we play online games. Donut is used to pair people up to get to know each other outside of a meeting context. You can create a sense of belonging by listening to your employees and choosing something that feels genuine.
We leave our to-do lists on our desks when we are with each other. We break bread together to get to know each other better. We have more understanding of each other when we see each other on the screen after having a meaningful shared experience.
Collaboration is often a sticking point for remote work.
Promoting a diversity of ideas, engaging employees, and learning more skills are all achieved by working with other people. How can we make more space for a more diverse workforce when we have remote work? The best example of remote collaboration could not be found in our rush into remote work. We had to make use of video conferencing tools that were more for presentation. Diana Concannon says that these platforms create a feeling of being on stage and is often accompanied by a compulsion to perform which requires more energy than a simple interaction.
Half of the workforce can’t do their jobs from home and my learning comes from a position of privilege. I encourage you to consider the option if it is even a possibility for you and your workforce.
I encourage you to think about the tools and cultures we are developing, adopting, and relying on, and whether or not they are helping build an environment where individuals can thrive. We must let go of old beliefs and habits. We have to be willing to experiment and be wrong in the pursuit of a work environment that fosters connection and the cultural needs of the new workforce as much as it does productivity.