Challenges and Opportunities in the Remote Workplace
We’re facing a series of new realities.
While some companies are emerging from COVID-19 as all-remote, walking away from offices in favor of greater flexibility and efficiency, many more will transition to a partially remote model. Hybrid-remote, where a subset of a company defaults to onsite and a subset defaults to offsite, presents a host of challenges that many leaders can’t fully appreciate just yet.
Hybrid-remote forces leadership to manage two distinct employee experiences, and without great intentionality it can cause upheaval. Done well, it's a super-power for retention.
Millions now realize the power of remote work, with fresh perspective on what life can be when it’s not wrapped around a daily commute.
There are those struggling to maintain their personal performance bar due to the complications associated with working through a global pandemic. For this group, returning to the office may seem like a welcome change from crisis-induced work-from-home.
For executives, they’re grappling with the challenge of proposing a return to work plan. They’re juggling survey results from teams who have been remote for months now, considering closing offices entirely, and realizing that the path forward — however that looks — is going to require much more intentionality.
Preparing for Remote Culture
For years, many companies have allowed remote work. Perhaps there’s a personal exception, or perhaps a leadership team realized that a high-priority hire wouldn’t join without remote flexibility. These roles are rarely, if ever, advertised as remote. Those who fill these roles have historically been fairly senior, and understand that the privilege in filling an onsite role in a remote fashion is perk enough. They understand that hybrid will expose them to certain pitfalls, but the tradeoff is worthwhile.
Post-COVID, the conversation will change. The pandemic has democratized the conversation on remote. Now, every job seeker will feel empowered to ask about a company’s stance on workplace flexibility early in the interview process. Companies will need an answer.
Many organizations are not prepared to address the pitfalls of hybrid-remote head-on. Remote workers who work with colleagues (and especially executives) who default to working in-office are apt to have access to less information, fewer career and development opportunities, and experience subtle demands for overperformance.
Organizations which formally support remote in the wake of COVID-19 will now be responsible for not ostracizing remote colleagues. Achieving this is more difficult than most think.
A Hybrid Remote Approach
It starts by converting all workflows to remote-first, even for those who work in an office. It’s reinforced by documenting these remote-first practices in a single source of truth, and being diligent in steering organizational change. In-office workers may feel that they’re over-rotating to ensure that remote workers feel included, while remote colleagues will be sensitive to gaps in communication and being passed over for praise and promotion.
Executives must consider the list of in-office perks and work to generate parallel perks for those who default to working offsite. Team building exercises must be structured to be fully inclusive. Wide-angle video cameras must be removed from conference rooms, with each person dialing into video calls using their own equipment. All meetings must have an agenda and a documentarian, enabling everyone to contribute asynchronous regardless of time zone or availability. (And, on the topic of meetings, you’ll need to have far fewer of them, instead relying on an asynchronous project management tool.)
This is not trivial. This is a complete rewiring of workplace defaults. There will likely be backlash from those who suggest that everyone “ should just return to the office.” It will put significant pressure on justifying the need for office space. Without proper communication, reinforcement, and iteration, it can create a schism that will be hard to reconcile. It will almost certainly lead to short-term attrition, as employees depart in search of a workplace culture that aligns with their personal leanings and expectations.
All of this presents an incredible opportunity for leadership teams that recognize it as such. This is an opportunity to leave old, tired workflows behind that no longer add value. This is a chance to challenge traditions and embrace a more flexible and inclusive approach. However, there’s no skirting the reality that hybrid-remote is hard. It will require a dedicated team that continually looks at both playing fields and actively attempts to level them as best as possible, understanding that perfect leveling is impossible so long as an office exists.
I’ve spent 15 years leading remote teams and charting remote transformations across the spectrum of remote environments. While all-remote is the purest form of remote work, with only a single playing field by default, I’m rooting for teams that work to make hybrid-remote environments as healthy as possible.
I prefer an intentionally designed hybrid environment over one where remote is allowed but not supported, with limited thought given to how remoters are treated. Hybrid-remote will not have the benefits of all-remote but won’t have the pitfalls of neglected hybrid-remote.
I am a proponent for more remote, even hybrid. Every single job which goes remote is one more person whose life can fundamentally change, which then impacts countless other lives and economies. The domino effect of positive change from one person going remote is significant.
For those seeking new remote roles, do your due diligence in the interview process. I’ve created a guide within GitLab’s handbook to help evaluate a remote role.
For leaders responsible for guiding your teams back following the pandemic, give careful consideration to shuttering your office(s) entirely. If you must return as a hybrid-remote team, don’t let your executive team be the first to return.
People will follow as they’re led, and nothing will be more destructive to the remote muscle you’ve built than a leadership team rushing back to the office as soon as possible.
Lean into remote-first workflows and make them a core part of your operational and talent retention strategies. The degree to which this is embraced will define the employee experience for years to come.