What all-remote companies can teach us about post-pandemic remote working

As office denizens approach a year of remote working, we’re feeling a level of comfort with remote work, and even thinking about which elements of remote work we want to carry forward into our post-pandemic work cultures. But alongside the COVID remote experience, there is a parallel set of companies (mostly technology firms) that have been working on building all-remote companies for years. There’s a pretty large gap between the way all-remote companies think about remote work and the way the rest of us do, and in particular they draw pretty sharp distinctions between all-remote cultures and hybrid-remote or remote-allowed models, arguing that all-remote is in fact easier than a more hybrid model.

That doesn’t line up with what many organizations are planning when normal office work is able to resume. I had some conversations this week with people who work in large traditional organizations (banking, public sector) and their organizations are planning to be somewhere on the continuum from remote-allowed to hybrid-remote. They want to return to in-person work in the office while also keeping some of the advantages they have discovered from working remotely over the past year. And who wouldn’t want to keep the best parts of working remotely while also getting the best of in-person office work? But the perspective of all-remote firms suggests that there is no free lunch, and a hybrid model will bring its own challenges that the pandemic all-remote setting might not have prepared us for.

Keeping remote workers on an even footing

In a conversation with someone who works at a large bank, I learned that as part of their post-COVID return-to-work plans, they’re considering creating a rule for remote vs. in-person attendance at meetings:

If everyone can’t be in-person at a meeting, then no one should be in-person at the meeting.

The problem they’re trying to solve is how to keep in-office and remote workers on an even footing during meetings. Their proposed rule is considered a best-practice by all-remote firms: if some people are co-located, they should participate in the meeting using their own laptop and headset, and not crowd around the polycom in a boardroom. This really helps remote colleagues be equal participants, and you can see why. We’ve all been the forgotten person on the phone, unable to hear half the discussion, while trying to judge when and how to interject. There are some technical solutions that aim to solve this problem, but unless they’re in every meeting room and work as seamlessly as a conference line, the people who are remote will be at a relative disadvantage to those who are in-person. Hence the rule.

What all-remote organizations will tell you is that meetings is only one small slice of keeping remote employees on equal footing in a hybrid model.

  • Remote workers can find themselves feeling lonely and isolated from their colleagues and the broader culture, because they are cut off from the informal communications in the hallway or the lunchroom that happen more naturally between in-office colleagues
  • Remote workers can feel cut off from professional development opportunities that can easily go to in-office colleagues by default, because they are top of mind. This is one reason why all-remote companies believe it’s especially important for senior leadership to work remotely — it keeps the centre of gravity out of the physical office.
  • Remote workers can feel like they constantly need to prove themselves because their physical presence and activity can’t be observed as it can be for in-office colleagues. Of course it’s just as easy to waste time on company premises, but if the organization hasn’t taken concerted efforts to assess on results, that may not matter.

It’s clear there will be a lot of pitfalls in a haphazard mash-up of the pandemic status quo and the before-times. Organizations who want a hybrid-remote model are going to need to get detailed about the desired behaviours and ways of working that go along with them. A hybrid meeting rule is a great starting point, but it will take a lot of adjustments to create a culture where remote and in-office workers are genuinely on even footing.

Making asynchronous part of the remote vernacular

Another conversation this week was with someone who works in the public sector. I used the term ‘asynchronous’ in the context of remote work, and to him it was unfamiliar jargon. It is not a word or a concept that people use in his world, and indeed he spends most of his day in back-to-back meetings while also fielding ad hoc phone calls throughout to provide quick answers to pressing questions.

That’s a big departure from all-remote companies, where the notion of asynchronous work is central to their operating models. Meetings are meant to be rare and most collaboration happens in writing, in shared documents, with contributions happening over a longer period of time. This allows people to work across different time zones and to structure their workdays in a way that puts family and friends first. To counterbalance the fact that each initiative moves a bit more slowly (because you don’t get answers live in meetings), people balance multiple projects at once, and get really adept at having multiple things on their plate, each progressing on its own cadence. The GitLab team has thought deeply about asynchronous work (along with all other aspects of all-remote work), and they have really detailed guidance on how they structure asynchronous communications in their organization.

My conversation this week highlighted how far organizations will need to move to incorporate asynchronicity into workflows. I do think that you get more benefits from remote work if you’re able to embrace asynchronous methods, compared to just shifting in-person interactions to video or instant-messaging. Meetings are always expensive and they’re much less effective in a virtual environment (crosstalk, zoom fatigue, ‘sorry I was on mute…’). And to the extent organizations are using hybrid-remote as a way to enable flexibility, the benefit is obviously larger when people can also set their own schedules rather than the traditional 9–to–5. But the cultural transition here is much larger than just recording meetings and getting more diligent about written notes. Truly asynchronous work means that sometimes important, urgent work can’t move forward because the person who can unblock it isn’t available for another 8 hours, even though it’s 1pm on a Tuesday. That means leaders won’t always get instant answers and will lose some control over the cadence of the work. I’m a bit skeptical that most organizations will make that leap, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t efficiencies to be had in adopting a more asynchronous mindset. Regardless, we can all expect a further layer of cultural complexity: when is asynchronous work okay, when is it not, and who gets to decide?

Relying on process and documentation

For all-remote companies, the solution to cultural issues tends to be rigorous processes, thoroughly documented, and transparently available to all. I fully expect those exact words will end up in my epitaph, but it’s still the source of my doubts about some of the alleged best practices for remote work. As an analytical person who reads thoroughly and attends to details, lots of processes and a documentation-first approach would work very well for me and (I assume) my fellow computer-science-types who make up most of the workforce at these all-remote tech companies. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned working in large organizations, it’s that the quickest way to doom something to failure is to predicate it on a majority of people reading carefully and following processes correctly. People don’t read. People don’t follow processes. And people especially don’t read about how to follow processes.

I worry that a lot of the all-remote best practices assume a disproportionately analytical, detail-oriented workforce. And indeed, they usually acknowledge that all-remote doesn’t work for everyone, which is fine when you’re talking about a few dozen firms that are disproportionately in high-tech. But that doesn’t scale if much of the global economy moves to hybrid-remote. Not to mention your organization will be missing out on a lot of wonderfully talented people who just aren’t as effective working with the written word.

Where does that leave us? The existing all-remote companies have thought carefully and deeply about how to make remote succeed for them, and we should take the wisdom they have to offer. But we need to be mindful of their relatively narrow operating principles, and be prepared to invest time in developing new cultural norms that will allow hybrid work to flourish for a much broader set of organizations and working styles.

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