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The Office of the (Near) Future: Remote-First Work

Bhavik Modi and Bryan Campbell
July, 2020

Bhavik Modi is an Associate Director at BTS and Bryan Campbell is an Agile Enterprise Transformation coach and President of 7 C’s Consulting.

Surprised by your employees’ productivity working from home? You may be considering how you can capitalize on the transition that’s already occurring and accelerate the shift to a remote-first work environment. However, before you do, there are some critical lessons that you can learn from businesses already working in a virtual environment.

Chairs and tab

Reimagining the Office

As human beings, it is difficult to think about the future without viewing it as an incremental improvement over the present. In today’s virtual environment, most organizations are attempting to recreate everything that was happening in an office environment and do it online. This is a common mistake that happens all the time – but it’s not actually the most effective way to transition.

In addition, many employers have invested significant sums of money in corporate campuses to improve collaboration. As companies have invested more in keeping people engaged at the office – leaders are left wondering how to walk away from these major investments and what takes their place.

So, how do you transition to a remote-first environment?

1. Reimagine don’t recreate: List out the assumptions you have about in-person work and provoke each one of them, reimagine what those tasks and activities might look like in a virtual work environment.

For example, many assume that: “if we become remote-first, we’ll never see each other again.” If in-person interaction is critical for your company culture and productivity, repurpose the office environment as a co-working space for employees to collaborate with each other when they need it. This opens opportunities to use smaller spaces that are closer to concentrations of employees, for example a co-working space in the city and an option for those in the suburbs – shifting away from a more traditional corporate campus.

In the COVID-19 environment, this requires some thoughtful consideration on what types of interaction need to occur in person and which interactions can happen over the phone or video chat, but there is no need for absolutes. Provide your team with options to meet in person if they prefer and can do it safely.

What does this look like in practice? A great example to look at is Automattic - a distributed digital publishing company (think WordPress and Tumblr) with over 1200 employees spread across 77 countries and 93 different languages. While a fully remote organization, the company still values in-person interaction, which helps them to maintain their culture – they have simply flipped the standard ratio (mostly in-person and infrequently remote) to mostly remote and infrequently in-person.

2. Lead the change: If leaders are still in the office, the rest of the company will aim to come into the office – if you want to be remote-first, leaders must commit to being remote themselves.

In most companies, it is a significant career advantage to work from the headquarters rather than to work remotely. People in positions of power tend to bias toward giving out opportunities to those whom they are familiar with. Employees in headquarters often don’t keep remote workers front of mind.

Adam D’Angelo
CEO of Quora

Face time with senior leaders is often considered an important rite of passage for corporate cultures, and the more time a leader spends communicating with you the better chance you have of being noticed for a promotion or a high-impact project.

In a remote-first organization, leaders can create a level playing field for a distributed workforce that rewards outcomes and not the person who is the first one in, last one out, or sends emails at all times of the day.

In shifting to remote-first, your leadership team must model the way they want employees to act. This means the leaders must also go remote and build new communication habits in their organization to allow for asynchronous collaboration and updates.

3. Flip the ratio of in-person to virtual interactions: In-person interactions don’t go away in a remote-first world, they are more targeted and thoughtful. Provide stipends to employees for team meetings, one-on-ones, and other interactions and set guidelines on when in-person interactions should happen and when they are not needed.

People are surprised when I say this, but I think in-person is really key. And so we just flip it, so instead of saying you have to be around your colleagues 48 weeks of the year and do whatever you want for a month, we say be wherever you want for 48 weeks out of the year and for three or four weeks a year we’re going to bring you together.

Matt Mullenweg
Automattic CEO

Remote-first companies need to set clear expectations and guidelines for when teams should come together (in a co-working space, coffee shop, or elsewhere) and limit those interactions to ones that add more value being together in-person than virtually – flipping the old co-location ratio as Automattic has done.

COVID-19 has challenged common biases of where work can be done most productively, and you’ll find that teams (equipped with the right tools and resources at home) can be surprisingly productive without being co-located.

And who says you can’t have office perks while at home? It can be as simple as repurposing the money invested in your latte machine to provide a stipend for a green screen, dual monitors, microphones, and a high-quality web camera (and maybe an UberEATS subscription for some snacks when desired).

4. Create a new rhythm of communication: Asynchronous communication involves a new communication rhythm — repurposing emails/check-ins and other meetings and creating new norms for how information is communicated and how others can contribute to building on ideas from other parts of the company.

Leaders should consider building a new asynchronous rhythm of doing business. Instead of emails and calls (which in a distributed workforce are tough to schedule across time zones) – consider a blogging system like what Automattic uses called P2s to document progress on projects.

P2s are posts written every day by employees to summarize what they have been working on, the problems that they might have encountered, and the discussions they had that day. If you think about the purpose of in-person meetings, whether face-to-face or on Zoom, this is typically what people are doing – unearthing hidden information from the organization to see what folks are working on, reach group decisions and find ways to collaborate.

By documenting what is happening on P2s, it has become a cultural norm at Automattic for all employees to read P2s and uncover what is happening around the company. This communication method creates a transparent organization without FOMO (fear of missing out) when not included in a meeting or copied on an email chain. Using an internal search index, you can look up P2s and follow certain topics (like Google Reader) to stay informed on progress.

5. Honor what made your culture great while continuing to grow: Continue to honor what makes your culture great, remote-first doesn’t mean you have to lose it – it offers new opportunities to build your culture and invite more talent into your organization that you previously may not have had access to.

If you ask any leader what makes their organizational culture great, you will likely get a range of responses from company to company. Some companies value a strong safety and compliance culture that enables them to reduce risk in their work environment, while others value an entrepreneurial environment where they are afforded creativity to take on challenges. Employees on Glassdoor rarely say that office perks make a company great – it’s about the people, work environment, and opportunities provided.

Those same positive attributes can be reimagined (not recreated) in a remote-first environment. It can be as simple as creating space on employees' calendars for “making time.” Making (or Maker’s time) is a concept created by Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, which advocates for blocking a large portion of each day for individuals to do focused project work without fear of interruption or task-switching – for example blocking each morning until 12:30 PM for individual work.

By reducing the need for emails and check-in calls, it creates more dedicated work time for employees to creatively solve challenges and is a great example of reimaging the virtual workplace vs. recreating interactions we typically had in person when located next to each other.

To encourage comradery, you can promote small team or one-on-one interactions amongst employees by providing gift cards for lunch or coffee so employees located near each other can meet and network. Another option is for leaders to participate in targeted, fun interactions across the company – for example, virtual trivia nights, a virtual scavenger hunt, or hosting a “bring your kids to work” on a company or department-wide Zoom call. Anything to create a positive environment representative of your company culture.

Remote-first work allows organizations to honor and celebrate what made their office cultures great and re-invest time and resources to continue improving on that culture forward in a distributed work environment where you have access to more talent outside of your city.

So, what’s next?

The current work environment offers both challenges and opportunities. Shifting to a remote-first permanently can make sense for organizations moving forward that have seen the benefits of this shift but doing so doesn’t need to be a daunting challenge. By learning from organizations who have been doing this and doing it well for years, your organization can meet the challenge of the future, while preserving your culture, accessing new talent and reimagining your work environment to unlock productivity.

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