The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic may have upended plans to return to the office, but it's also proved that the long-standing fears about the perils of remote work are false. You can be productive with remote teams, effectively mentor, create meaningful culture, and do great work. As if sensing this shift, investment app Robinhood recently announced that it's offering permanent remote working to most of its employees, following similar remote working extensions from Meta and others.
Of course, there's a second reality as well. Many just prefer to be in an office. And while I embraced remote working years before the pandemic hit, I still get why an office is attractive. There's a beauty to a strong office culture--the hallway conversations, the ping-pong games, the chats on the way to lunch, the whiteboarding sessions, the happy hours and company-centric social lives. All of that (and more) matters at a human level to so many--young and old.
At the end of the day, those two worlds (remote and in-office) are foundationally different. They're different cultures and different workflows driven by different DNA, despite the impulse to stitch them together in the name of convenience and corporate unity. You should actually do the opposite and keep them separate to realize the full potential of each group. That means literally treating a remote workforce as its own office.
Each office within a company is usually structured with its own culture, workflow, clients, and PnL, and a remote workforce deserves that same consideration. After all, they are largely different--with efficiencies gained from the speed of digital communication as well as a heightened focus on work as opposed to socializing, easier to track decisions and statuses, and the dissolution of hierarchies making egoless collaboration the norm.
For a variety of reasons, remote workers also tend to be more seasoned employees from more diverse backgrounds. Also, without the interpersonal politics that come with in-person offices, navigating workplace relationships is less valuable as social currency.
As you can imagine, since the pandemic began, those who have gotten used to the new rhythm of their work lives probably panic at the thought of returning to meandering meetings, department feuds, and long commutes. So, as the Great Resignation looms large, why not provide an option that is structured around the ways they like to work?
Treating the remote workforce as its own office takes more than intent. It takes buy-in and a variety of logistical adaptations to make sure the "office" is best serving those remote employees.
Separate offices means separate businesses
Give them their own swim lanes--their own PnL and projects. Don't treat them as an afterthought extension of the in-person office group, logistically or financially. In fact, the remote office budget should even include unique stipends and funds to help people either improve their home offices or get out of them for more inspiration and connected environments.
Get some tools
Leverage all of the efficiency creation tools you need to minimize frustration and to take full advantage of the benefits of remote work. Apps like Calendly, Miro, and Slack are great, but any communications platforms, meeting transcription apps, organizational plug-ins, or collaboration tools are crucial for creating a manageable workflow.
Schedule separate times to meet in person
Remote doesn't mean "remote only." Formalize when and how employees can get together in person periodically, even if only once a year. When you can, it's still good to go on business trips, get together to brainstorm, or have company retreats, since there is value to being together in person from time to time.
Working digitally can, at times, make it easy to forget that there are people involved. So, do what you can to offer subtle reminders--introduce families, insist on profile pictures, and turn on cameras. For similar reasons, take opportunities to celebrate the places people are coming from as much as the people themselves. When remote workers choose to live in nontraditional markets, spotlight the things in those markets that are keeping them there with the potential to inspire others.
Collaborate and communicate
When trying anything new, it helps to be open to others' ideas and needs. In this case, that means designing a "workplace" together with the employees so that all people feel heard and represented. It also means overcommunicating--being aggressively transparent so that problems can be worked through quickly and to ensure that everyone is in the loop, regardless of whether they're communicating through video or Slack channels.
It may be tempting, but as companies start to rethink their work structures, they should consider a solution that's not one-size-fits-all. Instead, they should be bold, recognizing that in-office and remote work are simply two different things and it's OK to give each its own space to succeed.