Many companies pride themselves on their ability to--almost overnight--adapt their organizations for remote work. And, with juggernauts such as Facebook and Twitter allowing most of their workforces to work remotely indefinitely, they've had reason to celebrate.
Yet many companies are still grappling with inefficiencies and friction tied to remote work. Many have been trying to replicate their physical office environment in a virtual setting. But replication doesn't often work. Here are a few reasons why.
Extra meetings don't replicate water cooler talk.
The traditional workplace has long been characterized by synchronous communication--desk drive-bys and water cooler conversations, for example. As employees have shifted to remote work, they've attempted to replicate in-person interactions by scheduling Zoom meetings. The result is that casual conversations have become unnecessary meetings.
Recent research by Asana, where I work, involving 13,000 global workers has revealed that this replication packs a big punch, costing individuals 157 more hours in unnecessary meetings compared with last year. Those are not just unproductive meetings--they are entirely unnecessary ones.
Leading remote-first companies don't replicate in-office practices remotely--they take a step back and ask: Is replication the right thing to do? In many cases, it isn't. These leading companies overwhelmingly rely on asynchronous, rather than synchronous, communication. They are deliberate about articulating--and documenting--the purpose of each communication channel--for example, email only for interactions with customers, Slack only for urgent requests, and Asana for actionable work--as well as how communication should escalate (e.g., email -> Slack -> phone call).
When it comes to synchronous communication, or meetings, leading remote-first companies are deliberate about articulating the purpose of meetings, how they are run, and how long they last. As Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist who runs the Becoming Superhuman lab at UC Berkeley, explained to me, "Video meetings are more taxing on the brain than their in-person equivalent. In a recent study by Microsoft, excess mental fatigue began to set in 30 minutes into a meeting and excess stress began to set in after two hours of non-stop video meetings." Yousef recommends that the new motto be "30 is the new 60! " These days, there should be a very compelling reason why a meeting needs to be longer than 30 minutes.
2. Zoom happy hours don't replicate real in-office culture.
Many companies have long hinged on Ping-Pong tables, free lunches, and beer on tap as markers of "culture." These in-office perks don't represent the essence of culture--and, in a remote work environment, that becomes crystal clear.
Companies can no longer hide behind these to delight, recruit, and retain top talent. Many are now relying on Zoom happy hours to try to foster culture. According to Asana's research, as workers continue to work remotely, 30 percent are concerned about a loss of workplace culture over the next year.
In a remote work environment, culture is about values, listening to employees, and being real. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the reality in many organizations. Asana's research found that only 15 percent of workers feel completely connected to their organization right now.
If you're worried about losing your culture, casual Zoom calls or happy hours aren't going to cut it. As Yousef explained to me: "Culture is the sum of how an organization behaves and what it stands for. In a remote context, this manifests as how you meet, how you communicate, how you carve out focus time, how you manage and organize work, etc. Business leaders that see this opportunity to create a better [remote] culture will emerge from this whole crisis with a more aligned, more productive, and more connected team."
3. How long people work does not replace the actual work.
For a long time, we've relied on the 9-to-5 workday as a portal into employees' work. Those who showed up early and stayed late were often celebrated for their work ethic and ambition. But this focus on how many hours people work doesn't work if your employees' workspaces aren't visible.
Forward-thinking remote-first companies recognize that they need to change their focus from the "how long" of work--hours spent in an office--to the "what" of work, or the outcomes of work. They hold employees accountable for those outcomes. And that doesn't just require new leadership approaches; it also requires technology that enables goal and workload tracking. By shifting the pendulum toward the "what" of work, companies will be able to empower their workers for success in a remote work environment.
To replicate or not to replicate?
For many of us, our work has changed profoundly over the past year. Asana's research found that 50 percent of knowledge workers say their role or everyday tasks have changed because of remote working. Yet the ways they are working--relying on meetings, tangibles as "culture," and focusing on the "how long" of work--haven't really changed. Before replicating your in-office experience remotely, ask yourself, is there a better way to work?