Despite the increase of COVID-19 cases again in many countries (up to the point that some already speak of a Second Wave), many companies are planning their return to the office. Some mayors, as well as some Governments, are worried of the risks of emptying large cities and are picking on large companies to ensure there will be a return to physically in-presence work, worrying that a mostly remote workforce may cause a significant shift in the Economy. Yet, more and more companies are announcing flexibility in their working regulations, if not a full implementation of Remote Working policies. I bet that most large companies are studying the issue, weighing in the possible cost savings of such measures, the benefits that have been seen during the lockdown period (although there are some signals that employee engagement is dropping after the initial high) and the increase in performance and productivity.
For sure, there are a lot of complications for remote work from a tax and legal perspective, mostly if seen from an international perspective. I have already written about the many taxation issues that can arise from not carefully considering these aspects. There are solutions, but they are a bit convoluted. There needs to be a political will to make some reform in the area, and some countries have already created ad-hoc legislation on this topic, starting with Estonia and its Digital Nomad Visa program, and now several Caribbean countries, as well as Georgia, are following suit.
Most probably the large majority of companies will allow some remote worker arrangement, if not for the entire population at least for a significant portion of employees. So what will most probably happen is that most companies will find themselves in a situation with a partially remote workforce. I think there are going to be at least five significant issues here that we need to focus on.
1. Communication Issues
A recent survey by MIT has shown that Communication is the first element that organisations and leaders can do to support Remote Work. And many organisations have made a significant effort in moving ahead on this topic with specific programmes and initiatives during the lockdown. The problem will arise; however, once a part of the workforce is back in the office. I think we all have had the experience of attending a meeting from a distance, and having the exact feeling you missed out on the conversation and early chatter that happened in the room before the call. Or even during the call, many conversations happen with people that are far from the microphone, and that you do not hear well.
For sure protocols can be put in place, but the problem will persist in many ways simply because in-person chats will continue to happen. There is an innate bias towards the face to face conversation for many people, and especially if you’re the only remote member of the team then, this might cut you out of some sense-making.
Many companies have put specific policies in place, with some distributed companies have worked on creating a distinct “communication culture” adapted to ensure the flow with all remote workers. An essential suggestion for many is to move as much as possible of the content towards asynchronous Communication, but again, this is not always easy because of the idea that this slows down the processes.
Solution: Think Remote First when you manage your team, ensuring you do not build an information hierarchy between those in the office and those that aren’t. During informal communication sessions, ensure that any relevant piece of info gets captured and shared with those, not in the office. Also, try to ensure all team members rotate to out-of-office so that they will all experience first-hand the need for different communication ways.
When teams are split in different locations (but BTW this happens also if you are in a separate office), there are often issues around Inclusion. This is incredibly impactful in the decision-making process.
We all have experienced the type of impromptu meeting that happens in a corridor, maybe linked to an urgent situation, where decisions are taken even if not the entire team is present. When this happens just occasionally, and on minor issues, it might not necessarily be a problem. But if this is part of the management style of the team leader, the fact of working remotely can become a severe burden, and you can start feeling sidelined.
The same can potentially happen with other activities, like social gatherings, the birthday of a colleague, all-hands meetings, brainstorming sessions etc. In most cases, this occurs not through malice from your co-workers, but only through the dynamics of a mixed workforce that is partially remote.
Solution: there’s not a once for all solution. The type of impromptu meeting I mentioned before will always happen. As a manager and co-worker, you need to ensure that good communication flows follow in case. And also ensure that for many decisions, an inclusive protocol is followed. For other activities, developing a Remote-First mentality works. If you plan a birthday party for every colleague, ensure that also the remote one gets one. Technology here can genuinely help. Overall, the development of an Inclusive mindset will further strengthen this focus.
3. Performance Management
Traditional performance management, based on a yearly cycle, is one of the processes that are more prone to constitute a severe disadvantage to the portion of the team that is working remotely. Why? Because in the process, there are several biases that the evaluator might have that can go to the advantage of the people that work in the office. Two bias that can affect appraisals, particularly in this context are:
- Distance Bias: Is the tendency to believe that people and events that are nearer to us in space are more important than people or events further away. This bias leads to unequal weightings across locations. Employees that are located in the same office as the assessor, for example, receive relatively greater attention than the performance of geographically dispersed employees.
- Awareness is critical here, as it is required to ensure an adequate evaluation, mainly because the bias often triggers when a manager compares employees performance mentally. The fact of having seen one more often in the office creates this bias.
- Recency Bias: Similar to distance bias, our memory favours the recall of recent performance information over performance at the beginning of an assessment period.
These two biases are often interlinked also by the manager’s evaluation of the so-called “Contextual Performance“. This is defined as an additional dimension of performance referring to any behaviours in which employees go beyond their formal job requirements, such as taking on extra tasks, showing initiative or helping colleagues. Several controlled studies and meta-analyses have demonstrated that these behaviours influence the perception of employees’ overall job performance by their managers and, as a result, boosts performance ratings. This is not necessarily a negative aspect per se if applied broadly. The issue arises when these “Contextual” behaviours are more easily seen by the manager while in the office. Which is often the case, as these are often simple weak signals on the performance of an employee.
Joined with the above two biases, this might create a negative situation for the remote worker, where they might be challenged when the manager makes a mental comparison between a person that has been more in the office, and one that has been working remotely.
Solution: The first step should be to make sure Managers are aware of these biases and their effects through appropriate training. Then we need to ensure that management of performance becomes a continuous process, to avoid the year-long lag between goal-setting and evaluation that traditional systems carry. If the process cannot be changed, this does not mean that the manager can’t do something about the issue. Setting interim goals, having continuous feedback discussions, stimulating informal communications to capture all indications around performance and being fully transparent around this, are all elements that can genuinely support the process and avoid issues.
4. Culture Dilution
Many of the organisations that were thrown, unprepared, into the frenzy of remote work due to the Covid-19 pandemic lament, is the dilution of their corporate and teams culture. For a person that has spent most of his career observing the culture of an organisation by simply walking through the corridors of an office, this is not a trivial problem. In many ways, the office layout, the occasions that happen informally in the cafeteria, the activities that exist within the company, all contribute to creating cultural artefacts that are relevant for the company.
Solution: The first step is to recognise that culture does not merely “happen”, and is part of an intentional design effort that leadership has to undertake. This means acknowledging that many resources in an organisation require care and attention in planning. Start rethinking your in-office perk structure. Everything from the gym to events, to the canteen, needs to be reviewed of, also thinking to the colleagues that won’t be in office. Gatherings like town hall meetings and all hands standups need also need to be though with a remote-first mindset. Plus, we need to consider that globally distributed firms typically all organise a yearly gathering that is aimed precisely at strengthening the culture. To avoid dilution, make most of the time people spend together by deliberately planning them as cultural catalyst events.
The one element where distance and isolation create issues is the serendipitous meetings that can occur at the workplace, and that often is at the basis of creative problem-solving. I have already described how important it is to design for moments like this. The case of Steve Jobs, who carefully created parts of the Pixar HQ to allow people to meet more often, is a perfect example. But how do you recreate this when part of the population is remote? Technology can give limited support, and probably we have to relearn completely the way the creative process works.
Solution: collisions don’t happen solely within an organisation. A lot of the value derives from the fact that you can talk to people. We need to consider two aspects: on one side try to invest in rethinking this learning strategy internally with a bit of social engineering. Coupling people from different teams on small problems, allocating people randomly on discussions points, creating contests where people can collaborate, are all possibilities that can try to replicate the “networking” side of this process. The other is helping people learn that creative collisions can happen outside of the workplace too. Once the Covid-19 pandemic is under control, for example, reverting to coworking spaces could lead to encounters that are more “high-touch”. Companies could collaborate to create gatherings for their remote workforce. Bottom-up creative processes should be tested and experimented.
Conclusion: developing a Remote-First Mindset
It ‘ds challenging to define a recipe that can work everywhere. The one element that I think will work best is the development of a Remote-First Mindset. This is similar to what has happened in the world of Internet, where most companies moved to a Mobile-First Mindset to try to exploit the increasing relevance of mobile access to browser and application. Today when you plan a website (or a solution that works via web), you need to consider that most users will probably access it through their smart-phones.
Developing a Remote-First Mindset means rethinking the workplace as a network of connections. Work can happen anywhere, offices might or might not be relevant in this scenario, but what needs to be done is to think about everything from this perspective. A journey that many distributed companies have done consistently over time. The Remote-First mindset assumes that the work team will be, first and foremost, a remote team, even if part of the team works from an office.
All of the above topics need to be part of this intentional design effort. And probably the best suggestion on where to start is to Level up remote Communication to feel just as cohesive as sitting in the same room.
Collaboration and design thinking applied to this domain will serve the purpose and help create a truly remarkable experience.
One misconception about remote work is that it hinders collaboration. In my experience, the inverse is more likely: offices hinder independent work.Paul Farnell, The Difference Between “Remote” and “Remote-First”
Are you ready for the challenge to build a thriving organisation capable of riping the benefits of Remote Work?