When you think about remote work, do you picture yourself sitting at a beach-side cafe in Tulum typing away to the sound of waves crashing on the beach? Perhaps it’s the luxury of clocking off at 6 PM and not having to battle rush hour traffic to spend time with your family after work. Whatever it might be, a lot of us have come to recognize and enjoy the flexibility and freedom of remote work.

In fact, GitLab found that 1 in 3 people would leave their current roles if remote work was no longer an option at their company. If given the choice, 1 in 2 people would opt for a remote role over an office-based one. Flexibility is no longer a “bonus”, it’s a crucial requirement for workers across all sectors.

With solid evidence that almost all tech jobs can be done remotely, companies around the world are rethinking what work can look like in the years to come.

What’s So Great About Remote Work Anyway?

Well-known companies like GitLab, Zapier, and Stack Overflow have been working remotely for years and written extensively about its benefits such as an increase in productivity, efficiency, employee morale, opportunities to hire the best talent, and retention.

GitLab’s Out of the Office report noted that “remote work is proving to be the world’s most inclusive perk: it is universally useful, but individually applied.”

Freedom and Flexibility to Adapt Work to Different Lifestyles

Remote work gave people the freedom to choose to work from anywhere with an internet connection, and 1 in 3 people plan to relocate or work from abroad when it is safe to do so. Some have already taken the opportunity to move back home to be closer to family while others moved out of big cities to more low-cost locations closer to nature.

“Workers appreciate the flexibility to fit work into their life schedule as opposed to vice-versa... Remote work makes the day-to-day more manageable, with a series of minor quality of life adjustments amounting to a significant net improvement.”

When GitLab asked how people have made small improvements to their lives since going remote, answers ranged from small tweaks like being able to help their kids get ready for school, to significant changes such as moving to a new country.

No More Commuting!

Buffer reported that eliminating time spent traveling to and from the office has been a significant game-changer for many. Instead of commuting to work, people are spending that time with their families, focusing on their mental and physical health, and spending more time out in nature.

Inclusivity and Diversity

GitLab’s 2021 Remote Work Report surveyed 3,900 participants and found that while women make up 38% of the workforce worldwide, in remote jobs, they make up the majority at 58%. Meanwhile, 9% of respondents identified as LGBTQ+, significantly higher than the global average. The report also noted that 55% of respondents have children under 18, while 15% of respondents are caregivers.  

Creating a Space that Works for People with Disabilities

Those who live with visible or invisible disabilities also benefit from the security and flexibility of remote work. In this article, a worker with autism and ADHD reported struggling to work in an office with different sounds and did not feel comfortable in social situations. Working from home allowed this person to structure their work environment to better suit their needs compared to an office space, which is usually built for neurotypical people.

According to Arif Jetha, a researcher who studies workplace accessibility at the University of Toronto, “working from home was amongst the most required accommodations or support that people with all types of disabilities reported needing”.

Prior to the pandemic, many employers would simply say, “this is not how we do things”. That may change going forward.

Challenges to Remote Work

Despite its many perks, remote work also comes with its own unique set of challenges.

Burnout, Fatigue, and Exhaustion

In a particularly personal article, Doist’s CEO Amir Salihefendic shared his experience working remotely. He wrote about how the lack of work-life balance coupled with the loneliness of working from his apartment eventually took a toll on his mental health. A study by WildGoose revealed that 1 in 3 employees experienced negative impacts from remote work, including depression, anxiety, exhaustion.

The main cause of burnout was the inability to truly unplug and rest. More than 25% of employees did not take their allocated annual leave and over 20% of employees continued working even when they were sick. Over 35% of respondents reported increased workload and 1 in 2 employees pointed to communication outside of working hours as another reason for burnout.

(It is important to note that this study was carried out during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, where remote work often felt more like being trapped at home rather than a perk, which might have skewed answers.)

Communication and Zoom Fatigue

When companies went completely remote in 2020, many found that communication became the largest challenge at work. In fact, companies with bad communication practices in-office often found this problem exacerbated when working remotely.

A crucial part of online communication includes virtual meetings. The entire world jumped in at warped speed to adopt a virtual meeting platform, and it didn’t take long for articles about Zoom Fatigue to flood our newsfeeds, where people reported being worn out by excessive video calls.

According to this article by Stanford University, virtual calls are still unnatural, and the regular cues used to interpret in-person communications are often stripped away. This means people had to spend more time interpreting social cues and responding to them in an equally unnatural manner.

Culture Suffered When Workers Felt Disconnected

Maintaining your company’s culture in a remote setting is also more difficult compared to an office setting. Without physical cues like your office’s decoration and the social cues like social activities typically organized with co-workers in the same office, it’s tougher to develop company culture.  

57% of workers miss social interactions with their colleagues, and 1 in 3 workers felt disconnected from their teams. A quarter of workers also experienced a negative impact on their teamwork due to remote work.

The Future of Work is Likely a Hybrid One

“We have the old world, we have the current world. But the one after this is going to look different because everyone’s expectations and understanding of what’s possible have shifted” – Tom Oliphant, Head of Strategic Planning & Operations at Intercom

Property developers in New York who risk losing millions in revenue if companies decide to stop leasing ginormous workspaces are already rethinking what offices could look like when workers are no longer obliged to go to the office 5 days a week. These developers acknowledge that companies will likely experiment with hybrid teams moving forward, especially since CEOs understand the importance a physical workplace has to the future of their culture and business.  

But what does “Hybrid Work” actually look like?

For some, it will mean being completely remote (sometimes in different cities or timezones) while others might prefer to be in the office full-time. We do expect most people to fall somewhere in between, leading to a the hybrid work arrangement.

“The office used to be a place that you went to work and now it’s going to be a place that you go to work together”, says Michael Phillips, president of Jamestown LP. The office of the future will likely include “more collaboration space, more conference rooms, more food and beverages, more IT support in a way that people can get their needs met, and there’s a real stickiness to being in that environment,” says Michael.

This sentiment is echoed by Intercom’s internal survey findings, where people recognized the office as a great place for “culture, connection, and collaboration.” The most obvious choice for companies is to take advantage of both remote and in-person working to create a more productive environment for workers.

However, managers will need to adapt their communication and management styles as they give employees the freedom to choose where they want to work.

In this podcast, Quinn Slack, CEO of Sourcegraph, a company that went from a hybrid work environment to a completely remote one, noted that it was common for remote workers to feel like second-class citizens compared to their in-office counterparts. Remote workers were more likely to have contributions overlooked, and communication with team members was tricky as many discussions happened face-to-face. As a result, remote workers were usually the last to learn about the latest decisions made. Extra care is required to reduce the functional distinctions between remote and in-office workers.

Tips for Transitioning to Hybrid Teams

With a better understanding of the challenges faced by remote workers, how do we incorporate these insights into a hybrid model that helps people do their best work every single day, no matter where they’re working from?

Gallup recommends going through these 7 questions to help you manage your hybrid strategy:

  1. Why is hybrid right for our organization? How should we adapt it to our company's unique culture?
  2. How will our employees’ voices guide our transition?
  3. How will we roll this out? Gradually or all at once?
  4. What does flexibility look like in our company?
  5. How will we equip our managers for this new way of working? What do they need to learn to deliver a consistent employee experience remotely and in-office?
  6. Where will we see costs increase, decrease, or shift?
  7. How will we evaluate what works and what doesn’t?

Communicate Better, No Matter Where You Are

As companies figure out what work will look like in the future, there will be a lot of trial and error. At each step of the way, intentional communication by all team members will be crucial for success.

Streamline Communication Channels

Quinn noticed how he and his developers experienced an overload of notifications, comments, and notes left on Slack, email, Trello, Jira, git repos, and all the other tools used to get work done. He advises teams to agree on one or two main communication channels to avoid overloading one another with too many pings, rings, and dings.

When it comes to meetings, GitLab recommends cutting down the number of compulsory meetings. Instead, they recommend sharing an agenda with relevant parties so that each person can decide if they should attend the meeting or not. Companies should also adopt the habit of recording and documenting meeting discussions and outcomes so that other teammates can catch up at a more convenient time.

Give Context When You Communicate

A lot of implied context and physical cues in face-to-face communication is lost in a virtual setting. Therefore, communicators throughout the team need to provide recipients with context and consciously make information available and accessible to teammates when they need it.

Poor communication practices are felt more acutely when you work with teammates across different time zones and when responses take 8 to 12 hours. Over time, as more people in the company experience the “pain” of not having the information they need to get a task done, they will ideally get used to asking for and providing the right contextual information to teammates from the get-go.

Ask for Visibility, but Don’t Micromanage

Throughout your team or company, Quinn says people should be aware of the goal for a project or particular piece of work, why it’s important, and who is leading it. However, if someone demands additional visibility over the work, Quinn argues that “you don’t need visibility to get results”.

Instead, trust that the person in charge knows what they're doing, and make it clear that they can reach out should they need extra help.

Maintain a Single Source of Truth for Developer Documentation

Companies with increasingly distributed teams will come to rely on internal documentation to get questions answered efficiently. At Sourcegraph, the Handbook is their single source of truth where developer documentation is regularly updated.

Quinn found that recognizing contributions to the Handbook during weekly meetings was a great way to encourage more developers to update documentation.

Leave Useful Comments in Your Code

Leaving helpful and relevant comments in the code can be a way to pay it forward to the next developer. If your comments can show the intent of the code, like where someone could rewrite the code in a different language and produce the same outcome, it is likely to be more useful to the reader.

Again, a habit like this does not happen overnight. Quinn acknowledges that people are more likely to write better comments if they’ve experienced the struggle of a poorly written comment or a lack of information in general. He highlights the importance of reiterating the value of paying it forward at team meetings.

Be Intentional About Creating Opportunities for Interactions

A lot of interactions between co-workers happen outside of formal meetings so creating opportunities for “water cooler chats” for remote employees will be important. This could look like an optional brainstorming session or even a virtual coffee break.

With a hybrid team, seeking out opportunities for your team members to meet in person is also important. Company-wide events, like annual team retreats, are another great place to start.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

What works for one company might not work for another. While it’s up to your company’s leaders to decide the best way forward, transitioning effectively to a hybrid team will require the entire team to work together.

Whether it’s updating documentation or drafting an email, more thought needs to go into creating the best content to support your fellow teammates, so that we can all take turns working from a beach-side cafe in Tulum one day. 🌴

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