As companies evaluate their return to the offices they deserted last year, most expect they’ll offer a hybrid model going forward – employees will be splitting their time between the office and home.
Employees are driving much of this shift towards permanent hybrid/remote work; many are excited about the possibility of eliminating their commutes, and adding flexibility to their schedules. On the other hand, many employees are reporting higher instances of burnout, missed deadlines and elevated stress.
Companies are searching for the right ingredients for a hybrid work playbook. Beyond deciding how many days employees will spend at home, this playbook should simplify communication processes, reduce meetings, limit distractions and notifications, and enable employees to produce deep work. Firms that opt to shift to permanent flex work will need systems in place that match the needs of everyone on the team, whether they’re working from home or from the office. There will be no room for half measures in a hybrid work model.
Remote working isn’t new. Many companies have been doing it successfully for years. Automattic (creators of WordPress) has roughly 1,200 employees who have worked remotely for 16 years across 77 countries with “full autonomy to work from anywhere they choose.” Other proponents of remote work like Zapier, Basecamp and Buffer are thriving. GitHub, who sold to Microsoft in 2018 for $7.5 billion, has even written a remote work manifesto.
IBM and Yahoo famously tried remote work, only to reverse their decisions a few years later.
How are you feeling today?
Workplace productivity software company Asana recently released their Anatomy of Work Index 2021. The results suggest that remote work has a number of shortcomings.
For instance, it’s causing many of us to work too much. Knowledge workers logged 213 more hours in 2020 than in 2019 and 87% say they’re working more in their homes than they were at the office.
Meanwhile, 75% of workers are having trouble disconnecting from work and 7 out of 10 reported feeling burned out at least once last year. Most employees reported elevated stress levels, with a 3x increase in mental health concerns.
What’s on your schedule today?
In a remote environment where digital communication is now the default, many employees are losing countless hours by switching between tasks and apps —- some are spending as much as 60% of their day working on internal processes instead of working on tasks that generate a meaningful return.
Tangling with new communication tools is pushing strategic and skill oriented work to the bottom of our schedules. Workers are logging more admin time and redundant work; the average employee logs up to 240 hours per year on work that’s already been completed by someone else.
Remote work can be incredibly powerful
For companies that have successfully transitioned their teams to a remote-first or remote-only environment, the outcomes can be incredibly positive. Those who have done it well rave about it, like remote hiring company Toptal where “you’re recognized for what you do, not your time in a chair.”
Gartner reports that fully remote employees put in 37% more discretionary effort than their “never-remote” counterparts. These same employees also demonstrated a 70% increase in meaningful contributions to their employers.
Best practices from the veterans of remote work
Basecamp and Doist, who made the choice to work remotely years before COVID-19, find success by “writing up” important ideas and information in public locations like company wikis or message boards, instead of “chatting them down” on text or Slack where they might get ignored or lost.
Writing something down benefits everyone on the team, not just the people in the room; it also improves transparency and continuity.
There are growing pains associated with these new habits. Employees often ask colleagues for answers to their questions via email or chat, rather than proactively searching for information on an internal wiki. When the team buys into this new behaviour, the company’s knowledge base grows exponentially; employees become less reliant on a colleague’s availability to answer a quick question.
The team at Idea Grove, a boutique PR firm in Dallas, engaged in an exercise to capture the benefits of deep work. They grouped their team into managers and makers, the business people and the creatives. After setting new rules to limit meetings, lengthen response times to email and Slack, and splitting the company’s calendar into manager hours and maker hours, the team was reporting lower stress, fewer conflicts and were delivering their best work to clients.
Remote teams think differently than those who ‘work from home’
Most employees pursue remote work for the flexibility. They work when it suits them, when they feel most productive, and in a setting that’s independent of workplace distractions.
Truly remote teams think differently about time and communication.
A one-hour meeting with 5 people is actually a five-hour meeting. Remote teams ask if these meetings are a good use of everyone’s time. Meetings are often recorded so they can be reviewed later by attendees, and by those who couldn’t attend.
Other tips include turning off notifications, especially when deep work is required. Responses within 24 hours (not immediately) should become the norm. Text and phone calls are reserved for urgent items, otherwise it’s best to revert to written communication – speaking helps those in the room; writing helps everyone.
At a higher-level, communication among remote teams is split into communication that requires an immediate response (synchronous) and communication that doesn’t require an immediate response (asynchronous). Basecamp suggests “real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.”
Asynchronous communication, the ‘holy grail’ of remote work
Finding the holy grail of remote, or hybrid, work will depend on each company finding different answers to the same problems. The most common problem is communication, and the most common solution for remote teams is the concept of asynchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication, or “async”, means different things to different people. Doist describes async as communication that doesn’t require an immediate response: send an email, log a note, and let your team respond when they’re ready.
Proponents of remote work argue that work should be completed outside of time, and independent of a schedule. Basecamp’s CEO, Jason Fried, suggests that “calendars have nothing to do with communication.” Interruptions and distractions from context switching eliminate many of the benefits of remote work. Async, when done well, means employees can work anywhere, anytime.
Switching to an asynchronous “writing-first culture” is difficult; it’s not how most employees are accustomed to working. When done well, it will produce work and information that is accessible by all employees on their own schedules.
It’s still important, however, to leave a place for synchronous communication – for big decisions, time sensitive issues and townhall discussions.
If remote work was easy, everyone would do it
For those who plan to make a permanent shift to remote work, and more importantly for those who plan to operate in a hybrid setting, there are a few key takeaways.
Regardless of the time employees spend in the office and in their homes, every company should have a strategy for communications and workflows that reduces redundancy and latency. In some ways, a fully remote workforce can be easier to manage, as employees will be working from the same playbook.
Whatever you choose to include in your team’s hybrid playbook, ensure it can be shared, assigned and, most importantly, adapted based on feedback from your team.
And while you’re doing all of that, don’t forget to turn off your notifications.