For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be ice on the highway from remote-friendly to remote-first work: we were getting there, but now we’re arriving much faster and with much less control. It’s time to see who will thrive and who will struggle.
In the past week, massive companies in the software-eats-the-world space have announced permanent work-from-home options: Twitter, Square, and Facebook. Ok, Twitter and Square share the same CEO, Jack Dorsey. That shouldn’t take away from the fact that these are highly scaled companies that have accepted the challenge of fully virtual tech operations.
What Could Go Right?
I won’t be the first or last to point out that there are many up-sides to this shift. The benefits that I’d like to focus on are grounded in two categories: efficiency and employee satisfaction.
Make no mistake about it: there is a lot of upfront work to become ready for remote collaboration. A company must standardize video conferencing etiquette, organize a strong documentation base for its products and services, and ensure that existing business processes do not otherwise depend on the physical co-location of its employees. However, like most good things in life, good work upfront pays large dividends over time. Once these preliminary actions are done, companies should start to see lower expenses due to lower real estate needs and increased aggregate productivity.
First, there’s the money saved on office expenses. Of course, this includes the leasing and/or building of office space — I can already see CFOs drooling over the prospect of moving HQs out of the valley and into more moderately-priced cities. However, it also includes the numerous expenses involved in making that space a utopia that eggs the employees to stay just a little bit longer each day because it’s so dang cool (remember all the shill in the movie The Internship?). With some companies, I wonder which is more expensive — building the thing, or decking it out?
Second, there will be increased output for companies that hire with effective vetting pipelines. For many of these businesses, the limiting factors for that perfected pipeline are how often a candidate applies and how often the candidate successfully earns the offer. Once a department has shifted into a fully-remote model, the talent pool becomes much larger than the typical can-you-commute-in-around-one-hour population. Imagine all of that geographically-distributed talent hitting those hiring pipelines. Don’t you think getting that river flowing will quickly pay for that upfront expense of designing remote-friendly work processes to support it?
Speaking of location location location. The business won’t be the only side saving money on real estate once this shift takes over. Gone will be the days of employees having to move to technology epicenters just to work for your dream company. Since they don’t have to live in those epicenters, they re-gain the freedom to live where they please. Some folks adore the idea of cramming in a tiny Silicon Valley apartment with nothing more to their name than headphones, a laptop, and a constant cup of coffee; others see it as a necessary evil to build their career. Combine more affordable living with the choice of how to live…and you’ve got yourself some very happy employees.
Researchers in England found adding an additional 20 minutes of commuting per day has the same negative effect on job satisfaction as receiving a 19% pay cut.Inc.com
Want a trick to get people talking passionately about something? Ask them how they feel about their work commute.
The reality is simple. The less the majority of employees have to endure grueling commutes, the happier they will be. In addition, there is more time saved! So, if companies can do remote work effectively, they will have happier employees that have more time on their hands. Even if that time isn’t put back into work, it sounds like a win-win all around to me.
What Could Go Wrong?
I’m glad you asked. There’s always a dark side to things.
Walk Before You Run
You can’t just snap your fingers and reap all of these benefits. Companies who have scraped by on inefficient co-location collaboration processes can cripple themselves by jumping into the remote-first model too quickly. Great care must be taken to ensure that the transition is gradual and thorough. Granted, most companies have no other option while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on; however, this debate will ring just as true in the post-pandemic world.
A company going remote-first when it’s not quite ready could remove some important connections in its tangled web of business processes that were keeping it together, resulting in…chaos. A similar point of pain has likely been felt by companies that did not effectively prepare for a key employee transitioning to a new employer. Something as small as an important software credential or manual process that is no longer present can bring a well-oiled machine screeching to a halt. Then, everyone begrudgingly acknowledges the bittersweet 20-20 hindsight during the disaster’s retrospective review process.
Nobody wants to be in that room.
Now, if that incident was a meteor, consider the transition to fully remote as a hailstorm — smaller, but much more frequent “oh crap” moments where the business process is not ready for an unforeseen obstacle. Make sure you’re ready to go surfing before you join the wave.
Preserve Company Culture
Maintaining company culture and co-worker camaraderie will also shift, although I believe it will be less drastic than many are calling for.
We all know the canonical social events such as going out for food and drinks, team-building days at large event facilities, and recreational sports leagues. However, these activities are not complete nor exclusive to local-only companies.
They aren’t complete since there are numerous social activities that are already performed online: social media interactions, internet-based sports/games, texts, phone calls, etc.
And while one can claim that nothing trumps “real-life” engagement, this does not equate to local-only companies winning this portion of the argument. Nothing stops portions of remote-work co-workers from self-organizing and doing all of these physical activities. In fact, I know that it already occurs in many companies. Analogy: it’s local meetups, but for people in your company that live within a radius of you.
What To Do, Then?
If you’re barely on the road to remote, start practicing with an instance of a “virtual game day”, where an entire team/department is required to work from home for that day. This forces a good simulation of how your company performs virtually. Set up a task force around the effort, to take polls, observe trends, and suggest the next steps.
If you claim to be “remote-friendly”, virtual game days still provide your best feedback, but I’ll add one more piece of advice. Dig into how your employee satisfaction and feedback differs with your remote and brick-and-mortar employees, ideally under the same team or department. Unfortunately, companies claiming remote friendliness in recent years is about the same as claiming anything automated by some code is Artificial Intelligence: it sounds cute, but it’s probably not true.
If you are already in the kingdom come of full remote work compatibility, keep patting yourself on the back! Go off and hire from the most complete talent pool you’ve ever had access to. Offer them a salary that doesn’t have to account for the price of your office space and their home in the heart of a raging tech city. Offer them a VPN, instead of a relocation stipend.
Oh, and take some time to get comfortable with video conferencing applications. Asking “can you see my screen?” while you’re unknowingly muted does not an effective meeting create 🙃.