Bringing Lessons from Remote Work Back to the Office

We’ve all been part of a massive real-life experiment that has rapidly shaped the future of work. The COVID-19 pandemic forced 50% of American workers to work remotely with an effect that will last forever.

Some people were already set up to work from home; others were configured to work remotely part of the time. Most companies were forced to work remotely with minimal experience or preparation. However, most organizations did much better than expected. Even the most reluctant teams were surprised to see how quickly people adapted.

As the workplace gradually opens back up, you are probably wondering if you or your team are ever going back to the office. Most companies are still figuring out the future of remote work. However, there’s only one thing for sure: Your workplace will never be the same.

What will change, and will stay the same? No one knows for sure, but here are some lessons that we can bring back to the office.

The Power of Choice:  A Hybrid Workplace

Before the pandemic, employees were already demanding a new focus on life, according to research by Gallup. Most organizations apply a binary approach when it comes to workplace rules. Previously, working in a shared physical space (office, factory, store, etc.) was the standard; then came COVID-19, and remote work rapidly became the new norm for many.

As your organization designs the rules for the new normal, flexibility is crucial. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach, provide people with choices.

Many employees that were forced to work from home will probably not go back. Gartner found that 74 percent of organizations plan to permanently shift some employees to remote work. Another study by IBM shows that 54% of people would like to continue primarily working from home after the quarantine ends. 

When Twitter announced that its employees would be allowed to work from home indefinitely, most people got it wrong. Twitter didn’t become a fully-remote employer – what its CEO, Jack Dorsey, announced was that the company was giving people the choice to get back to the office or to work from home forever.

The new normal will be hybrid workplaces. Some people want to return to the workplace; others want to continue working from home. Many want to work from home, but to be allowed to take remote workdays. As a recent survey by Project Management Institute shows, only 16% of professionals want to work mostly in an office, while most (51%) prefer a hybrid approach.

Having helped several organizations remote-proof their culture, it’s exciting to see how people have rediscovered the power of choice. Having flexibility allows people to take care of chores during normal work hours – when stores are open – and then catch up with work at their convenience.

Certain jobs require employees to be physically present. However, as the pandemic demonstrated, many people can work remotely ––and even be more productive. Be flexible, give people options, and let them choose. A good rule of thumb is making “coming into the office optional, except when necessary.”

Welcome Virtual Jet Lag; Goodbye Standard Time

In the past months, our personal time has been invaded by work and the other way around. America’s always-on culture has reached new heights. The lines between working hours and private hours have blurred and the idea of standard time seems like a relic of a bygone era.  

Traditionally, time zone differences created a lot of friction among team members. According to a study by Google, a few remote team members always had to adapt to the ‘central office’ time, thus having to attend meetings too early or too late in the day.

The experience of (almost) everyone working remotely has made people more aware of the fact that we all have to adapt. I’ve been suffering from virtual jet lag more often than not. Though I had to cancel all my Masterclasses and client engagements abroad, I’m still delivering all my services online and had to adjust to different time zones. Sometimes I have to kick-off a workshop at 4 am my time, or finish a session at 10 pm.

I’m not alone. Most of my workshops have participants from around the world. Some participants from London felt tired because a Masterclass was scheduled to finish at 10 pm their time. However, they felt energized when they realized that, for a guy in Dubai, it would be midnight, and for another participant who was in Thailand it would be 3 am.

These experiences have made me more conscious than ever about the challenges of time zones. We all need to adjust and make sure that everyone gets their turn to attend a meeting or workshop at regular hours.

When planning global meetings, take into consideration that standard time is gone. If you happen to work from the office, show empathy by designing a hybrid experience rather than expecting remote attendees to adapt to you. At Trello, even if only one person joins a meeting remotely, everyone takes it from their desks. They want to empathize with others to encourage balanced participation.

Collaboration Made Easier

The “we are in this together” mantra has enabled more profound and broader connections. The notion that no one is immune to COVID-19 has leveled the playing field and reminded us of our vulnerability, together. Collaboration across the world has ramped up, especially with social protests and unrest.

As Wayne Kurtzman, research director at IDC, told Recode, “We have something in common with everyone on the planet we didn’t have two months ago. It gives us something we share. It humanizes us. The sense of community is now to the point where the tech is ready to support authentic community.”

The amount of virtual events – webinars, conferences, online courses, and meetups – have grown exponentially. It has become easier to reach out to strangers for an opinion or to explore collaboration opportunities.

The scientific community, traditionally known for ego-driven, jealousy, and compartmentalized behaviors, has eroded walls at a speed that was once unthinkable. Scientists put their selfish interests aside and, instead of caring about publishing a paper and getting credit, the scientific community has created global collaboration unlike anything in history.

Even corporations had to let go of confidentiality issues and conflicting interests to collaborate in finding a solution to combat an invisible enemy that took global society by storm.

There’s no going back to normal. The joy, growth, and speed gained by this unprecedented level of collaboration are here to stay. It not only has become easier to work with strangers but socially accepted and welcomed.  

Permission to Be More Human

Most organizations tell people to be themselves, but then discourage them from bringing their souls to work. Fortunately, the (forced) acceleration of remote work eroded the walls between personal and professional lives. It gave people permission to cross the line, to bring their personalities to work, and to be more human.

As Jill Dark, Steelcase Director of Learning, wrote here, “Let the dogs bark, let the kid dance, admit that you are in the basement because your spouse is occupying the kitchen. It takes bravery to let the new reality shine.”

Zoom video calls have opened the doors to everyone’s home. We get to see how our colleagues live and meet their families. For me, it has become the new norm to be introduced to babies, spouses, and dogs while I’m facilitating a virtual workshop.

The blurred lines between work and home can harm workers and their families if they aren’t well-defined. However, they also open opportunities for people to be more vulnerable, candid, and collaborative.

For many people, Zoom breakout rooms have become a safe haven. They feel comfortable sharing their emotions, tensions, and issues in a way that wasn’t possible in a physical office setting.

People have adopted virtual team rituals to foster social connections despite physical distancing. From playing rock, paper, scissors to check-ins and virtual happy hours, teams have replaced impromptu collisions at the office with digital encounters that build presence and camaraderie.

In a recent Economist interview, Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was asked whether the bank would loosen up after the pandemic. She was quick to reply that many rules – such as “no jeans in the boardroom” – will definitely shift after joining several Zoom meetings from the comfort of her home.

The pandemic has brought us closer, allowing everyone to bring their humanity to the workplace. As in-office work resumes, leaders should recognize that people are multidimensional. They must encourage employees to continue being themselves and support strong personal relationships.

Better Practices, Increased Productivity

It took some time for most people to settle into working from home. The work-life balance was shattered for many. Our research shows a productivity dip for the first few weeks which then started to recover, especially among those companies that developed a flexible remote culture rather than a controlling one.

The adaptation process required people to design a space to work from home. Not everyone has a spare room to create a home office. Thus, from turning ironing tables into a standing desk to working from a closet or sharing one laptop with their kids, people overcame most challenges. A new survey by Prodoscore shows a 47% increase in productivity.

Although most teams overcommunicated during the first month or so, that helped people stay connected and feel closer. The number of meetings soared – including virtual happy hours – and so did the number of participants. Luckily, the average length of meetings went down by about 10 minutes.

Meeting culture is being rapidly transformed. In a panel on remote work that I co-facilitated, everyone agreed that virtual meetings had forced people to prepare more. Keeping people engaged during online sessions is more challenging. That has forced people to embrace structure, like having a well-designed agenda and people showing up on time. 

Productivity tools like Slack, Mural, and Microsoft Teams can provide a more efficient way to work. IDC research shows that collaborative applications, when supported with the right culture, save time, boost productivity, accelerate outcomes, and create more reliable connections.

Even Slack had to adapt to the new normal. According to its CEO, Stewart Butterfield, the monthly “all-hands” meeting had to be transformed. The one-hour long, well-produced event rapidly turned into a shorter –21 minutes long – event. While traditionally the company spent hundreds of hours of preparation, this one was not only mostly improvised, but also the best rated ever.

What are the habits and practices that are not effective for your organization? When we’re forced to adapt, we always find ways to do something we thought we couldn’t.

Redefine In-Person Experiences

Working face-to-face is no longer the default mode. We took it for granted, but we now have to be more purposeful about how we design and manage in-person experiences.

What’s the value of meeting in person?

Why are we getting together (in person)?

Virtual meetings are challenging and, thus, made people more conscious about successful participation. To avoid speaking at the same time, people have turned to checking-in to see how colleagues are coping, or making sure everyone’s voice is being heard. Most teams have become more mindful about designing productive experiences.

The future of work will be hybrid. The new normal will be having teams with fully-remote members, others 100% working in the office, and the rest somewhere in between.

We need to design for hybrid meetings rather than a physical experience and then ‘forcing’ those who join remotely to adapt. Level the playing field for those who are outsiders. If just one person is remote, make the meeting remote, as Trello does.

Traveling for a meeting will be a luxury. Most businesses were able to adapt and perform well without any travel at all. Many organizations will become very selective about traveling. Some to fight global warming; others to save costs.  

The role of space will change. Health concerns aren’t the only reason the open office will feel obsolete. After experiencing the quietness and comfort of working from home, people don’t want to return to a cookie-cutter, noisy, and dull place.

How can we use space in a more meaningful way?

Space gives a sense of shared belonging. Some workspaces are absolutely beautiful and provide us with energy. Many places, like Zappos’ lobby, were designed to promote impromptu encounters, fostering relationships, and creativity.

I want to end by sharing two questions I use when helping organizations prepare for the new normal:

What are the things about our culture that will help us succeed in the new normal?

What are the aspects of our culture that get us stuck in the old normal?

Your turn.

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