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Remote work shouldn’t be the antithesis of in-person work. Here’s how to do the format correctly

The dramatic uptick in remote workers should be a chance to embrace change—not fight it.

Remote work shouldn’t be the antithesis of in-person work. Here’s how to do the format correctly
[Photo: Neustockimages/Getty Images]

The pandemic’s shift to remote work could have long-lasting positive implications—if we get it right.

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We can already feel that we’re in a period of change, even if we can’t quite analyze it with the benefit of historic context yet. As Brian Chesky recognized in AirBnB’s going fully remote: “You can’t fight the future, we can’t try to hold on to 2019 any more than 1950. We have to move forward.”

During the pandemic, the US went from only a 6% remote workforce to 22%. That is an astounding increase in a dramatically short time frame. The most remarkable byproduct of this transition is just how much employees came to embrace this new format for work. In a continuous year-long survey of US workers published by the Chicago Booth Review, 60% said working from home was better, substantially better, or hugely better than they expected; 26% said about the same; and under 15% said worse.

Now that remote work is becoming the preference, however, the cracks and limitations are becoming apparent. Companies are rebalancing by bringing people back to the office. It seems every week brings another declaration of reopening offices like we’re declaring victory, coming from leaders across business and politics. Yet workers are clearly registering their resistance to returning to the office, and there will be no holistic “return to normal.” Normal has irrevocably shifted towards remote.

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In 2020, I founded my sixth company. And by May 2020, we were remote largely by necessity. Now, given the opportunity to choose, every company I found will be remote. If done well, remote work isn’t just an option – it’s actually the best option.

What the world could look like

If we flip the traditional model and companies were remote for five days a week, and in person was the exception, what could that unfold? There could be more equity, and more diverse workforces. The ability to work from anywhere in the world could mitigate the increasing disparity in real estate, wealth, and mobility. On the individual, company, and local level, the implications would be significant. On a global scale, they become absolutely transformative.

For starters, companies can hire a better workforce. The talent pool expands to the best people from anywhere in the world, the cost of office rent can translate directly into an investment in people.  For us, while about a quarter of our company lives in the San Francisco Bay Area near me, 75% lives in other parts of the state and the country. When you’re building a product, it’s easy to fall into the trap of building for yourself. Having a diverse team increases the likelihood that you’ll create a product with fewer biases.

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We already have the data that proves working from home creates a happier workforce. 64% of at home workers say it is easier to balance work and personal life, compared to 16% who say it is harder and 20% who say it is about the same. Companies that have been increasingly focused on employee mental health, balance, mindfulness, and the “whole human” should be embracing remote work in support of those efforts. For employees looking for flexibility in where they live to employees with responsibilities for families and aging parents, the office only becomes a constraint that restricts their options.

Even more, rather than investing time, money, and energy into an office space, we can channel those investments into people. That means increasing standard of living, providing more resources that actually help the team get work done, and intentional team-building offsites.

You might be saying, “Sure, that sounds great in theory, but the past two years haven’t been particularly smooth sailing. What’s going to change?”

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I hear you. Let’s talk about how we make it work in practice.

Taking on the right mindset

Any transitional period comes with challenges, and we need to be as clear in confronting the challenges as we are in embracing the possibilities.

Instead of trying to decide if you should be remote or hybrid or all together in-person (assuming you have the privilege of the choice), start with the question of, “How can I build a company that helps people thrive?”

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Just like design thinking teaches us not to build assumptions into your questions, building modern working environments means that we have to start from the ground up. Taking full advantage of remote working’s benefits isn’t about trade offs, as most people think it is. Right now, we’re seeing remote work and in-person work presented as two competing realities: the benefits of one can’t exist in the other. You can be connected to your coworkers or you can have the flexibility of remote work. You can work side-by-side in collaboration or you can just share screens.

A mantra I’ve to think about is needing to break the “either/or” constructions if we’re really going to rethink what work can be.

Let’s take connection, for example. Think about your favorite coworker. How did you get to that point? Coffee breaks? Passing each other in the hallway? Those little moments slowly build trust and friendship in an informal environment.

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If connection is the goal, what creative ways can we foster that connection without having to compromise on the benefits of remote work that we noted above? From providing people with better ways to signal when they are free to talk, to setting aside time during meetings outside of the agenda, there are ways to actually plan for spontaneity, which leads to greater connection.

At my company, we meet for a weekly All Hands to catch up on the week and share demos. One of our engineers hosts a weekly game hour where we play online games together. We use Donut to pair people to get know each other outside of a meeting context. Listen to your employees and choose something that feels genuine to your team to create a sense of belonging.

On the occasions we are together, we leave our to-do lists on our desks at home. We focus on breaking bread together and getting to know each other better. When we have a meaningful shared experience, we have more grace, empathy, and understanding of each other the next time we see each other on the screen.

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Further, collaboration is frequently another big sticking point for remote work.

Working with other people is the best way to promote a diversity of ideas, better engage employees, and learn more skills. How can we create this synergy and make the greater space for a more diverse workforce that remote work allows? Our improvised rush into remote working with the pandemic did not provide the best example of what remote collaboration could be. We scrambled to make use of video conferencing tools that were designed more for presentation than collaboration. As Diana Concannon, a psychologist and educator, says these platforms “create a feeling of being on stage and is often accompanied by a compulsion to perform, which requires more energy than a simple interaction.”

I would be remiss not to mention that half the workforce cannot physically do their jobs from home and my learning comes from a position of privilege. That said, if it’s even a possibility for you and your workforce, I urge you to consider the option.

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And when you do consider, I encourage you to think intentionally about the tools and cultures we’re developing, adopting, and relying on and whether or not they are helping build an environment where individuals can thrive. We have to let go of old beliefs and habits, and embrace new ones. We have to be willing to experiment, and be wrong, and try again in the pursuit of a work environment that fosters connection and the cultural needs of the new workforce as much as it does productivity.


Amir Ashkenazi is the founder and CEO of the technology company, Switchboard.

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