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There is no center of a remote universe
Work should not revolve around an office.
Back in 2010, my employer went fully remote. I had already been working remotely (along with two colleagues), but the option was extended to the entire company. Consultants were hired to reframe some preconceived notions about the office: that work can only occur between 9 and 5, for example. Or that presence is the same as productivity.
Even though I had been a remote employee for years, the flexible aspect was new. Employees were encouraged to do something outside of their comfort zone during the first few weeks, such as going to a movie in the middle of the day and not telling anyone they were gone for a few hours.
With some bumps, my team learned to embrace its newfound freedom. I still mostly worked a traditional schedule, but only because I had childcare during those hours. Still, I went grocery shopping in the middle of the day on Fridays, took lengthy breaks if I felt stressed, and learned not to expect an immediate response from my colleagues.
Yet the development team at this small software company functioned very differently. Three of the six people in the department chose to go into the office. The other three, while opting to work from home, stuck to very traditional hours. The entire team functioned synchronously—even making announcements like “I’m going to the dentist, be back in an hour!” (which was supposed to be a big no-no since it fostered virtual presenteeism).
The three in the office would routinely collaborate to “hash out” an idea. Sometimes their decisions were announced via email; sometimes not. When I joined the team in 2014 as the product manager, I found this frustrating. I was left out of the decision-making based solely on the fact that I was not in the office.
Office culture is not inclusive
By design, offices follow a prescriptive way of working. You arrive and leave at a certain time, gather for meetings, and are forced to engage.
The most creative person at the company may be shy. Or someone who is neurodivergent. The office also excludes people who are productive at non-traditional work hours, people who live far from the office and can’t stay late or participate in social events, and anyone who faces discrimination at the office. Moving away from an office levels the playing field.
Hiring within proximity of an office places limits on the company's diversity. Even companies that have a commitment to DEI and are located in big cities with a large candidate pool aren’t getting the full breadth of potential employees. A requirement to collaborate in-office means that an employee must have access to transportation and can “fit” in-office hours around childcare or other external needs.
Hiring based on geography also places limits on employee perspectives. After my company became fully remote in 2010, I hired a woman from a small town in South Dakota. Without remote work, her job prospects in the town were limited. Her life, living in a small town, brought a new set of experiences to the table. The same holds true for attitudes that may vary across the United States and even globally.
Pamela Hinds, Stanford professor and remote work expert, notes that company culture still exists in a remote or hybrid environment, “But they’re not being guided by systems and routines that were previously established in the office.”
She goes on to say, “They’re more open to change and subject to influence from new, non-work factors present in employees’ day-to-day lives.”
Effective collaboration is not a chance encounter
“But what about those innovative ideas that are sparked by casual conversations? We need an office for that.”
Actually, you don’t.
Research doesn’t back this up. In fact, relying on casual interactions and serendipity can stifle innovation because it forces creativity to occur at a certain time and place. There are a plethora of tools that facilitate remote collaboration and many that emphasize async collaboration.
Even the idea of mentorship—a key reason cited by Goldman Sachs for its return-to-office mandate—assumes that all people learn and socialize in the same way and that those ways are the only way that knowledge transfer can occur.
Yet, in many cases, relying on the chance or casual interactions for mentorship fuels exclusionary practices. Corporations would benefit from a more standardized approach that ensures equal access to mentors. Effective practices can be observed and documented, building a better foundation for future mentees.
Instead, think of the office as a place for people who need a change of scenery. For people who don’t have a quiet or private workspace at home. And for those that enjoy the social aspect—with emphasis on socializing and not on working or collaborating since that moves back into exclusionary territory.
Coworking spaces, coffee shops, and libraries can have the same impact. If the office can be reimagined as “a place to go” rather than the catalyst for collaboration, then it still has its place in the future of work.
What it means to be remote-first
Any company considering a hybrid work environment will face these challenges, particularly if employees can choose which days they work in an office. The scenario is easy to imagine: part of the team gathered around a conference table with remote employees straining to hear through a speakerphone.
Over time, this punishes employees who choose a remote option. They’re left out of decision-making and risk that in-office employees are favored (even if actual work results are the same). “A hybrid workplace has the potential to become an inequitable workplace, as in-office workers have more contact with managers and executives—while those who stay home fall out of sight and out of mind,” writes Erica Pendey for Axios.
Hybrid work will reinforce exclusionary practices if companies do not adopt a remote-first mindset. If remote work is offered, it’s not a reward. It’s not to come at the expense of promotions and other opportunities.
All company tools and resources can be accessed remotely, without issue.
Meetings are conducted in a way that do not favor in-office employees.
The company prioritizes technology that facilitates remote collaboration.
Above all, remote-first removes the office as the center of the universe. There is no priority given to a “headquarters.” Every employee location is given equal weight, whether it’s a home or a coworking space or the corner of a once-busy office.
In the News: High gas prices impact return-to-office plans
Politicians have joined CEOs in their calls for employees to return to the office. Eric Adams, mayor of New York, said, “It’s time to get back to work” to revitalize the downtown area. This was echoed by President Biden in his State of the Union address.
Yet this pressure to return comes amid soaring gas prices. Costly trips to the pump make a commute even harder to swallow. Now, in addition to time lost in the day, a commute puts pressure on employees’ wallets.
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