remote work

What we know 3 years into the great remote work experiment

Back in 2020 (which feels like it was about a decade ago in COVID-19-era years), companies that never would have toyed with remote work previously decided to wade in — or even dive in — to minimize risk and potentially cut some expenses. At the time, I wrote on Medium that making employees feel safe to boost productivity was a noble pursuit. But I also had some skepticism. IBM, for example, pioneered robust work-from-home policies about 40 years ago, only to backtrack. Was there anything about modern companies, employees, or technology that would make things different now?

Well, flash forward to 2023 and it appears that some of remote work’s most enthusiastic backers from 2020 have softened their positions. Take Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, who said Facebook (prior to its 2021 name-change to Meta) would become “the most forward-leaning company on remote work at [its] scale.” Now, the story he tells has changed, pointing to Meta’s own internal performance assessments that showed (according to him) “engineers earlier in their career perform better on average when they work in-person with teammates at least three days a week.” Zuckerberg isn’t alone in this belief.

Elsewhere, Jack Dorsey, then CEO of both Square (now Block) and Twitter, told employees at both companies they could work from home forever. In the the intervening years, however, the Elon Musk era at Twitter (now X Corp. — lots of name changes in tech since 2020) has in part been defined by his declaration that the “office is not optional.”

At Apple, Tim Cook said his company was “running the mother of all experiments” with remote work. Ultimately, flexible policies have been retracted, though, leading to disciplinary action for employees who fail to make it into offices at least three days a week.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky in contrast may be one of the most vocal holdouts, remaining committed to his company’s work-from-anywhere approach and even criticizing other executives “going away to the Hamptons for the summer” for having double standards.

So who’s right? Did the great experiment fail? Were CEOs deceived?

Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai seemed clear-eyed about remote work when he said in 2020 that everyone would need to “learn what works.” In many cases, we may be seeing that what works is not the same for everyone. (I know. Big surprise, right?)

Here’s the discrepancy: A 2022 Future Forum survey found that workers with flexible conditions said they were 29% more productive. However, bosses and managers don’t necessarily agree. A Microsoft survey in 2022 found that 85% of leaders saw productivity go down after shifting to hybrid work models.

One of the most compelling observations to me came from Zuckerberg’s assessment. Note how he specifically referenced engineers who were earlier in their career. Now, I’m not an engineer, and I won’t pretend to be one here. But I have worked through a variety of environments in my nearly 20-year career. I’ve worked for years-long periods in corporate office environments, as a freelancer for multiple outlets doing everything from an apartment or in reporting in the field, and in hybrid scenarios where everyone was constantly going in and out of the office doing interviews, working from home for part of the day because it was the fastest way to file a given story on a given day. All of those experiences have informed my personal preferences, which can be boiled down to this: Do what the work requires.

Good journalism, for instance, benefits from in-person observances and face-to-face conversations. Copy can be filed from almost anywhere, so at the end of the day whatever gets the best information to the right place in a serviceable draft is going to be the right answer for where the work should get done. The same can be said for work in other contexts, too, but it requires trust between managers and their teams. (And that trust needs to be both earned and given in order to be present.)

So what’s the best way to build trust on remote/hybrid teams? The simple answer is that work gets done. But early-career employees are at a disadvantage when they don’t have mentors and colleagues to observe, model behaviors off of, and reinforce cultural norms. When in-person collaboration isn’t part of the equation, that collaboration and reinforcement needs to happen in digital contexts. That need is backed up recommendations and research from McKinsey.

McKinsey has 12 practices that it asserts are “key to developing effective and sustainable hybrid work strategies.” In summary, those staare:

  1. Consider employee sentiment and well-being
  2. Pinpoint which virtual and in-person moments matter most to employees
  3. Factor in environmental and sustainability impact
  4. Use advanced tech to enable remote workers
  5. Be responsive to changes at on-site facilities
  6. Provide benefits and amenities to employees
  7. Use data to judge success and plan to inform workplace strategies
  8. Value and train managers to prioritize driving results (not just in-office presence)
  9. Make primary objectives clear
  10. Have a dedicated exec overseeing workplace experiences
  11. Iterate and assess success with each change made
  12. Document policies and practices in a clear way as they are made and updated

All of those together are not likely be feasible for young and smaller organizations. But conceptually they represent an actionable set of tools that can be deployed to improve outcomes. A handful of these recommendations can applied to almost any business operations (use data, iterate and improve, make someone responsible for outcomes, etc.). It’s such a big basket that no one should be surprised they aren’t all being routinely implemented.

Nevertheless, I think McKinsey rightly notes one major opportunity for teams that can catalyze improvements on multiple fronts: No. 12, which is “We have a unified, easily accessible, and up-to-date playbook documenting how we work.” Only 16 respondents from the 50 companies that were surveyed indicated they were doing this. Just taking this step, however, can be an on-ramp to implementing other best practices. Moreover — and like I said before, I say this having managed large and small teams in a variety physical and virtual settings — this is a step that can provide transparency, minimize confusion, and serve as a living document that responds to needs as they arise in a theater that’s visible for everyone.

Distributed remote and hybrid teams have unique needs. Human beings are always going to wonder why they’re being told to do something, and making objectives should should be a natural part of any manager’s day-to-day functions. Playbooks like what McKinsey recommends play similar roles as company intranet resources and employee handbooks more generally in this respect. As a team leader, I will always prefer to be able to refer someone to a common reference point and then do a short call or chat to get into nuances than have to re-explain something in standard language dozens of times. From that perspective, these playbooks can save time on everyone’s parts while also standardizing communication in an accessible place.

This is all to say that we have collectively learned quite a bit over three years of accelerated work-from-home practices. No one should have been under illusions that remote work was a panacea or that it would work at every company. But we also need to remember that the plunge occurred with the interests of health and well being as a priority in the middle of a historic pandemic. (Of course, we’re now seeing concerns about depression and weight-gain among remote workers, which is another problem consider.) In the meantime, my guess would be that we’ll continue to see the pendulum keep swinging as companies try to find the right recipes for their own needs and team members. Will it swing back hard enough to remedy record-high office vacancy rates? That might be a tall order.

Featured image for this post generated using Midjourney