The pandemic made it imperative that workers around the global adapt to makeshift remote work spaces. A growing percent of the workforce is spending a portion of their week working from home. Meanwhile forefront businesses embraced a “work-from-anywhere” philosophy from their inception. As virtual working rapidly gained traction in 2020, the pandemic accelerated a location-agnostic mindset across the corporate world, with tech behemoths like Facebook and Twitter announcing permanent remote working plans.
There are those who are not happy about this work-culture shift though. Netflix co-founder and co-CEO Reed Hastings has emerged as one of the most vocal opponents. “I don’t see any positives,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.”
Hastings predicted that as society slowly returns to normal, many companies will concede some ground to remote work, but most will return to business as usual. “If I had to guess, the five-day workweek will become four days in the office while one day is virtual from home,” he said, adding (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that Netflix employees would be back in the office “12 hours after a vaccine was approved.”
But a remote workforce offers too many benefits for most companies to ignore completely, chief among them a vastly widened talent base. Fintech giant Stripe launched what it called a “remote engineering hub” to complement its existing fixed-location offices. Although Stripe had employed remote workers since its launch a decade earlier, these workers were embedded within a traditional office structure and reported to a manager or team based in a physical office. The remote engineering hub went some way toward putting remote work on equal footing with brick-and-mortar bases and helping the company “tap the 99.74% of talented engineers living outside the metro areas of our first four hubs,” Stripe CTO David Singleton said at the time.
Transitioning to a truly remote workforce requires a top-to-bottom rethink of how business is conducted on an everyday basis, with an emphasis on virtual communications. This is the single most difficult thing companies face when making the transition from a “meetings-first culture to a virtual culture”. Most new to remote organizations thought remote just meant all the same meetings, but over Zoom. That has led to even more misery than meetings generally do. You have to make the transition to a virtual culture to do well as a remote company.
WordPress.com developer Automattic has nurtured a distributed workforce since its inception in 2005, and today it gives more than 1,200 employees across 77 countries full autonomy to work from anywhere they choose. Lori McLeese, the company’s global head of HR for the past 10 years, noted that for a distributed workforce to succeed, remote working needs to be built into the fabric of the company. She says this remote structure must span communications and all the tools a company uses to connect people across myriad locations.
Although many of the terms used to describe working outside of an office are used interchangeably, it’s important to distinguish between them. For example, “remote working” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as “home working” (though, of course, it can).
Both “remote working” and “home working” tend to suggest an individual practice, rather than a company-wide philosophy. Distributed work is not equivalent to working from home — and definitely not equivalent to working from home during a pandemic.
A myriad of tools are used for remote working. Although Automattic relies on third-party products such as Slack and Zoom, it has also developed internal tools with a distributed workforce in mind.
Devops powerhouse GitLab is one of the biggest all-remote companies in the world, with nearly 1,300 employees spread across 69 territories. Curiously, its online handbook says this remote-working policy gives it a “distinct competitive advantage” but that the company hopes its “hiring advantage will diminish over time.” In short, GitLab is pushing for an all-remote workforce.
The democratization of remote work will trigger a massive shift in talent acquisition and recruiting, which newly remote organizations must master.
This is where GitLab and its ilk enjoy a distinct advantage over organizations that have yet to learn the art of remote work. Simply telling people it’s cool to work at home is not enough, for remote work to be successful, it has to be native — supported and encouraged, rather than simply permitted.
GitLab also recently completed what it calls its Async 3.0 initiative, which strives to “more clearly define and operationalize asynchronous communication,” or “create more inclusive and respectful workflows”. Ultimately, it’s about structuring organizations to cater to a distributed workforce, rather than just replacing in-person meetings with Zoom calls. These advanced campaigns provide a significant competitive advantage over skeuomorphic remote transitions, which burden workers with inefficient, undocumented workflows held together by an endless series of ad hoc meetings.
Despite all the predictions about how COVID-19 could lead to a permanent remote workforce, the truth is likely more nuanced. The pandemic will leave an indelible mark, but the workforce of the near future will probably be something of a hybrid affair. Physical offices won’t die off, but businesses may operate smaller local offices in key urban regions for employees to use if they wish, perhaps alongside a larger HQ in major cities. This hub-and-spoke approach goes some way toward capturing the best of all worlds, in that companies can attract talent wherever they live and offer flexibility — after all, not everyone has a spare bedroom to work in, and those that do don’t necessarily want to work there.
The hybrid approach is likely to appeal most to larger, more established companies that are trying to find a middle ground between office-based and fully remote work. They may struggle to achieve this initially, however, as they try to adapt offline processes to an online setting for a workforce spread across cities, states, and time zones.
Meanwhile, a growing number of startups that are just beginning their journey are adopting a fully remote ethos from the outset, much like Automattic, GitLab before them. As these startups grow, the “distributed workforce” model could eventually become the new normal. The journey to a new distributed work force requires understanding of the processes needed to get there. For this I recommend Virtualteambuilders.com as a key training partner to get you there.