I'm looking forward to getting back in the office.
I miss seeing friends from work. I miss whiteboard sessions. I miss Friday team lunches and Friday evening drinks.
But even when the pandemic is over, remote work isn't going anywhere.
Stuck in the Middle
Matt Mullenweg is CEO of Automattic, the parent company of Wordpress. They've been distributed (his preferred word for "remote") since they began.
He's grown Automattic to over a thousand people, all while remaining distributed.
He talks about the five levels of autonomy in distributed work:
Prior to the pandemic, many technology companies operated at Level One or Two.
It was possible to work remote, but you were expected to show up in-person for most meetings, and let colleagues know when you wouldn't be in the office.
Many other industries operated at Level Zero.
The pandemic forced all kinds of companies to jump straight to Level Three: remote-first.
That's how it has remained for the past year.
Everyone is working remotely. Solutions have been found for initial points of friction—brainstorming sessions, whiteboarding, large meetings.
Some people may have embraced it more, increasing their own written communication and doing things asynchronously where possible.
As the pandemic comes to an end, we are bracing for another change: a regression back to Level Two.
Many companies will expect their employees to come back to work in some form.
Some will put restrictions on the number of days per week they are expected to be in the office.
Others will emphasize that they are expected to show up for important meetings.
This is going to cause a lot of friction.
It is very hard to take things away from people.
Even if they're keen to get back to the office, many people have acknowledged the benefits of remote work, particularly if they aren't subject to other restrictions caused by the pandemic.
They get to see their kids more, and cut their commute time out of their day. They can head to the local driving range before work, or spend some time in their yard.
They can have lunch with their spouse or significant other.
While they may tell you that they don't want to work remotely all the time, they do want to have the option.
The option to work remotely enables all kinds of things: extended trips to visit family, a trip to a warmer climate in the winter, etc.
Forcing people to come into work also no longer makes much sense.
Prior to the pandemic, arguments against remote work typically followed a few themes:
- It will be disruptive to other workers
- We can't be as productive when we aren't in the office
- Once we say yes to one person, everyone else will do the same
It is now much harder to argue the first two points.
Potential disruptions have been solved. Productivity hasn't suffered; in many cases most would acknowledge it might be better.
As for the third argument: if you're worried about everyone wanting the privilege, it might be time to reconsider why you aren't granting it in the first place.
Many companies plan to offer some sort of hybrid work model: you won't be expected to come in every day, but fully remote won't be allowed either.
This is where the regression to Level Two will happen.
Remote work, once figured out, place everyone on equal ground (assuming good internet, etc.).
During remote meetings, everyone is a single person on a camera.
Communication methods are equal for everyone. The tools are the same.
With hybrid work, that no longer holds true.
Hybrid meetings require more advanced technology to reach the same level of equality.
Even with that technology, side conversations often take place for those in-person, and those remote are at a disadvantage.
Internet, voice, and video quality issues frustrate those that are in-person.
Those that are in-person no longer feel the need to communicate as clearly via other channels like Slack or email, because they have the benefit of the in-person channel.
They also get frustrated when they can't grab someone who is remote for a quick chat, because they haven't scheduled it ahead of time.
This is going to cause frustrations across the board. Both for those who prefer to work in-person and for those who prefer to work remote.
How to Do Hybrid Right points out that different solutions make sense for different people. Some roles need in-person components, while others thrive being remote. Synchronous work is a requirement for some, while asynchronous makes more sense for others.
But it requires a lot of work to figure out those roles, and flexible rules that work for everyone.
I'm skeptical that most companies will do that work.
The Rule of the Intransigent Minority
Nassim Taleb points out this phenomenon in Skin in the Game:
"the minority rule: a certain type of intransigent minority—with significant skin in the game (or, better, soul in the game) to reach a minutely small level, say 3 or 4 percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences."
Gluten-free food is an example.
Those who have celiac, or other diseases, cannot eat gluten. It makes them very sick.
Gluten-free diets have also become popular.
But it is still a very small percentage of the population that cannot eat gluten.
So why does almost every restaurant (at least in North America) have gluten-free items on their menu?
For a restaurant owner, there is little cost in adding gluten-free items to their menu.
They often already have some dishes which are close, and changing a few ingredients, and being more careful when preparing those dishes, makes them gluten-free.
There is also no downside for customers who are not gluten-free, because anyone who is not gluten free can eat gluten free food.
But there is a large downside to not doing so.
It wouldn't be as worrisome if it was merely those who couldn't eat gluten—after all, this is only a small percent of the population.
But it is any group that includes someone who is gluten-free.
This is a much, much higher percent.
How does this factor into remote work?
Remote Work as Table Stakes
The pandemic has shown that remote work is feasible, and a desirable option. Post-pandemic, those frustrated by the requirements and friction of hybrid work will switch to jobs with the option of full remote work. And those who switch first will be the most talented employees.
This is where the minority rule comes into effect.
Post-pandemic, hybrid work will cause a lot of frustration for workers. Those who will be most frustrated are high-performers.
Whether they prefer in-person work, or fully remote work, they will both be frustrated with a hybrid model.
High performers are also the most likely to leave their jobs. They worry less about job security, knowing they can find a job elsewhere. And they hate being stuck in a job that frustrates them.
If this is true, then only one question remains: will they leave for a company that is completely in-person, or completely remote?
I'm sure it will be split. But I believe the majority will choose remote-first, for all the reasons mentioned above. It's nice to have the option, and many of the myths about remote work: lower productivity, etc., have been dispelled.
If this happens, then a minority of workers can cause a much larger shift to remote work. This is because this minority of workers represents a large majority of the talent.
In other words, any company that wants access to a large portion of the top talent will be forced to offer remote work as an option.
It will become table stakes.
We're already seeing people leaving jobs.
It's not hard to believe these same people will be seeking remote work when they return to the workforce.
Levels Four and Five
There is another, final reason why I think talented employees will seek distributed/remote-first companies.
If we look back at Matt Mullenweg's five levels of autonomy for distributed work, levels four and five focus on the shift to asynchronous work.
Asynchronous work is about shifting the methods of communication and work so that synchronous communication is rarely required.
It enables a host of benefits, from flexible schedules to the ability to work and hire from different time zones.
In an increasingly global world, this can become a big advantage. Things like 24/7 support, cheaper salaries, a higher talent level—they all become possible.
As talented employees become accustomed to remote work, I think they will seek to work more asynchronously. To spend a lower amount of time in meetings, and a larger amount of time doing meaningful work.
For roles that rely on large portions of uninterrupted time—coding, design, writing—it will become a huge advantage.
Talent will seek asynchronous work.
What Model is Best?
There are two models I believe are best.
The first is the completely distributed/remote model exemplified by companies like Automattic and Basecamp.
They have changed the way they work to include as few synchronous meetings as possible, and to communicate primarily through writing.
They get all the benefits of being able to hire across the world: larger talent pool, (potentially) cheaper salaries, no office overhead.
And they can instead use the money they would use for an office for other things to make work better.
Things like stipends to create a great work-from-home setup and quarterly retreats in beautiful destinations with team members and the rest of the company.
This is a great model to strive for, but it is difficult to get here unless you start with this model in mind.
The second is "digital-first," a term coined by Shopify. CEO Tobi Lütke announced their shift to this model early in the pandemic.
This model is best for companies who still have geographically-concentrated workers and longer office leases.
It's a great choice for those who want to start shifting to asynchronous work and continue offering remote work as an option post-pandemic.
Shopify offers some great work-from-home stipends and benefits, but this is largely a luxury of their financial situation (very good).
For other institutions, the approach here is to make "remote" work the focus. Reworking offices and process so that the friction points that come with hybrid work are reduced or eliminated.
This involves things like removing most meeting rooms and replacing them with individual booths. You can still go into the office, but everyone is working as if they were remote.
This allows you to offer remote work as much as people like, and you can provide some "core hours" if you like—hours where employees are expected to be online.
This can be a good transition period too. You can work to reduce the number of in-person meetings, and find alternative, asynchronous ways to communicate.
Maybe you start hiring in some different time zones for specific roles (support is a good candidate).
You can gradually work your way towards more asynchronous work, while preventing the friction and frustration of hybrid work.
The pandemic will (hopefully) soon be over.
But remote work is here to stay.