Over the past few weeks, high-profile companies, including Twitter, Facebook, and Nationwide, made headlines by announcing new policies that make remote work more available to their workforce. But conspicuously absent from the conversation is an important distinction: the difference between partially remote and fully remote organizations.
Couched in each of the announcements are acknowledgements that the office isn’t fully going away. It is being reprioritized. While the bold decisions to create remote arrangements are welcome changes, to date no well-known company has announced plans to abandon the office entirely. Rather, many are scaling back the office presence or scaling up remote options. Choosing neither fully remote nor fully co-located, these companies have instead opted to negotiate a new balance between the two.
I want to highlight a different option, one that’s received far less attention: going all-in on remote.
InVision, where I’m the chief marketing officer, has been a fully remote company since its founding in 2011. (We call it “fully distributed.”) Our 700 employees are scattered from Seattle to Singapore with no offices anywhere, save for a smattering of coworking spaces, dinghies in a sea of home offices. The lack of a central office and the fact that the entire staff works from anywhere are defining traits of InVision, a digital product design and development software company.
The distinction between partially remote and fully remote is an important one, because the experience between the two is radically different.
As many will have experienced in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, when remote workers are “in it together,” there is a camaraderie and shared understanding that emerges. Friendships develop. Both the benefits of remote work and the challenges inherent in it are experienced by the entire staff. People use the same tools and commit to following the same processes. This can create an equal playing field for all employees and becomes an integral part of the culture that binds people together—despite the distance.
When part of that team moves back to the office, and others stay remote, the experiences diverge.
Some meetings happen in an office; others happen virtually. Perks and benefits apply to one cohort but not another. Processes that should be followed by everyone are unevenly respected. Relationships become divided based on who’s in an office and who’s not. Over time, these differences tend to concretize, revealing the ultimate danger in partially remote workforces: the creation of essentially two different organizations.
One InVision employee, in an interview for a book on remote work we published earlier this year, described her previous experience of working in a partially remote company as “souring” her perspective on remote work entirely. “Even as considerate and thoughtful as they were to ensure remote workers felt included … there was just an inequality of access.”
Of course, fully remote organizations have their own challenges. One of the reasons InVision has maintained coworking spaces in different cities is because in more normal times, there are employees who cannot or choose not to work from home. When InVision began to scale, teammates reported a lack of cohesion, spurring the creation of an annual offsite starting in 2017. It’s since become an important cultural event at the company, and we view its significant time and cost investments as crucial to our employees. We have also found that smaller team offsites provide necessary in-person opportunities to align and build trust.
The difference is that partially remote companies have to solve these same challenges—how to keep people motivated, engaged, and aligned—while also addressing new ones created by the uncertainty and confusion of having a portion of the team working in an office and a portion working from home.
So what is the argument for going all-in on remote work, as opposed to scrapping the idea entirely and returning to the office? Many of the benefits are already well-known to business leaders. Remote workers report better job satisfaction, reduced burnout, and an improved sense of work-life balance. We know that remote work increases employee productivity by as much as 50%. There are the cost savings that come from not maintaining office space. Companies can hire anyone, regardless of location—a key antidote to the growing “talent crunch” problem, which, according to a 2019 Gartner survey of senior executives, is a top risk organizations face today.
But there are also new arguments to be made in the aftermath of the current crisis.
Even as more businesses return to the office, it’s unclear what the situation will look like. Do you stagger working hours? Expand to new space to allow more distance between workers? Do you test people entering the building for coronavirus symptoms? Do you offer additional incentives or higher pay for those willing to go into a physical office? If you’re on a corporate COVID-19 task force, perhaps you’re struggling with some of these very questions right now. Every business leader will soon have to answer them, even if only part of their workforce returns to the office.
While companies returning to the office struggle to achieve a new normal, organizations that go all-in on remote work will be free to focus on realizing the full range of options in their remote transformation. These kinds of dramatic shifts in workplace dynamics can serve as a powerful forcing function for digital transformation. Free from the overhead of an office, remote-first companies will have more flexibility to design a better, more efficient, and resilient workforce than what existed before—leading to unexpected business opportunities.
Undoubtedly, most businesses will decide to return to the office. After a period of adjustment, a new normal will set in. If people work together to problem-solve their way back into the office collaboratively and transparently, that new normal should be a healthy and a happy one, renewed by a deeper appreciation for what it means to be together after spending so much time apart.
But there will be other businesses that decide it does not make sense to return to the office. Perhaps they’ve learned that their biggest concern—whether their employees could be productive working remotely—was satisfied.
To these companies, we encourage them to consider the option of going all-in. While the journey to becoming a fully remote company will be challenging, the opportunities are immense for both the business and your teams. The companies that embrace this new reality to its fullest—those that commit to learn, test, and iterate their approach until they find what works—will be the ones best poised for resilience, and to reap the benefits of digital transformation.
Brian Kardon is CMO of InVision.
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