Out of office: work-from-anywhere can be your startup’s default

The pandemic has hastened a default to a ‘work from anywhere’ remote work culture. Whilst many startups previously embraced virtual working as a part of their working norm, personal technology and digital connectivity had advanced to enable Do we really need to be together, in an office, to do our work? discussions for everyone.

Most of us associate the office with routine, commuting and conformity. We have learned that many of us don’t need to be co-located. Individuals and teams can perform while being entirely distributed. A large-scale transition is now underway with the adoption of work-from-anywhere, allowing us to eschew physical offices in favour of our homes, co-working spaces, or community locations, such as coffee shops for occasional days or on a regular basis, with the expectation that in the future, we will come into the office occasionally.

In the wake of family health concerns brought about by COVID, we’ve had to experiment with new ways of working. For the most part, this experiment has been a success for both individuals and organisations, and has opened eyes to our adaptability. Of course, remote work also helps the environment with reduced carbon emissions from reduced commuting.

So, the future of work is here, but it’s a bit different from what we expected. Without question, the model offers notable benefits to startups, with a powerful network effect all of its own, as the team get flexibility, eliminate commutes, and better work/life balance. However, concerns persist regarding how this will affect communication, knowledge sharing, socialisation and camaraderie.

Big companies are adapting too, for example Siemens, with 380,000 employees. The company is adopting a new model that will allow employees worldwide to work from anywhere they feel comfortable for an average of two to three days a week as a permanent standard. But it was other words in the announcement from CEO Roland Busch, that really stood out:

The basis for this forward-looking working model is further development of our culture. These changes will also be associated with a different leadership style, one that focuses on outcomes rather than on time spent at the office. We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results.

There is so much good here, and I’d like to emphasise two points: focus on outcomes rather than time spent in the office; trust and empower your employees. Put together, these word make for a brilliant leadership strategy founded on emotional intelligence – the ability to make emotions work for you instead of against you.

So as a startup, how to go about creating a work-from-anywhere strategy? I think there are three aspects to determining the right approach for an ‘optional office’ :

1.        What are your remote-first environment options?

What flexibility is possible? All jobs can flex in some way, but consider exactly how certain jobs can flex productively for the business and the individual, in order to make them successful in the long term. For example Twitter told staff early on that they could continue to work from home permanently, and not that jobs could be performed remotely, but that jobs could start and finish at any time.

What flexibility is desirable? It is up to the whole organisation to develop a shared understanding of what types of remote working are desirable (employee preferences) and achievable (business imperatives and the demands of each role). Unity is critical as ultimately, people need to buy into change and see their organisation offer work models that are desirable for them. Leaning into only one model of flexibility – such as a purely remote working – may alienate some who are craving a return to the office.

What flexibility is sustainable? Transform for future resilience, not just a short-term fix. Building a new model of flexibility to last beyond the pandemic requires an examination of people, processes and infrastructure to get creative about how to provide more flexibility around work and how different jobs can change. This mental shift will test the boundaries of employees’ and leaders’ mindsets and require a reset on traditional ways of working. Leadership skills also need to evolve as teams work across multiple models of flexibility, from in-person to remote, to a blended approach.

2.        What are the work-from-anywhere challenges?

GitLab is the world’s largest all-remote company, with 1,300 employees. They point to three challenges to overcome in making the decision to be all-remote.

Communication Organisations get comfortable with asynchronous communication, whether through a Slack channel, a customised intracompany portal, or shared Google documents in which geographically distributed team members input and trust that other team members will respond at the first opportunity. One benefit to this approach is that employees are more likely to share early-stage ideas to garner early feedback, to keep momentum flowing. GitLab calls this process blameless problem-solving.

Knowledge sharing Another challenge for distributed teams is that they can’t tap one another on the shoulder. Much workplace knowledge is not codified and resides in people’s heads. This is a problem for all organisations, but much more so for those that have embraced virtual working. We need more transparency for an all-remote organisation to thrive. Leaders must set an example by codifying knowledge and freely sharing information while explaining that these are necessary trade-offs to allow for geographic flexibility.

Socialisation Another major hurdle is the potential for people to feel isolated socially and professionally, disconnected from colleagues and the company. Remote workers often feel removed from the information flow they would typically get in a physical office. Without in-person check-ins, leaders may miss signs of burnout or team dysfunction, because their face-to-face interactions are less frequent. Remote work is empowering but isolating, especially for introverts. You have to create an intentional experience when you socialise online to keep team spirit and individual engagement going.

3.       Create a work-from-anywhere strategy

As ways of working change at an unprecedented scale, organisations need to understand how to navigate and implement changes to the working norm. Putting aside the issues of employment contracts and data security, one company that has impressed me with its approach is Google.

Google has focused on measuring well-being, performance, connectedness and productivity. It was noticeable how many of their practices are founded on emotional intelligence – the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions – which resonates with the Siemens approach identified earlier. The highlights in Google’s ‘Distributed Work Playbook’ – headlined ‘working together when we’re not together’ – focused on three things they invested in to optimise the experience of working distributedly:

  • The place: focus on physical space, time zones and technology
  • The people: focus on relationships
  • The practices: focus on communication structures and norms

So, let’s craft a work-from-anywhere strategy having considered the above questions and take lessons from Google’s focus, to work through a framework for your startup team.

1.       Make team meetings a priority Team meetings are the main interactions you’ll have with your team when working apart, so prioritise them even if it there isn’t anything urgent, and be present – connecting personally is the lifeblood of a work-from-anywhere environment, and virtual meetings means an opportunity to get those emotional cues and build rapport. Give some variety though, from all-hands meeting, to hosting roundtable discussions will keep the team in sync.

2.       Get talking Get to know your team better as individuals, for example, schedule a virtual breakfast or lunch together. You should also use open-ended questions when speaking personally. For example, don’t ask How was your weekend? Instead, try What did you do this weekend?

3.       Be present Some engagement signals are lost when working virtually, particularly when we mute the microphone. Always make sure your camera is on so the team can see you, give both verbal and non-verbal cues, and maintain eye contact. You can always sense when people are distracted looking at their mobiles or email, so make sure you’re fully present.

4.       Connect in person While being sure to give colleagues time and space to actually work, Google recommends checking in with a short hello via a personal message, a relevant news article, or a funny photo. A virtual coffee break with a couple of colleagues, similar to the way you might do in the office, will give you chance to talk about things in a more relaxed manner.

5.       Recognise your teammates When working remotely, it isn’t as easy to say a quick ‘thanks’ or ‘good job’. Be sure to send such messages, share kudos in team meetings. Warm words of thanks and recognition go a long way to motivating and keeping team spirit high.

6.       Reach out It can be challenging for more introverted colleagues to participate in group meetings, even more so in a virtual environment. Help create a welcoming set up by directly asking these participants for their input. On the same line, stay in tune with expressions and body language. If you see they are trying to enter the conversation, give them the chance to speak.

7.       Set team norms Norms set clear expectations for how you work together with your team, but they’re often assumed rather than explicitly stated, leaving opportunities for confusion. Google recommends discussing team norms openly. These would include expectations for how long it should take to respond to email, taking off-hours during the working day, clarifying when you can move forward if a team member is unreachable and when it’s better to get a response, the best way to share information, and how often to stay in touch. Once you establish and agreed these norms with everyone on the team it puts everyone on the same page.

8.       Use the right medium How do you decide whether to send a message or do a call? Video is best for more sensitive or detailed discussions, while a quick message is great for check-ins or clarifying simple matters. It’s important to recognise the difference. Too many calls and your people will feel burnt out, but you can also waste lots of time exchanging messages when a five-minute call could provide answers.

9.       Make well-being of everyone a priority In the midst of a pandemic, well-being is more important than ever. Moving fast, flying blind, adopt a wiser internal monologue based on the premise nemo resideo – leave nobody behind. Do not focus on financial health ahead of cultural health and personal well-being, but seek to enact the Siemens and Google mantra with a focus on emotional intelligence, trust and empowerment.

It’s important the conversation isn’t solely work focused, there’s a real danger of taking checking-in too often. It’s not about micro-managing, but checking on how your folks are coping on a personal level. With a focus on well-being, you make emotional intelligence the foundation of your work-from-anywhere leadership strategy, and thus help the entire team make emotions work for them, instead of against them.

In seeking a successful transition to a hybrid or a majority-remote regime, the question is not whether work from anywhere is possible but what is needed to make it possible, and that’s leadership and creating a people-centric culture based on trust and understanding. Frequent face-to-face time, albeit virtual, is critical for leaders to show they care, building trust as a result.

Sporadic attendance in the office as a hub, not a second home, is here to stay. Just a few months ago the interplay between work, workforce and workplace was well established – workers came together as a workforce in the workplace to get their work done. Then they went hime. Now we’re remote, we need to remain tethered and integrated across the digital workflows to keep the humanity of our organisations and our own well-being intact.

If leaders support synchronous and asynchronous communication, lead initiatives to codify knowledge online, encourage virtual socialisation and mentoring, a distributed model can work. The benefit of the increase of remote work is that it’s possible this new way of working will result in a more trusting work environment when life returns to normal. Who would have thought that ‘out of office’ has a whole new meaning?

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