The Dangers of Half-Remote
Remote might be the new normal, but doing it halfway opens you up for challenges.
Covid has forced a lot of changes in how we do business, and one of the ways it did so that seems like it will plausibly have long-term impacts is how it interacted with remote work. Before Covid, it was a pretty open question as to whether or not remote work would ever have a chance of being the norm; a lot of companies resisted the very idea. Now, pretty much everyone has dipped their toes in the remote pool to some extent and articles like this indicate that workers might not be willing to go back to the previous in-person norms even if it means quitting.
When Clipboard Health was founded, the plan was always to be a remote-first company; we wanted to be able to spread an earth-sized net for talent without worrying about the location of an office, and we think good people do better work where they are comfortable. We’ve never had an office as a business, but an awful lot of us have worked other places and we talk to a lot of candidates coming from different work environments; frankly, that gives us a cool vantage point to know about different kinds of remote workplaces.
There are three big categories in terms of how companies handle remote workplaces. The first type of company is like Clipboard Health; we are completely remote, by choice, and were able to gear up for that on our own terms. The second is a company that offers remote to some but not all employees, or that keeps an office open so employees can voluntarily work from the office. The third is (as you probably guessed) being purely in office;with few exceptions all employees work from the same physical space.
Each of these three have potential pitfalls (even the planned fully remote option we favor) and it’s worth it to talk about them - the remote future is likely coming for everyone whether they like it or not, and being ready for it will have a big impact on the talent you can (or can’t) get.
Fully remote work has unique difficulties in communications. We don’t have any problems admitting that - it’s useful being able to pop over to someone’s desk and ask a quick question, and there’s something nice about running into people in the break room that helps keep work relationships healthy and building. A lot of stuff just happens without anybody having to make it happen.
In a remote environment, you have to be really intentional to make up for that. When someone starts work with us, we generally set them up with meetings with people within the company just to get some faces to the names. We want to make sure those relationships happen, since we can’t necessarily just wait for them. We have frequent all-hands meetings and work to keep our Slack healthy and active. A lot of work goes into making up for the social difference and making sure people know where they need to go for help.
It’s not easy, but imagine the differences if you couldn’t plan for that. A lot of companies never considered remote before the pandemic and had to turn on a dime towards a remote model to keep their businesses running. This sudden change left a lot of companies reeling; the better workplaces have kept building on those changes until they arrived at a workable system, but we’ve talked to people working at places that are holding on to slapped-together systems with no improvements, counting on going back to the office.
But even in an ad-hoc fully remote environment there’s parity; everyone is in the same boat. Even if the tools are bad, at least everyone is using the same toolset. In a half-remote, half-office workplace that’s not necessarily so. In some cases, you see instances of remote teams using a set of tools for communications that the office ignores, since verbal conversations are working just fine.
Those conversations and quick check-ins that were advantages for a pure-office environment can turn into disadvantages fast in a 50/50 environment, because they represent conversations that are happening without other team members. If they aren’t documented, this works towards building an environment where half your team isn’t on the same page. Without intentionally making sure everyone communicates in the same way using the same tools, one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.
Where Clipboard Health found a lot of success is by fully leaning into the remote environment, committing to the advantages and dumping practices that don’t make sense wherever possible. Where a meeting might be the best tool for an in-person environment, we found we could minimize them by using asynchronous tools. Confluence helps for keeping everyone on a project on the same page, and video-messaging tools like Loom let us record and send videos where a verbal explanation makes sense - in both cases, letting us avoid an endless stream of half-hour meetings while not losing anything in terms of communication. This lets our team members easily find information on their own time and schedule, which optimizes us for efficiency. Committing to remote and approaching it on its own terms with tools that make sense for the environment takes a bit of faith, but the pay-offs are huge.
Tiers of employees: the remote/in-person caste system
Imagine you have two team members, Dave and Bob; they are pretty much alike in all ways. They are about as good at their jobs as each other, about as funny and sociable as each other, and they look a lot alike. They are so similar, in fact, that the biggest difference between them is that one works in the office and the other is remote. So when a chance for a promotion comes up and it’s between Dave and Bob, who do you think gets it: Dave, who works in-office, or Bob, who works remote?
The reality in most half-and-half offices is that Dave has a huge advantage. He gets a lot of face-to-face time Bob doesn’t get. If there are conversations that happen in-office, Dave is there for them. Where Bob is wishing happy birthday on Slack, Dave is there cutting the cake. He’s more visible, he’s more known, and would be expected to “win” instead of Bob in any situation except one where the decision-makers are taking specific pains to be fair.
That’s the case even in the best case scenario, one where management isn’t intentionally building a tier system or intentionally showing bias towards in-person workers. But in some cases we’ve seen it’s worse than that. Before coming to Clipboard I spent some time working at the physical office of an online college where it wasn’t compulsory to spend any time in the office at all, but the option to work from the office was open to workers. And, just as you might expect, the people who took the time to come into the office were thought of as the go-getters, the people who were dedicated to the work. I more than once saw it be the tie-breaker in terms of promotion decisions between two people with similar measurable output. The office people were, to management, just a better sort of person.
In that case, it wasn’t necessary to come into the office; nobody would ever tell you it was. The only time it was necessary was if you had any plans to work your way up the ladder - if you weren’t clearly better/faster/more productive than the people in company-supplied workplaces, you’d lose out to them every time. From management’s perspective, this worked out fine until the remote workers got wise to the unstated system; we lost a lot of good employees who had the good sense to find a company whose remote work option didn’t put them at an automatic disadvantage.
The Good News
I don’t want to overstate the problems above; they aren’t absolutely inevitable. If there’s one thing we at Clipboard health know, it’s that spending a lot of time thinking and a lot of effort being intentional about how you communicate, what tools you use and how you think about both your remote and in-person team members can keep a lot of the related issues we’ve already discussed from happening. But to do that requires a lot of work, and it requires that you be paying attention to those problems in the first place - monitoring, having the conversations and actually caring about the outcomes both the company and the team members are experiencing.
On the same note, being a fully remote environment doesn’t guarantee you won’t run into those problems; favoritism and bad communications can happen anywhere if you don’t watch for them (Slack is no exception). But the unique challenge of a mixed remote/in-person environment makes those challenges bigger - it takes that much more effort to make sure the playing field is level.
If you haven’t already, take a look at how your teams communicate; do the in-person teams document in-person conversations on asynchronous platforms? If they don’t, that means only half your people have the information they need. Inertia makes it easy to focus on the office when selecting your tools, but if everyone is going to have full access to the information they need that means a commitment to the tools that work for the remote environment.
Do you have a specific system in place to make sure in-person workers don’t have an advantage in terms of promotions and pay-raises over remote team members? If not, it’s probably happening; like we’ve talked about, it’s something you’d expect based on visibility alone even where no bad intentions exist and no bias is intended.
Clipboard Health had the advantage of going into the Covid-induced “everyone is remote now” work environment prepared for this - we had already carefully selected tools and built our processes to optimize our efficiency in a remote context, and we had already done a lot of the hard thinking about how we would treat more distant workers. We still think about, write about and re-iterate processes and tools related to the remote environment every day; for better or worse (better, we think), it’s becoming more and more clear that remote work is the future for most companies.
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