Remote Work is Here to Stay. Here’s How to Restructure Office Interactions

Apr 13, 2021 - 5 minutes read time

People holding empty colourful speech bubbles

The interesting aspect of the post pandemic office won’t be who’s returning and who’s working remotely. It’s how we’ll change the way we interact. Certain work practices that we used to believe were perfect will become questionable. 

How we innovate will be one. 

Right up until the Covid lockdown, colocation, where an agile team shared an open office, was the gold standard in Silicon Valley. IDEO preached it. WeWork scaled it. And Steelcase made money by selling furniture that went along with it. The whole movement had its good points. 

Being colocated gave everyone the instant knowledge of where a project was going on. They relied on less emails when asking for information. They walked right across the office to see their colleagues, when needed. In extreme cases, a company became a home and a leisure space too, especially among young professionals. Three meals a day, a gym, doctors, and massages were all provided onsite. And people loved it.

Then they woke up. 

A recent survey by LiveCareer polled over 1,000 Americans. On NewsNation last week, I discussed the implications of the findings. The bottomline is, 62% of workers said they’d give strong preference to employers that offered remote work. And 29% said they’d quit their current jobs if forced to return.

That’s why remote work is something that your company, like others, must explore or come to embrace. And the first step is to be clear about what types of communication your organization currently relying upon the most and why. Then you can consider rewiring, at least for your team, so as to improve the productivity and wellbeing of your people.

Ask yourself quickly: In your current job, what percentage of your work is in each of these quadrants? 

If you are like most others, your pre-pandemic work life was likely structured around high-effort communications. These were high-effort activities because you either needed to travel to a specific location or to coordinate a schedule for those meetings. Or in the case of email, you composed your request without a template. Once you hit send, you still needed to wait, sometimes for days, for the other party to answer.

Colocation was attractive in the past. It maximized the ease of face-to-face meetings and suppressed the need for other ways of communicating. More than 70% of what we say is nonverbal, expressed through body language and subtle shifts of facial expression. Face-to-face communication captures all those nonverbal cues. It is the most context-rich method. It conveys your warmth and realness. That’s why meeting in person helps overcome differences, clarify perspectives, and develop creative solutions. 

And yet remote work is here to stay, for all the reasons we have discussed. What companies now need to do now is to migrate more work toward the low-effort, asynchronous format. They can’t just be forced over. The nature of tasks themselves needs to change. When this is done right, employees have less stress and more freedom. And some companies have managed it. They have done so by making documentation a priority. 

Document everything and make it searchable 

Good software companies document code features. Documentation either explains how the software operates or how to use it. A startup may begin by having everything in someone’s head. But for the company to scale and adapt, anything that is done repeatedly, by more than one person in the company, must be documented. 

Gitlab took this idea to the extreme. It’s the world’s largest all-remote company, with more than 1,300 employees working across 65 countries, all without a physical office. GitLab obsessed over documentation. It has a centralized online handbook. Think of it as a central repository on how everything is done at the company. It’s Gitlab’s institutional memory. Anybody can update it or create a new page. After changes are made, an employee then raises a “merge request” by selecting other colleagues from the “reviewers” field. The reviewers ensure the content is technically correct and the presentation follows its documentation guidelines

Gitlab has to overcome a natural tendency. When people wish to communicate a change, CEO Sid Sijbrandij observed, their default is to send a Slack message, send an email, give a presentation, or tell colleagues in a meeting. But Sijbrandij’s company has prioritized documentation over dissemination. 

“Every piece of information is a brick,” he said. “Everyone is receiving bricks daily that they have to add to the house they’re building internally.” That’s how a company grows. But people also forget things. And things eventually become unclear. People thus waste time in a lot of meetings because a lot of context must be recreated. The beauty of documentation—whether it’s Gitlab’s online handbook or Wikipedia—is its contextual richness. Everyone can update it, keep expanding it, and make it searchable for someone when it’s needed. 

Here’s how you can practice this principle right away. When you have your next meeting, use a shared Google Doc to record the decisions made. Make sure everyone can write in it, not just the most senior people in the call. After the call, people can continue to add URLs to link to external resources or internal documents, include screenshots, or to embed short videos to visualize their thoughts. 

Try it. You’ll see your team requires fewer Zoom calls for follow-up clarification.


To drive additional efficiency, we also need to set information free. Make it searchable over the company’s intranet by everyone. We need to shift a corporate culture from giving information based on “need to know,” to “radical transparency.” Why? Because once people are working remotely, they need to reduce the effort of coordination. Every time someone must beg for information by making a case, it’s additional friction. Decision speed slows to a crawl. People suffer burnout.  

You can make radical transparency safe by having employees sign non-disclosure agreement with real legal consequences. Executives who still fear such openness really fear losing power. Knowledge is power. But hoarding knowledge is a disadvantage when you face outside competitors. 

Ultimately, companies may choose to reduce communication by eliminating coordination altogether. This is possible. Amazon, Salesforce.com, Booking.com all use APIs (application programming interfaces) for internal services. I’ve explained here how APIs can drive efficiency, reusability, and faster integration. 

But these are fancy things for down the road. What you can do today is to chart out what type of communication you need to shift more for your team. And start behaving that way accordingly, with your closest colleagues. You and your team members will enjoy a better workday. 

 

Stay healthy,

Howard Yu signature

P.S., What are some of your favorite remote work  practices these days? We’d love to hear your tips. Join the discussion below.


Comments


5 comments

G
Gregory VARGHESE Apr 16, 2021 at 7:26pm

Hi Howard, Very relevant and timely article. I agree, if organizations want to shift to low-effort, asynchronous communication then leaders have to lead by example and start with their own projects and core groups.

M
Marco Apr 14, 2021 at 8:25am

HI Howard, longtime since meeting in Sydney. To your question: we are in hybrid mode with attendance incentivised for senior and newer employees. Beside all work interactions, we have a 15 min grip meeting company wide every Tuesday morning to share 2 short stories (1 from employee and 1 from a guest) to stimulate curiosity and alignment through reflections on topics. Still fine tuning the approach to the future, thanks for your contribution.

K
Kiefer Rice Apr 13, 2021 at 3:28pm

Another excellent topic of yours Howard. Adapting to such business practices like Gitlab's can make everything simple and easy.

B
Bob Phalan Apr 13, 2021 at 1:16pm

Good morning Howard.
How will companies hire and train new employees remotely? I foresee challenges in team building that doesn’t take place in person.

M
Marco Apr 13, 2021 at 12:37pm

Dear Howard, this a great topic and a wonderful analysis! I am wondering what’s your thought on hybrid approaches? I am thinking of offices more like places where to co-create, some sort of thinking place where the spark happens thanks to the collective energy, while the job to be done before and after as well as all admin tasks can be executed remotely. Happy to hear if there are experiments, evidence or best practice already. Thanks, Marco

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