"No place for the status quo in the future of work."
The remote work debate shows no signs of cooling. While some major employers are pushing a “return to office” (RTO), groups of employees are threatening to quit or unionize in response. At the same time, Researchers are digging in, to try to understand the impact of remote, hybrid and in-person work – and often finding a disconnect between how managers and employees perceive productivity.
Even for companies who are all-in with WFH, the question of how to make the most of the ever-changing, new normal is far from settled. From big-picture issues about inclusivity, to essential details about which communications tools to use, companies that embrace remote or hybrid workplaces have to spend time and attention to understand what their employees need to thrive. To do it successfully, there’s no room for the status quo.
That’s the point of view of Tammy Bjelland, the founder and CEO of workplaceless, a training company that specializes in remote work and leadership skills. As an employee at a fully remote company that became hybrid after a recent merger, I was excited to chat with Tammy, who works with remote or hybrid organizations to improve their effectiveness.
Considering the vastly different experiences between great hybrid workforces and folks just getting by, I wanted to know what she sees in terms of their differences, from their culture all the way to their tech stack.
Here’s what we discussed.
Everything Starts from Intention
Really great virtual teams – fully remote or hybrid – share one thing: they are intentional about making sure everything they want employees to experience or achieve is within reach, regardless of location. That means investing time and resources into making sure every employee can contribute to company culture, achieve any outcome, and make the most of any workflow, structure or process.
This level of inclusion won’t happen organically – and it won’t happen by clinging to the status quo.
A company’s long-term success depends on its willingness to question the way that they’re working right now, to see how they can become more resilient, flexible and adaptable. We know employees value these things – and Tammy predicts that the employers who provide that kind of workplace will thrive.
What about employers who claim that remote or hybrid work isn’t a good fit for their company?
For starters, Tammy says, “I would question the metrics by which they are measuring success or failure for remote work. A lot of it is, ‘I just feel like we worked better in the office,’ It's not based on any kind of objective metric.”
Instead, when Tammy hears justifications like, “‘I need them in the office, because I need to know that they’re being productive,’ it tells me more about their management style than anything. It just means to me that they only rely on one input to gauge whether somebody is achieving what they're supposed to: they need to be able to see them in their seat.
“But you don't know if those people are actually working,” Tammy points out. “They could be in the office, they could be shopping online, they could just not be making effective use of time – they're all on Zoom calls, guaranteed.”
In fact, recent research into ethical misconduct by bankers suggests that remote workers hold themselves to a higher standard, even though no one’s watching: in-office traders were more than five times more likely to trigger a misconduct alert than their at-home colleagues. There’s no reason to believe that you automatically know what someone is doing, just because you share the same square footage.
Bottom line: There's so much more to being a good manager than just perfect attendance. It comes down to creating systems and processes that allow people to have feedback, providing clear expectations about deliverables and empowering teams to have authority and autonomy over their decision making.
Easier said than done. In Tammy’s experience, “Unfortunately, many managers are not prepared. It's not that they don't have the capacity to be a great manager, but they don't have the resources. They've not been given the training, mentorship and coaching. They've definitely not been given the time to learn new skills and to implement them in a way that is going to be recognized and rewarded. A manager with 20 direct reports is going to be pulled in many different directions. If they take time to become the best remote manager that they can,” she asks, “are they going to be rewarded or penalized for that?”
Four Ways to Level the Remote-Hybrid Playing Field
What about companies – like ours – where some team members split their time between the brick-and-mortar office and home, while others are distributed across the United States, Canada and beyond? What does fairness look like, when taking into account such fundamental differences?
Tammy looks at three broad areas of consideration to ensure a level playing field, regardless of the diverse work setups of a team.
1. Performance Metrics
For everyone to be able to achieve the same outcomes, regardless of location, look at performance metrics and ask yourself, “How are you measuring performance of each of those individuals? Is any metric based on physical presence?” Anything that could be coded as “in-person” needs to be adjusted.
When you think about your organization’s culture, ask yourself, “How does it manifest itself and how does everyone participate?” If your company has – or had – an in-person office, look at those rituals and consider how their purpose can be replicated online.
This doesn’t mean you should transform an in-person happy hour to a virtual one, because those kinds of translations often miss the mark. Instead, think about what you want to encourage through these events. Maybe that kind of camaraderie can be achieved through regular in-person meetups and retreats. Perhaps you can build icebreakers and team-builder activities into your regular meetings, to help team members get to know one another beyond their shared tasks.
We incorporate both those things into our culture at Summit, which helps us keep a strong connection, despite our geography. One testament to this is the fact that team members will plan spontaneous, informal meetups when they happen to be visiting a city where a colleague lives. We don’t see remote and in-person work as mutually exclusive. We value spending time with one another, so we choose to do it whenever possible.
3. An Async-First Approach
When it comes to getting work done or making decisions, meetings are seen as the gold standard for inclusivity. But that’s an office-centric mindset, and it can have the unintended consequence of excluding people when their physical location or daily schedule doesn’t line up.
An async-first approach can help that. Instead of saying, “Let's schedule a meeting to talk about this,” Tammy recommends asking, “How can we do this asynchronously? How can we get input from multiple people on their own time so that they've had a chance to contribute thoughtfully to this idea? How can we structure work so that it allows more people to participate in a way that amplifies voices that you wouldn't necessarily hear from and that allows a lot more flexibility for pretty much every single process you can think of?”
This doesn’t mean async-only. Certain types of communication are much more effective synchronously. If you want to connect with your teammates, develop trust, psychological safety and social capital across an organization, asynchronous communication can play a part – but nothing can substitute the value of real-time exchanges. However, for an activity such as collaborating there’s a real benefit to using async processes so that people can chime in, off-line, as ideas come to them. Tammy finds that approach to be both more efficient and better suited to high-level, deep work.
“As a bonus,” Tammy adds, “the time you save can be shifted to synchronous meetings where team members have an opportunity to connect with one another on a meaningful basis.”
4. Choosing a Suite of Tools
When it comes to finding the right tools for a productive hybrid or remote workplace, Tammy rejects a straight prescription. Instead, she talks about broad categories of tools: a messaging tool with public and private options, a project management tool that gives visibility into who is doing what, and a visual collaboration tool that allows teams to brainstorm outside of the linear limitations of a traditional document.
“I’m tool agnostic,” she says, “Because as long as you have the processes, the mindset and the skills, you can use a tool effectively. There’s no magic tool that’s going to make you a successful remote or hybrid team. It hinges on the capabilities of the people using the tools.”
(If you’re interested in our advice on financial tools for remote companies, check out this podcast episode with Jamie Nau, Summit CPA's Director of Virtual CFO, Adam Hale, Partner at Anders CPAs + Advisors, and Jake Grimm, Summit CPA's Director of Technology.)
The Future of Remote and Hybrid Work
Tammy agrees that remote work is in flux. Companies are within their rights to demand that their workers occupy cubicles in physical locations. They don’t have to tell their employees that they want them back in the office because they have multi-million-dollar, long term leases or brand new, collaboration-optimized workspaces.
But when it comes to rescinding workplace flexibility, she believes in transparency: “Veiling return-to-office edicts with rhetoric like, ‘We care about productivity and we care about culture,’ is not genuine.” The consequences of that kind of breach of trust runs deep: “Companies need to be aware that employees are smart, and we're going to make decisions based on alignment with our values. If we value transparency and flexibility, we're not likely to look positively on a company that is not genuine.”
On the flipside, companies that trust their employees and empower them to get their work done – without needing to see them sitting in their cubicle – are best positioned to thrive, regardless of which specific rituals, policies and tools they adopt.