The Discipline of Remote Work
Beginning in late 2022, an increasing number of companies have asked employees to return to office. Apple, Twitter, Microsoft, Google, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley are just a few of the big names. Leaders cited reasons such as “culture”, “innovation”, “collaboration”, and other such pablum. The peak of this wave came recently from Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan, who said the quiet part out loud:
“It doesn’t work for young kids, it doesn’t work for spontaneity, it doesn’t really work for management. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to help women. For example, COVID taught us the burden on women, because they take the primary care, for parent care, etcetera, is enormous. Modify your company to help women stay home a little. It might also be OK to have remote or hybrid workers in some jobs, but it better be okay for the company, the clients, not just the individual.”
As a former consultant, I recognize Dimon’s line of thinking. It’s an open secret, and it’s the reason consultants fly to the client site Mon-Thu. It’s why they teach this on day one: “get into the office 30 minutes before the client, and leave 15 minutes after.” Is it for the benefits of collaboration, innovation, culture? Yes, but that’s not the main reason… the #1 benefit is perception. There are so many executives and managers who still think “if I can see you at your desk, you’re being productive.” It’s a fallacy, but it works! This cheap conjurer’s trick, this blatant hustle somehow convinces clients that we’re worth our fat hourly rates. Not only that, I saw many clients treat us as true partners (i.e. with respect and understanding) while treating offshore teams - equally hardworking and smart people - like mere vendors (i.e. f#&% your problems, where’s my deliverable?) Perhaps human biases are just that easily manipulated.
What goes unsaid by all these leaders is the price employees pay for in-person. Our bodies pay the price in stress, in physical pain, in hours of our lives lost to commuting. Our kids pay the price of missing us, of being forced into day cares for 9-10 hours a day. Our friendships and relationships and hobbies pay the price. When my wife and I joined our current employer and moved to Seattle, we experienced all of these and more. Day cares had a 12-month waitlist, office parking had a 6-month waitlist. Our weekday routine was crazy: one of us would leave home at 6am to catch the bus and get to office by 7am. The other would hustle the kids through breakfast to drop them off at day care by 8:30, then catch a bus to be in office by 10am. Whoever left home first, had to get out of office by 3:30pm to pick up the kids by 5, get home by 5:30, and get dinner going. Meanwhile, the one who went late to office would work late, often getting home after 8pm. On some days we were forced to bite the bullet and drive a car to work, paying $40/day in parking and tolls, just to pick up the kids on time. After eight months of this, getting one (1) reserved parking spot at office was a life-changer. Saving 30 minutes of commute each way made a measurable difference to ours and our kids’ mental health.
Now, as a beneficiary of remote work, I remember those days with a shudder - and don’t want to RTO. I also want to cast a wider net to find the best talent for my team - 2 or 3 cities don’t have a monopoly on talent. But as a manager I also recognize the risk of individuals feeling lost or disconnected without the benefits of frequent in-person interaction… and a small percentage of people are indeed slacking.
The problem seems to come down to defining 2 things: (1) how do you actually measure people’s productivity to hold them accountable? (2) what valuable things did we get “for free” with in-person, that we haven’t replaced? And the solution seems to be to replace those things by mindfully putting new mechanisms in place. That’s the discipline needed to get remote to work.
Thinking that remote doesn’t work for managers is a lazy cop-out. The real question is: what are you measuring as a manager? If I hire smart, talented, motivated people, the biggest risk isn’t them slacking off; it’s that they might spend too much effort running in the wrong direction. And that’s on me to communicate. Have I shared the vision, the business strategy, the goals and what “success” looks like? Did I set clear expectations? Did I build an environment where they feel safe to say “I need help” or “I don’t know”, or to challenge me? Do I have a good understanding of their strengths and growth areas, so that they’re placed in a position to succeed? This is the “up front contract” of setting up a good working relationship. And if I’ve done that, then I can measure performance through outcomes, through progress reports and 1:1s. Being in person doesn’t magically compensate for a lack of leadership and direction.
Valuable things we need to replace
It’s true that some things are difficult to do remotely - very difficult. But in my view most of those things have little to do with “productivity”, more with “relationship building”.
Research shows that making new friends requires 3 things to happen repeatedly: (a) Proximity: being around each other, (b) Uplanned interactions: seeing each other without putting appointments on a calendar, and (c) Privacy: sharing confidences. This is why so many lifelong friendships are formed in school and college: these spaces are designed to foster that kind of interaction. And to the extent that we make “work friends”, the same rules apply - you’ll see colleagues who started together, or have been in stressful projects together, bond closely when they spend time talking not just about work, but life, the universe and everything. A monthly happy hour just doesn’t suffice for building a close-knit group.
With that context, I find these 4-5 areas are the most difficult to do remotely. They also happen to be the top areas I spend time on during on-site visits:
Onboarding new employees. This one is difficult for new hires in an unfamiliar domain. Sometimes you don’t even know the right questions to ask or people to meet. Being able to observe and “eavesdrop” on others can really help.
Establishing team norms. Humans are “monkey see, monkey do” - and sometimes it’s hard to assimilate when you don’t get that immediate feedback from social cues. This one is especially difficult on interns and fresh college grads.
Project kickoffs - the “storming” phase where a vision is turning into a concrete plan.
Building relationships. It’s very hard to replace the connection that happen outside of structured meeting times - the hallway chats, shared coffee breaks, random interactions over lunch or in an elevator.
Impromptu whiteboarding sessions when discussing an idea.
Mechanisms for Remote
Can we replace these valuable things in a remote-first workspace? It takes discipline, but I believe we can still make those things happen. Here are some practices we are trying out (so far successfully) in our org:
High bar when hiring. Once someone is on the team, I will invest a lot of time into them, so when hiring it’s important to be clear on what you’re looking for. “Hire fast fire fast” ain’t my style.
Written expectations. Strategy docs with clear goals. Explicit roles & responsibilities. Team tenets. Written career growth plans. Meeting minutes with clear owners and due dates. These are all ways to set “upfront contracts” that I can then hold people accountable for. These things also helps me recognize skill gaps (e.g. “you should have communicated that better” or “you should have done X instead of Y here, and here’s why”) versus performance issues (e.g. “you just didn’t spend any effort on this, and it shows”.) And finally, it allows me the flexibility of being high-touch where needed (direct coaching or collaboration) or hands-off when not needed (just available for questions or as a second set of eyes.)
Record it! Storage is cheap, and cameras are everywhere. It costs very little to record a crucial discussion and upload the video to a repository for future viewers. You can scale yourself that way. The same goes for Wikis that capture details on a domain, emails that record meeting minutes of key decisions, etc. You better do these things diligently so that everyone can stay up to date without needing to be in all meetings.
Knowledge Management: Build a repository of knowledge to ramp up people new to the domain. Talk about your business basics, your customers, partners, industry, etc. Talk about the product vision and the tech stack. Make deep dives on your operator tools and analytics capabilities. If possible, hire a specialist knowledge manager. If not, make time on the calendars of your most knowledgeable people to get it out of their heads and into a wiki, video, presentation or doc - this makes them force-multipliers.
1:1s are not status meetings: They’re people, not just means to an outcome. Getting to know them, their motivators and blockers, strengths and growth areas, should happen in 1:1s. As much as we value structured meetings, a lot of value in critical relationships comes from random conversations. For this reason, I try to timebox project-related discussions to less than 1/3rd of the meeting, spending more time on long-term things like building skills and addressing their questions/concerns.
Cameras on during 1:1s: For “work” meetings I find that keeping cameras off let me think more critically about ideas; but for “social” meetings like 1:1s, having the camera on somehow taps into that human bias, makes it work in our favor.
Make space for unplanned time: If all you’re doing is going from one 30-minute meeting to another, you’re missing out on a huge chunk of valuable human interaction. I block off chunks of time during the day to think, to respond to ad-hoc requests, jump on quick 10-20 minute brainstorming calls, etc. You need to budget time daily for those low-key interactions to happen, and value them. “Twalks” are a great way to maximize the benefit of remote while making connections: I try to take 1-2 brainstorming calls each day while walking, outdoors if possible. Ideas flow better, it’s good for stress, and you get a lot done. Another way: I sometimes spend 10-15 mins between meetings on Slack groups to pop a question, send a funny joke or meme, or just generally check in on the water cooler chat. It’s a great de-stresser.
Crucial meetings happen in-person: Project kickoffs, talent review meetings, escalation meetings, etc. happen in person. Recognizing when you need that extra “in-person” magic is key.
Get out of your silo: For certain personalities, it can be easy to go into your shell. I learned this trick from my first manager: if you’re spinning your wheels for 20 minutes on a problem, ask someone. I’ll do this by randomly picking a colleague to run an idea or problem by them. I also schedule “office hours” weekly where folks can just borrow my brain for 15-30 minute sessions - this helps me control my calendar while also mimicing the in-office habit of people walking over to your desk to “ask a quick question”. And I give myself a “quota” of 3-5 connections I check in on weekly.
Yes, do meet in person: We have a travel budget - I go to our home office once a month, to the HQ once a quarter; and am generally ready to travel for 1-2 days on short notice to attend crucial meetings.
Is this a complete panacea? No, we’re learning and adapting on the fly, keeping what works. But we’re showing that remote works. We’re fighting back against knee-jerk reactions of execs forcing RTO in search for some magical gain in productivity. WFA (work from anywhere) has been a game changer for a lot of people. It has allowed working parents, immuno-compromised people, differently-abled people to play on level terms with others. It has removed location as a barrier for talent, letting people outside the usual “hotspots” to join and contribute. And as the record profits during the pandemic have proved, companies haven’t been too badly affected either. Most employees are honest, conscientious, self-driven workers who aren’t taking advantage of their employers; it is time we treated them as such.