31st Oct 2020
3 Min Read

3 surprising advantages of a remote-first workforce

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
Culture & Insights

This article was originally published on 24 October 2020 on Forbes.com

For many, this is their first time experiencing remote work. Under the conditions of a pandemic, however, it is no surprise that many have had a negative experience. Taking calls from your bedroom or kitchen table instead of a home office; spouses and children underfoot; and blurred boundaries between when the workday starts and ends are hallmarks of pandemic home working. These point-in-time conditions, however, are unique to Covid-19 — and are not truly representative of remote working.

Remote working means the ability to do the job from any location. It does not mean working from home. Many "remote" employees not located near a main campus or site still go into a coworking space such as a WeWork or Spaces or some other designated collaboration space. In this ideal remote environment, numerous studies have shown that remote workers are more productive than their office-bound counterparts.

Recognizing that Covid-19 has opened up our eyes to the fact that remote working works en masse, and also recognizing that the pandemic won‘t last forever, what advantages could there be to transitioning to a policy that assumes the workforce will all be remote where possible, versus office-based? The answers may surprise you.

Remote-first policies will be a boon to diversity & inclusion (D&I) efforts

Let‘s say Company X‘s headquarters is in a predominantly white, wealthy suburb. As most people won‘t commute over an hour one-way, and if being onsite is a job requirement, it is not hard to then make the leap as to how that manifests itself into the makeup of Company X‘s workforce.

Now, let‘s change the game and assume the world is the proverbial hiring oyster. Will that open up more geographical markets and more diverse talent? Yes. Will every other company have figured that out, too? Yes.

This is where D&I teams can shine. Continuing to focus on building a company‘s reputation as a place where inclusion thrives and harassment and discrimination isn‘t tolerated will attract the top talent — no matter race, gender, age, etc.

Remote-first policies enable more effective new employee training

Much training is "on the job." A new employee sits with a veteran to see how they complete a certain process. The ways of working are absorbed simply by overhearing conversations and seeing what people are working on and how they work. That‘s fine, but the constraints of this informal learning can keep businesses from effectively scaling. Why? Because it requires someone to be onsite.

Learning & development teams have a real opportunity to shape training to meet the conditions of a remote environment. The numerous examples of "This is just how we do things" must now be written down — and that‘s a good thing. Automated documentation of processes and workflows, especially if housed in a central location, provide greater transparency and alleviate the need to be onsite to learn. Employees can get up to speed quickly and with less frustration and reliance on others, which benefits all.

Remote-first policies put more attention than ever before on the employee experience

Key milestones in the employee experience, such as onboarding or getting to know your immediate team, were largely taken for granted in the past. Onboarding was usually a half-day in a room listening to the history of the company, a culture overview, and being told about your benefits package. Getting to know your team assumed that proximity would equal closeness.

Now, companies are becoming much more deliberate and creative about the employee experience. Some are turning to specific onboarding workshops, where they investigate how to provide that same emotional high of entering a new workplace for the first time — which we can‘t in the new remote world. This would typically also involve an employee experience journey mapping workshop, where companies look at each stage of their current onboarding process and identify the emotions that go with it. Then, they discuss how to deliver that same feeling at each stage, given this new environment.

Let‘s talk about connection. Lockdown has shown us that even the introverts need interaction. To that end, connection will become more deliberate which should build stronger bonds between employees. One great technique to do this that teams can use comes from research from Maritz and Irrational Labs, where they facilitated a series of networking events. Those groups who were given conversational prompts around deep questions (e.g. "What is a compliment you wish you received more?") were able to cover more conversational ground than those who were told to simply just network or — worse — network, but with no small talk.

Of course, people will still travel and meet in person to do the things that can‘t be done over Zoom, but the scarcity of those interactions will make the in-person moments even more special.

Offices are being re-imagined, as well, to encourage more collaboration. Instead of row after row of grey cubicles and assigned desks, floors are being transformed into spaces that inspire more creativity, connection, and collaboration. One multi-national customized print company is in the process of doing just that. Recognizing that people will want to come back in at least part-time once the pandemic passes, they took the opportunity to think about how the physical spaces they provide could also evolve. To that end, they are removing the traditional desk set up and redesigning the space with different furniture and room arrangements so people can come together to collaborate.

Remote-first policies are the way forward

Shifting to remote-first is not a two-way door. At some point, you get too far down the line to go back. But the question businesses should be asking is: do we want to go back?

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