In 2020 we experienced the most significant office exodus that forced people to work at home. Many of them found enough strength to resist the temptation of PlayStation and figured out ways to reclaim their time, focus, and get a massive load of work done. Isolation has one great advantage as it provides an opportunity for
uninterrupted productivity. No manager can barge into your home office to schedule an impromptu status meeting. The time you spend working is genuinely yours.
The forced isolation is now over and we can choose our workplace. Some have remained at home while others return to the office for various reasons, such as having kids at home or their spouse being a manager. Having part of the team work on-site and part working remotely comes with its own challenges, but more on this hybrid scenario later.
The return to the office
Forcing people back to the office may backfire. They have gotten used to controlling their schedules and are reluctant to go back to the old days. Remote work has become popular and opened borders, so looking for a new job, even abroad, is easier than ever. The same applies the other way around: you can hire talent everywhere, not just in your office's physical location.
One argument for returning to the office is that people have better working discipline there than at home. It's up to anyone to decide which place has more disruptions and choose accordingly. Looking at a typical modern office with table footballs, drum hero sets, and four dogs chasing each other in a gigantic shared open space where people without noise-canceling headphones are doomed is debatable, at the very least. But it all boils down to trust. Do you trust your employees to work productively without a manager behind their backs? If not, you should be more considerate about hiring decisions rather than where people choose to work.
Adapting and allowing office and remote worlds to coexist makes a lot of sense: let people work from where they feel the most productive, and they will reward you with doing exactly that. It's OK that it still might be the office for some. You can benefit from the advantages of remote practices with part of the crew on-site and part remote. Some refer to it as a hybrid approach, but that’s not entirely on point.
Let's rip the band-aid off quickly. There's no hybrid approach! Only an environment where applied asynchronous practices enable cooperation between on-site and remote people. Nothing else in between makes sense, as it only leads to the neglect of one group or the other. The same conditions and rules must apply to everyone, regardless of location. Asynchronous practices not only help connect the two worlds but also significantly improve productivity for office work. Here are a few tips.
Create and maintain a calm environment so people can focus and not be disturbed for as long as they wish, regardless of the physical location. At home, we often set rules for when we don't distract each other. Why can't we do something similar in the office, the place set up for work in the first place?
Set boundaries and don't tap on people's shoulders if you need something. Imagine the person next to you is working from a different country and you can't contact them physically. Approach them asynchronously. If they don't reply, chances are they are focusing on something and the last thing they'd want to do is pause everything and talk to you in person. Don't rip people away from their thoughts because of your fantasy of urgency. It might not be as pressing as you perceive it to be.
The same rules apply to online space: don't go around your messaging app and expect people to react instantly. Some managers abuse those tools as an utterly unnecessary control mechanism to check if people are working. The chat app is not where the work gets done. Feel free to turn it off if you need to focus on something more substantial.
Knowledge must be shared. It's far from enough that it's been said in a meeting room. Verbal knowledge sharing is a no-go; remote people will be clueless and office people will forget. You must define and learn to use a well-known single source of truth. If you fail to do so, you only create space for assumptions and friction.
Plenty of project management software is here to help but choose wisely. If you don't, you will end up with three different messaging apps and another three for documentation, design, and progress tracking. That makes the single source of truth, well, not that much single. It also further invites an opportunity for focus disruptions.
Knowledge must be comprehensive. It doesn't suffice that it's written. Not only do others have to understand what you meant, but also your future self. Try to put yourself in your reader's shoes and re-read your writing. Does it answer questions, or does it raise more than it's necessary?
Some people, often those responsible for technical analysis (or writing horoscopes), think adding an obfuscation layer to the natural language is a great idea, making them sound more professional. What ends up happening later is that some poor soul has to decipher the gibberish leading them to a quest to find the original scroll with the ancient knowledge. This is work, not a role-playing game. If you expect a human to read what you wrote, write like a human.
Leave people alone to do their work and share well-written knowledge.
The practice imposes extra discipline on a team, but you won't want to return once you start seeing the benefits. I'd go to great lengths to argue that you should opt for those rules even if your whole team works on-site. Let's now address the two remaining elephants in the room.
Meetings and managers
Meetings and their human equivalent, managers, are the two most influential relics of the old age and arch-nemesis of uninterrupted productivity. There is still a place for both, but the sooner we forsake the established office routine, the smoother the transition to an asynchronous and productive world will be.
Programmers work by organizing the thoughts they later output in the source code form. They often do that independently of each other and commit work additions asynchronously, so remote practices feel closer to them and accepting them is more straightforward. Managers, on the other hand, might feel out of their element in this asynchronous world.
Managers do not directly create value. Their most significant addition is removing barriers for the workers that do. A good manager shields others from the irrelevant to allow them to spend as much time as possible doing what they do best. Let designers design and programmers program. There's no value in keeping people verbally hostage in a meeting, but there is great value in doing the opposite.
This requires a mind shift, but there's a silver lining once you realize you employ self-organized people who don't need micromanaging and can work without much oversight. This shift frees managers and allows them to focus on the topics where they might contribute to the process meaningfully. There is no room for ego and certainly not for the illusions of authority—forget the management manuals of the 1990s.
People don't go around wondering who, for instance, van Gogh's project manager was. On the contrary, some jokingly speculate the famous painter cut off his ear when he received a letter with yet another meeting invite. But little did he know that meetings might also make sense in an asynchronous work environment.
There's just a different approach to organizing them. Instead of summoning a group of 15 people into an hour meeting, it can go like this:
- Write an agenda and briefly summarize the reason for the meeting.
- Then write questions asking for answers that can solve some specifics.
- Send out these questions.
- Wait for answers.
- Don't have the meeting.
Organizing your thoughts using the written word helps you understand the issue and alleviates the fear of the unknown. It creates newly found insight that you can easily share as a valuable contribution. Writing down a problem forces you to understand it comprehensively. This process can sometimes be done independently without wasting the time of others.
In some cases, however, a synchronous meeting can be more productive. A quick pair programming session or a chat with a designer is practical now and then. But limiting the number of participants to those concerned with the topic is as essential as avoiding full-team calls where three-quarters are just muted passive spectators doing their laundry in the next room.
Could it really have been just an email? It might not be in some cases, and that's fine too. But be honest about your intentions and don't take other people's time off their hands lightly. Think twice if conducting numerous meetings isn't just a way to give the impression of being occupied. Time spent in a meeting is the time not doing the actual work.
The backbone of remote work is writing. The ability to express your thoughts is essential regardless of your position. It's a craft that gets better and easier the more you do it, and opportunities to practice are plenty: toots, tweets, daily standups, project READMEs, and even chat messages.
You can also write a blog post for your company!
Writing is also a transferable skill. You can change a team role, a company, or even an industry and still benefit from writing well. No one can take that away from you.