Flexible work is here to stay but you should choose an emphasis

Photo by Bruno Thethe on Unsplash

Note: This was written in August 2022 and I assume things will change quickly. It will be interesting to look back in a couple of years to see how much of this article is still relevant!

Most tech organisations were forced to change to remote during lockdown but haven't explicitly changed their office attendance policy.

Covid accelerated the acceptance of remote work and expectations have changed, so your old policies are likely out of date for the current hiring market. Just to be competitive you have to have at least some flexibility for work location.

The danger of implicit or "optional" Hybrid

You don't have to choose 100% remote or 100% in-office for your organisation, and research suggests that a mix of the two is best.

But the asynchronous nature of remote work is very different from the synchronous nature of in-office work. If you don't choose an emphasis then you're likely to end up with a hybrid fuzziness that will make no one happy.

Hybrid Fuzziness

Hybrid fuzziness is the worst of both worlds. This is a hybrid policy with no org preference. In this scenario no one will be happy.

Remote workers will feel forgotten because so much happens only in the office with nothing written down.

In-office people will be frustrated that they spend most of their time on zoom with remote colleagues in a half-empty office.

To avoid this situation you should be 100% clear about which emphasis your organisation is making through messaging, policies and practices.

Here is a blurb from Dovetail, a SaaS company in Sydney, on their job descriptions...

"Whether you're a parent, student, or juggling a million things, we get it. While we're an office-first culture, we work together to make your schedule work for you."


dovetail on hybrid culture

It's clear that Dovetail is an in-office culture first, remote second.

Here is Atlassian, another well known SaaS company in Sydney...

"...And our digital-first culture means we default to virtual meetings and place greater emphasis on async communications."


atlassian on hybrid culture

It's nice and clear that Atlassian is a remote company first. It's easy to know which of these organisations to choose if you prefer to work in an office or if you prefer to work remotely. There's very clear messaging from both.

Going Full In-office

If you're considering requiring staff to go fully back to the office you might face significant attrition and resistance.

At least 2 WFH days seems to be the absolute minimum these days and most organisations requiring 3 in-office days are at Tier 1 companies paying top salaries.

Consider WFH flexibility as part of your whole compensation package to employees. If you're not compensating them with large salary packages or otherwise, you can use more flexibility to offset the lower salaries to keep top performers happy.

Going Full Remote

Offering full remote is an advantage in many markets, however there are issues with it:

  • Taxes
  • Time-zones
  • Work suitability
  • Getting equipment to people
  • Visibility/promotions
  • Approximately 50% of people in surveys want some office time

There's a lot of work that an organisation needs to do to be a great remote culture e.g. a great async writing culture from C-level all the way through the organisation. It will take dedicated effort!

The gitlab remote work guide is a great place to start: https://handbook.gitlab.com/handbook/company/culture/all-remote/guide/

There are more and more organisations choosing full-remote, if I was looking to work fully remote I would choose an org that is explicitly fully remote. Especially if I wanted promotions!

Going Partial Remote

So if not 100% remote or 100% in-office, that leaves a partial remote or hybrid situation which is what most organisations are experimenting with right now.

Typically you ask people to be in the office 1-2 days a week for discovery type work and socialising events with the team. This can be explicit or implicit but you absolutely should choose an emphasis so people know which work-location-culture you're trying to achieve.

These are some of the other considerations you will have work through for your org when going partial remote!

Labour market competitiveness

Every organisation has a different blend of levers they use to attract the right people. You need to understand how your work location policy affects your overall positioning in the market.

This new lever of "work location" must be deliberately added to your combination of levers so that you don't fall behind your peers and competitors in talent.

Post-covid there is some return to office happening but it seems almost certain that some amount of flexible work is required just to remain competitive. You can easily review job advertisements for your own region but here in Sydney, Australia most jobs are 2-3 days in the office per week.

The expectations of the new generation

If you're looking at survey data, instead of only looking at the whole organisation, try different classifications.

It's likely that anyone you hired during covid lockdown has a different perception of company culture than people from before there was forced remote work.

Some differences you'll see are that the longer-term team members will have a higher feeling of commitment to in-office because they know what it was like before covid.

On the other hand it might be that the newer people rate the remote culture higher because they joined during covid lockdowns and all they know is the remote culture.

If you have a large portion of employees hired during covid lockdowns, ensure you're not depending on averages in surveys and talk to everyone to understand what the effects of change will be on them personally.

People with young families are likely to want to spend more time with their family during that time and some parents love the break that the office gives them.

Everyone is different so instead of organisation-wide surveys you should talk to your team members and see what they each want to do with remote working. It might surprise you.

Business operations needs

If you work in a role where you have to interact in-person then you can't be fully remote.

Likewise if your business is in an industry that is primarily on-site or in one location then you might not be able to offer full remote.

These kinds of restrictions might not be obvious to all employees and need very clear comms around why you can't offer remote working flexibility for them. Especially during the hiring process!

Consistency and fairness will be decisive in this scenario. If some roles have to be in-office but others can be remote there might be resentment.

Monitor the physical and mental well-being of people

There are studies showing that remote work can result in some social isolation, worse sleep and higher stress. Again, everyone is different so some people will thrive remotely and others will not.

You should emphasise mental and physical well-being, watch out for extra work being done and signs of stress.

Catch up more often with people who are new to remote working to see how they're doing.

The new emphasis for office is not deep work

If your team is in the office 1-2 days a week then you have to consider the office is more of a co-working space where people are paid by the same org rather than a place to do any deep work.

You should create and encourage an environment where people can:

  • closely collaborate on specific pieces of work
  • socialise

That's it! They can do the deep work at home in peace.

Measure your balance of growth and promotions

Consider having a metric to measure who gets promoted in your hybrid working environment. If you're emphasising remote but not promoting remote employees at the same rate as in-person employees that's a strong signal that there's something wrong!

Also check that you're hiring remote people at all levels - senior leadership, managers, individual contributors are all represented in the remote culture.

This is particularly important if your messaging is that remote is not disadvantaged in the organisation.

Async work requires great written comms

If you want to succeed with remote then you must emphasise writing well

  • do you train people in comms?
  • Are written comms part of your skills assessments? This should cover all forms of written comms from meeting invitations to slack messages.

In a remote organisation everyone needs to clarify their communications.

Keep comms open where possible. If you're remote and you depend heavily on slack then you should emphasise public channels over DMs. You can check this in slack. DMs on slack are a black hole for organisation information and online culture.

Increase your org communications more than you think you need to. Remote means people are less likely to randomly chat about announcements so you have to repeat messages.

Train for new risks

Employees should be more aware of physical security in a remote first world. e.g. be careful with your laptop in cafe's or where you take your meetings.

Ensure employees are not using personal devices for work content. Make sure employees are keeping work devices private from family members.

Enforce your VPN for sensitive content.

The UKs information commissioners office has a nice checklist here: https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/working-from-home/working-from-home-security-checklists-for-employers/

Switching back to the office

If you decide to encourage or enforce some days in the office:

  • try not to lose the positive habits/changes (e.g. good meeting etiquette, writing skills)
  • ensure team members maintain some of the agency they had - 4 hours in the office is better than none when they have to leave your company
  • The office will be emptier, what will you do to make it more comfortable? You're not competing with other offices any more, you're competing with people's own homes.
  • Empathise with the people who went to the office through the quiet times. They will be faced with more distractions now because they will be sharing the space with more colleagues.

Consistency org-wide (especially for leaders)

Whatever you decide to enforce just make sure that it's consistent.

If you go with emphasised in-office then the decision makers and leaders should be in-office so they experience what they are asking.

If you emphasise remote then the decision makers should work remotely so they experience what remote is like in the organisation.