What have we learned so far about switching to remote work?
October 6, 2020

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been interviewing companies who made the change to working remotely. Some closed their offices indefinitely, others are planning to keep (some of) their physical offices open.

It’s inspiring and interesting to see how every company is handling the situation caused by the pandemic in their own way. New manners of working are quickly being developed and employees are adjusting fast – it seems like many of them don’t even want to go back to their pre-pandemic situation.

With all of the insights we’ve gathered through our interviews, it seemed only right to look back and reflect on what we’ve learned so far about the future of remote work. What are the similarities and differences companies have encountered on this journey?

We’re grateful that Pixelmatters, REalyse, Skift, CPJ, WeTransfer, and Real.Digital have taken the time to share their experiences with us. Let’s break it down.

Hybrid future

We’re looking at a hybrid future when it comes to remote work, as most companies don’t want to completely abandon their office spaces. Some will keep their current office, while others are planning to change to a smaller space.

Out of all our interviews, only Skift said goodbye to their physical office for good – and this was mainly due to financial reasons.

It appears that the advantage a physical office holds to be able to see your colleagues, have meetings, walk to each other’s desks, and discuss certain matters there and then, is still of great value.

As André Oliveira of Pixelmatters puts it:

“We will never be able to replace the human contact that comes from face-to-face interactions. The key is to combine the best of both worlds.”

In fact, as we write this, the first step towards this hybrid future is being made by Pixelmatters, as they recently announced that they’ve opened a temporary office.

André Oliveira wrote about it in a blog post, appropriately titled: “The remote honeymoon is over – we’re getting a temporary office.” From what it sounds like the future of work might be about finding that perfect combination of being a remote company by default, with the possibility of going to the office when desired.

The challenges companies face

No change goes without its challenges.

One concern that companies have is how to keep the culture alive. Each organization that we chatted with greatly values connection within their internal teams as well as each individual’s connection with the organization itself.

They’ve put a lot of work into it!

WeTransfer has (or, used to have) a daily vegan-friendly lunch for their team and a wide range of company outings. As they put it in their interview:

“Our culture will need to be reimagined.”

Also Real.Digital, for whom the team spirit is “the main part” of the company, is rethinking ways to replace this contact on a daily basis.

Other challenges companies are facing include:

  • The onboarding process: Newbies don’t get to know their colleagues, the company, and the working method as fast as they would pre-pandemic. A solution from Real.Digital and PixelMatters is to work with a buddy system: a weekly one-on-one check-in that helps new employees blend in.
  • (A)synchronized working hours: Some companies need only some planned meetings, whereas others need to have synchronized working hours to keep the processes going. Real.Digital’s staff, for example, will keep fixed working hours from 10 am – 4 pm.

What challenges a company faces is obviously very much affected by their pre-pandemic structure and working method. Companies that were already used to working with more flexible hours and/or a pool of freelancers – like Skift and CPJ – might already be used to asynchronized working hours and a remote onboarding process, but they’ve still had to realign some aspects of their work structure.

All companies have (and have had) their challenges, but it’s clear that they also see the opportunities that come with the remote working method. They show a lot of resilience!

The possibilities that arise

Every company points out that the big plus of working remotely is the worldwide talent pool that all of sudden is within reach. Hiring people is no longer tied to the location of an office: they can look for the best match and skills wherever they’re located!

Also, Skift points out that the events they organize don’t always have to be regional, as people from all over the world can tune in with their current online event format. This adds a new and exciting dimension to these events, although it won’t be able to replace the live events in economic terms – at least for now.

Moreover, the interviewees say that the switch to remote work accelerated the implementation of apps and tools within the company. Where this might have been a wish already for improving certain methods, the urge just wasn’t strong enough with the full agenda of everyday business.

Because of the pandemic, these processes were quickly improved and implemented within their everyday working methods. PixelMatters, for example, implemented the ‘Document and Share’ method, with the idea to work in a more methodical manner and to make it possible to delegate work.

Part of their company was already used to working at least partly remotely, as the staff was allowed to work some days a week from home. This really helped them to have most of the tools they needed to work remotely already figured out and ready to use.

Jan-Albert Hootsen of CPJ mentions another plus: although not being together in the office slowed decision making down, the fact that no one likes to be in long online meetings has shortened the duration of meeting times during the workday – and, in this sense, has sped up some of their processes.

The staff

Obviously, staff are going to be most affected by the new remote work situation at any organization. Talking to all six companies we interviewed, we can infer that (most) employees appreciated working from home during the quarantine – even with the accompanying challenges.

All of a sudden they realized how enjoyable it was to have more control over their daily work rhythm and free time, with some saving around 2 hours a day on commuting and more focussed work without office distractions.

All together this seems to have improved work-life-balance – something most staff members don’t want to give up after the pandemic.

A side note here is required: whether or not someone enjoys working from home of course depends on their personal situation. In our interviews, we also found three main downsides that people experience when working from home:

  • People living with children, or in really small apartments, may not be as happy with the remote situation. As André Oliveira (PixelMatters) says: “The context of personal life matters a lot.”
  • There seems to be the tendency to work more hours at home – as the to-do list is endless and you’re no longer literally walking away from your job at the end of the day. It might be interesting to ask team members how they keep track of their working hours and what ways they’ve developed to navigate this new situation.
  • Working from home means lack of social interaction. You no longer see your colleagues on a daily basis and contact is mostly ‘business only.’ This might be the biggest downside!

Enjoying work from home depends (a lot) on the personal situation.

Companies are inventive. To keep the team spirit lifted and prevent people from getting too isolated, they are getting creative with online team meetings: from shared lunches to beer o’clock or a shared break with a quiz. However, this accounts mostly for the organizations who are putting a lot of work into their company culture.

For Pixelmatters, some of these challenges for the staff were becoming real drawbacks. In their blog post André Oliveira notes that although they do enjoy working from home, six months into the pandemic the lack of “human interaction with colleagues” and “missing a daily routine that makes you leave the house” was becoming too big of a challenge – especially with the anxieties and stress that accompany it.

Other companies said that, when the pandemic is over, there will be monthly meetups, company retreats, and other organized gatherings to continue to support this need for face-to-face time.

At Surf Office, we’ve had the pleasure of hosting several productive retreats for established remote companies and truly understand how important having in-person meetups can be!

Organizing strategic meetings , brainstorming sessions and team building activities is what we do. Meeting up two times a year for a period of 4-7 days gives enough time to touch all of these aspects while giving a great boost to team spirit as well.

And there is more…

All together, we see that companies are starting to become more flexible, in the broad sense of the word, when it comes to remote work.

The personal situation of each team member has begun to play a bigger role in their work experience. It’s important to make clear agreements and communicate frequently – as this is no longer as self-evident as it was before the pandemic.

Another conclusion we can draw from the interviews so far is that there is a lot of support from the new remote direction within all the companies. Everyone is motivated to make it work together.

Blog posts are written with tips and tricks on how to work from home and endless Zoom calls have been planned to reach out to each other – for business as well as coffee talk. Did the whole transition result in a good – or, even improved – connection and understanding?

As the pandemic still has a big impact on (everyday) life worldwide, it might be too early to draw any solid conclusions. It’s still hard to say what remote work will look like in the future.

But so far, it looks promising!

Written by Liza Roodnat

Liza Roodnat is a curious sociologist that is fascinated by the good, the bad, and the ugly of life. She is currently doing an internship at the Surf Office and very passionate about the future of work in these revolutionary times. Her ambition is to become a writer and content creator – while being able to work remotely from all over the world!

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