COVID-19 and the subsequent pandemic upended just about everything any of us had planned for 2020.
That includes where we work.
For the majority of North America, the on-going pandemic caused widespread quarantine measures that had hundreds of thousands of people suddenly working from home instead of the office.
“We see an incredible 42% of the U.S. labor force now working from home full-time. About another 33% are not working – a testament to the savage impact of the lockdown recession,” says Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom.
“And the remaining 25% – mostly essential service workers – are working on their business premises. So, by sheer numbers, the U.S. is a working-from-home economy. Almost twice as many employees are working from home as at work.”
This has massive implications for large swaths of *now* remote employees, including:
- Limited child care options and increased interruptions or a need for varying working hours among parents.
- A sudden rush to make remote work possible (increased usage of video conferencing, Zoom, Google Docs, and more).
- A renewed focus on work / life balance as many people began to work mere feet from their beds, or in areas not optimized for an 8+ hour day.
66% of people now working from home say they are more likely to work nights and weekends than proper to remote work.
And yet, despite challenges, more than half of working Americans said given the choice, they’d continue working from home for the long-haul.
For Baby Boomers (i.e., those who don’t have young children), 75% say they’d prefer to work from home indefinitely –– the highest of all the generations.
Indeed, we are seeing a massive shift toward remote working cultures and less in-office time, even if folks begin to go back to work a couple of days of the week in 2021.
In fact, several companies have told employees not to come back at all until mid-2021 – specifically social media organizations and technology companies.
Global Companies That Encourage Work From Home Until 2021 – Or Forever
- Universal Music Group
- Warner Music Group
- Sony Music
- Amazon corporate
- RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland)
- Group Nine Media
All of this begs a few important questions:
- What are the employee and overall business implications so remote work for the long haul?
- What does this mean for the freelancer and contracting world (one that has seen a demand increase of 25% since April 2020)?
- Will the remote culture best practices of Basecamp, Auttomattic, and Zapier –– all of which have 100% remote teams –– become the new normal?
Let’s dive in and find out.
The Pros Outweigh the Cons in Remote Work for Most Employees
Prior to the coronavirus and the resulting global pandemic, nearly 40% of the American workforce had never worked remotely — be it for personal reasons or because their company didn’t allow it.
That chart is from 2018. Now, in the fall of 2020, things are dramatically different. Organizations that never thought they’d need to work remotely have had to adjust. The switch was simpler for some, sure.
But remote work is no longer only being practiced at technology companies or start-ups. Large B2B organizations have had to adapt. Even face-to-face jobs like teaching and nursing have had to adapt.
This has affected us all. And the way we work in the future is forever impacted. But that’s not necessarily a negative thing.
Here are some of the biggest benefits to a remote work culture and environment.
1. Improved work-life balance and happiness.
Work-life balance is one of the biggest challenges of the modern workforce. When an employee’s work-life balance is poor, it shows both at work and at home.
Here are only a few health issues associated with working far too much:
- Impaired sleep
- Heavy drinking
- Impaired memory
- Heart disease
Put bluntly, the more hours we work, the less healthy we become.
With the increasing mental health toll that a poor work-life balance can have on employees, implementing remote work flexibility has been proven to increase happiness which, in turn, increases an employee’s tenure at their company.
In other words, remote work, when implemented properly, can help employees better manage their work and their non-work schedules, making them happier employees, which ultimately reduces churn.
Employee churn is a constant challenge for businesses today. No longer do folks spend decades at a job. And that loss of employee knowledge and the time and cost associated with a new hire onboarding and training are all incredibly significant.
Happier employees build more successful companies, for the long-haul.
Even the allowance of a flexible schedule or other forms of flexible work options, like telecommuting or partial days in the office space itself, allow employees to:
- Pursue passions outside of the workplace
- Spend more time with family
- Take care of themselves in other ways that allow them to be a more productive, positive member of the team.
Whether from coffee shops, co-working spaces, or their own homes, remote employees have the freedom to choose where, how, and when they work.
This isn’t simply theoretical either. Practice has proven the theory out as true. According to Owl Labs’ State of Remote Work data, “those who work remote at least 1x per month are 24% more likely to feel happy and productive in their roles than those who don’t or can’t work remotely.”
“Those who work remote at least once a month are 24% more likely to feel happy and productive in their roles than those who don't or can't work remotely.”
As COVID-19 took grip and businesses were forced to allow remote work environments, many employees have now settled into routines that allow flexibility both in their work day and in their home life.
This improved work life happiness isn’t just about your employees, either. It’s a fantastic marketing strategy – if you mean it.
“Consumers now want brands to be helpful in their marketing, especially when it comes to mental health. With the pandemic, searches, content, brands and products related to mental health (stress, anxiety, coping) has increased. Consumers now want meaningful media that allows them to feel and experience a true, authentic experience,” says Kate Tan, Growth Consultant.
“Now more than ever, consumers want brands to be a reliable source of information, to have a genuine, authentic brand and voice. Brands now have to live up to any and all promises that they've made (which is why we've seen a number of previously popular DTC brands like Everlane, Reformation, Glossier being called out for their mismatch in practices vs promises), and consumers will, moving forward, have their eyes on how helpful a brand's marketing strategy is in solving current problems that go beyond advertising and making a profit.”
2. Working from home means a shorter or no commute at all.
Let’s face it — commuting can be a real drag. Be it by plane, train, or car, the average commute for an American worker is nearly half an hour... one way.
Despite the endless supply of audiobooks and podcasts available for entertainment, that’s still a lot of travel time for anyone to spend going to work and being away from home.
Commuting is essentially unpaid time you spend getting to and from work, during which you are sacrificing time spent on hobbies, mental health, or the like.
In a fully remote future (or, at the very least, a more remote-friendly future), commuting can be a thing of the past. Not only is that good for employee morale, it’s really good for the environment.
Of course, cutting back on commuting will decrease the number of cars on the road, but there are a number of benefits that come with doing that.
Not only will having few cars on the road or fewer public transportation routes in operation cut back on greenhouse emissions, there will be fewer fossil fuels consumed and a lessened impact on infrastructure. That way, when you actually do need to go somewhere, those roads will be in way better shape.
In fact, if people who had remote work-compatible jobs worked remotely half of the time, it would lead to the following savings:
- $20 million in gas
- 54 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent to taking almost 10 million cars off the road for a year)
- 640 million barrels of oil (worth $64 billion)
- 119 billion miles of highway driving
If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can still get what we need without leaving the house as frequently. This rings true for companies, too — they won’t lose out on quality, productivity, or profit simply because employees aren’t showing up to a physical office.
3. Increased productivity and focus.
Contrary to previous beliefs, employees have found that they are often more productive and better focused when working from home.
Whether it’s absence of distracting coworkers or the comfort that comes with working from a home office, increased productivity and focus were cited as the number one reason that employees choose to work remote, over more personal reasons like saving money, having no commute, or achieving work-life balance.
Where employers used to believe that the work-at-home model promoted laziness, the opposite rings true.
A Stanford University study found that a China-based travel company enjoyed a 13% increase in productivity because people were just generally happier with their careers, which made them want to work harder and smarter.
The world is going to look a lot different on the other side of COVID-19. Having employees that embrace a fully remote model for reasons that benefit both worker and workplace will ensure that you have team players ready to tackle whatever the future brings, regardless of where this pandemic has left your particular industry.
The Business Case for Long-Term Remote Work Comfortability for Organizations
As many businesses have learned over the course of these last several months, there are a lot of benefits to having employees at home.
Sure, in-person camaraderie is missed, and water cooler talk can do a lot to help colleagues get to know one another, but there are some serious pros that outweigh the cons — and a lot of those cons have been debunked, anyway.
Here’s a few of many reasons why the remote workforce is a strength to businesses of all kinds:
1. They’ll save money and resources.
Office lunches and weekly happy hours are wonderful perks to offer employees, but those costs start to add up, and fast.
Plus, with the lights being off since March at major offices around the world, companies are seeing money that they otherwise would have spent on snacks, bills, employee commutes, and other in-office expenses go right back into their pocket.
On average, those savings come out to $10,000 per year for real estate savings per one full-time employee.
But let’s not dismiss those lower real estate costs, either. If a company can move to a fully remote structure, that’s a lot of money saved.
“If they can figure out how to do it properly, a remote workforce will save companies so much money on overhead,” says Bryan Driscoll, founder of Think Big SEO Marketing. “All the skyscraper buildings, computers, cubicles… all of those costs just go away.”
2. They can tap into global talent pools.
When your hiring practice isn’t limited to a certain set of zip codes, you open the door for all kinds of professionals from all over the map to join your organization. This way, you can build the team you really want, not the team you have to settle for because of your location.
Though many industries have taken significant hits amidst the coronavirus pandemic, e-commerce and digital marketing are just two of many which have benefited from folks hunkering down in quarantine.
“The pandemic has accelerated ecommerce adoption across the US with a larger percentage of sales happening via online storefronts,” says Mike Griffith, Direct Response & Growth Marketing. “This was a trend that had been happening for decades, but is now speeding up and more people will be more comfortable buying a greater portion of their needs online.”
So much of our lives were moved online — including shopping and experiencing events or content that would have otherwise taken place offline — and, as a result, many professionals, specifically in marketing, found their careers taking off.
Kate Tan, a growth consultant for B2C startups, found that where many industries had to make cuts, a lot of them had to do a significant hiring push in the midst of COVID-19 to keep up with demand — and that demand isn’t going anywhere anytime soon:
“Brands that are hiring the most now are SaaS companies, and also remote-first and digital-centric companies. We're moving into a new era of work, and anything that was highly dependent on physical presence has taken quite a hit. I've also seen a lot of peers in the travel industry get hit pretty badly, but they're making the best of it and now would be the best time to pivot before competitors do the same.”
3. Their employees will be more productive and agile.
We’ve already noted the productivity of work-from-home employees, but this becomes so much more important to an organization when you learn what is at stake.
BuiltIn’s study on remote work notes that, according to researchers, because employees who work from home are more comfortable in their surroundings, they're less likely to make mistakes.
Where there were fewer errors, there was more money going back into the economy — and we mean a lot of money. As in, in the billions of dollars range.
Remote workers also aren’t set on one particular set of practices and are often less dogmatic than those who have been in-house for many years.
“Remote marketers have worked with tons of different companies,” says Chad Keller, co-founder of MarketerHire. “This means they’re used to a wide range of systems—Asana, Basecamp, whatever—they’re just more exposed to different software, and they’re typically more open to change generally. From a tech standpoint, they usually know a lot more because they’ve been exposed to a lot more, and from a personality standpoint, they tend to be open to a lot more.”
4. Communication will be stronger and more streamlined.
Thanks to new technologies, communication across distributed organizations is better than ever. And we’re not just referring to video calls or other forms of formal communications.
Improvements to internal chat services, email functionality, and project management allow teams to continue collaborating in a way that doesn’t involve talking one-on-one.
According to BuiltIn’s COVID-19 study on remote workplaces,
“Distributed teams favor asynchronous communication, which allows for greater flexibility. Written documentation levels the playing field for employees juggling other responsibilities like childcare, and it keeps everyone on the same page when it comes to important details. Fewer video calls also mean fewer interruptions, which gives employees more time for deep work.”
How to Actually Implement a Remote Culture That Benefits Both Employees & The Bottom Line
Of course, productivity increases within a remote work culture require some serious culture work. You can’t have micromanaging bosses, an insane amount of Zoom meetings, or teams working completely different working hours.
Here is how you can make it work.
Since so many of us are being forced into remote work cultures, and aren’t sure how long it will lsat, nor do so many of us have experience at making it work, below are some practices and tips from the founders and employees at companies including Basecamp, Auttomattic, and Zapier –– all of which have 100% remote teams.
For reference, all of the best practices included here come from the following sources. Feel free to read them, listen to them, and bring to life your own conclusions and best practices.
- Making Sense: The New Future of Work
- Freakonomics: How to Make Meetings Less Terrible
- The Harvard Business Review.
- Basecamp’s book called Remote.
- This fantastic piece from Signal v. Noise.
Here is Basecamp’s “normal,” as they reflect on five years or remote work culture, wins, mistakes, and more.
- We have very few (if any) meetings during a normal week. If there are any, they have the fewest people possible involved, usually a max of 2–3 folks. And they definitely don’t have recurring meetings.
- We don’t commute. They all work remotely. Why spend 30–60 minutes traveling to some random building in a busy area to work when we can do the same work at home? This easily saves 10 hours a week for many.
- We don’t chat all day. There’s zero expectation of keeping on top of every chat or responding to an IM immediately. In fact, if anything they are encouraged to close everything communications-related (including Basecamp!) so that they can focus on the actual work on hand. Many employees do this regularly for hours on end, every day.
- We don’t all work 9 to 5. They work hours that fit their life and brains. If, for example, you’re sharpest at 6 am, why would you wait until “normal business hours” to start working? That’s a waste of your best brain power! As long as they overlap a few hours with their team, they work when it makes sense, not by some arbitrary clock time.
The points above are very important, because remote environments, especially with outside stressors, can cause employees to overwork. It is important that the leadership of the company maintain calm and productivity in a remote culture by being very, very serious about not overworking, and recognizing life’s other priorities regularly.
Now, let’s dive into some practical ways for you to implement this at your own workplace.
1. Less Meetings Are Better.
“Meetings should be like salt –– a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.
Further, meetings are major distractions. They require multiple people to drop whatever it is they're doing and instead do something else.
If you're calling a meeting, you better be sure pulling seven people away from their work for an hour is worth seven hours of lost productivity.
How often can you say that a given meeting was worth it?
Remember, there's no such thing as a one-hour meeting. If you're in a room with five people for an hour, it's a five-hour meeting.”
- Most people should have no more than one meeting a day.
- Stand-ups should be departmental
- One weekly full team meeting is good –– but there needs to be a clear takeaway and an arc to the meeting the same way a story has an arc. A beginning, a middle, a conclusion.
- Standard meetings need no longer than 15 minutes. This should be your standard for all meetings moving forward. You don’t need 30 minutes. You definitely don’t need an hour.
- Need to brainstorm or solve a hard problem? This leads us to our next remote rule…
“Marketing Teams are finally experiencing the importance of doing mission-critical projects vs. wasting each other's' times in meetings!” says Denmark Francisco.
2. Use The Collaboration Tools at Your Disposal.
Most people digest information way better when they can read it, understand it, reference it, look at other things, and think through a problem. You can’t do this in a meeting.
The goal here is this sentiment: Write it, don’t say it.
“Being a good writer is an essential part of being a good remote worker.” — Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founders of Basecamp
Here are some of the collaboration tools you have available to you:
If you want to brainstorm, or if you want to solve a hard problem, or if you need more than just you to get something done, you need a Google Doc. Each template needs to be clear about what the goal is, why this is important, and when the team should have a group decision (if needed) made.
All of this can be done in the doc, or on Slack. This gives people an understanding of:
- Timeframe (so they can prioritize for themselves).
And be sure to make it clear that if they do not participate, move on. People get to decide how to spend their time to get the most work done. Not everyone needs to be involved in every decision.
Do this now: clean up your Slack and use it correctly.
- Sales channel for sales only.
- Marketing channel for marketing only.
- Operations channel for operations only.
- Exec channel for execs only.
- General internal for general internal only.
You get it.
Then, be specific about who is included on what information and documents.
- Do we need both sales and marketing input on something? We should have a channel with sales and marketing that we can use that for.
- Do we need only sales and marketing exec feedback on something? Why? Is it not good for everyone to help? What about the other execs? You need to be clear on who needs to be involved, why, and create the appropriate channels.
Slack is also where folks should be pinged on documents for feedback and collaboration.
Less email. More Slack.
Clear communication is key for remote work –– and one fast way to increase transparency is by using individual-to-group communication, rather than 1-1 like email.
Miro is a relatively new addition to the stack of remote work tools I love. And, every time I post one in a Slack channel, I get at minimum of 2 private messages telling me we could use LucidCharts or some other tool for the exact same thing.
That may be the case. But, if you need to move quickly, create something visual to explain a process, a flow, or even just to brainstorm, and want others to be able to use the tool quickly without spending too much time learning it –– then you need to try Miro.
It does exactly what LucidCharts does, but it’s prettier, easier to use, and doesn’t remind you of the early 2000s.
I used to hate project management. I grew into marketing through journalism and content marketing. I was a creative, I thought. And creatives? They don’t love organization.
And that’s often true.
And yet, organization is the only way to get things done. Getting tasks across the finish line requires:
- Organization of thoughts, tools, data.
- Organization of timelines, due dates, and final assets.
- Organization of who does what, when, where and why.
Try to do this in Slack and you’ll be using their search feature forever. The same is true with email.
Instead, Asana allows you to create boards and is a fantastic project management tool to keep everything in one place and ultimately organized so you can succeed.
Can Monday do the same thing? Probably.
What about Airtable? Sure.
I’ve already built countless editorial calendar, social media calendars, website updates and changes trackers, and more in Asana. It works. Are there features that are missing? 100%.
Dear Asana: please add the ability for a draft due date and a live date on tickets. Have mercy.
It’s still a great tool.
3. Know When to Have a Meeting.
There are two times when you should have a meeting:
When you sense frustration or when things over slack are becoming heated.
Have a quick call between the two parties involved. Talk it out. Figure it out. This shouldn’t last more than 15 minutes.
REMEMBER: Most frustration is about *something else* and it's so easy when you work remotely to forget that there is someone on the other side of the screen. Plus, context is harder to understand in written communication.
So, pick up the phone, or do a Google Hangout, whatever. The goal is to hear someone’s voice and work through the heat.
And then, if you have to have a lot of meetings for clarity, it’s a good time to figure out how to better write what you mean so you can reduce meetings and save time.
Meetings are often just a way to get everyone in the same room to hear the same thing.
Most often, the only person a meeting feels successful for is the person who hosted it, who likely spoke the entire time.
This is most meetings.
Also, meetings foster a sense of “false peace,” especially check-ins.
It is important that people feel they can say what they really think, not just agree with a group and move on. It is also important that the right people are asked, not just anyone.
Some opinions matter more for certain things than others, that’s just the end all be all of it. And that’s good. Because you can spend your time where you need to get what you need to get done, done.
4. The biggest problem with remote work? Working TOO much…
A manager's natural instinct is to worry that her workers aren't getting enough work done. But the real threat is that they will wind up working too hard. And because the manager isn't sitting across from her worker anymore, she can't look in the person's eyes and see burnout.
That's why managers need to establish a culture of reasonable expectations. At 37signals, that means that they expect people to work no more than 40 hours a week, on average.
There are no hero awards for putting in more than that. Sure, every now and then there's the need for a short sprint. But most of the time, the company views what it does as a marathon. It's crucial for everyone to pace themselves.
One way to help set a healthy boundary is to encourage employees to think in terms of a " good day's work."
Look at your progress at the end of the day and ask yourself: "Have I done a good day's work?"
This happens to a lot of teams. Leadership needs to reinforce healthy work boundaries, especially as folks work more often from home.
Keep in mind that healthy work boundaries might not be 9-5. It could be 10-6 or 7-3. Whatever it is… teams should all work within 2 hours of each other.
So, for your organization, that might be 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. Choose your 8 hours in there, and go.
The above also goes for messaging.
Leaders should not be emailing or slacking people –– even ideas! –– outside of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
If you have something you want to say, do it in those hours. Schedule it. Make a note of it. Both Gmail and Slack have this ability.
If you want people to collaborate with someone, it is essential that you ping them during the right hours and at the right times –– so you have their attention, respect, and not their burn out.
5. Wait, but what about culture?
Good question! Remote companies have culture, too! They usually go on retreats 2x a year that last a week. They also find ways for people to interact who usually don’t interact.
Of course, not all companies can make this happen –- especially during Covid! So, here’s an easy idea.
Culture Building During Onboarding.
When onboarding new members, make a list of people for them to have lunch within their first 6 weeks.
At least one each week, whoever is available.
At these lunches, ask them to learn:
- Who the person is, and how they describe what they do (not their title...I don’t care. I can look that up.)
- What they say makes their job hard
- What they are most proud of having done at the company so far.
- How they think you, in your new role, can help them to do something that’d be proud of or would make their life easier.
The most important one here is #2. That’s because if you know #2, and can figure out a way to make that part of their job easier for them, you win them over –– you are on their team. You are building trust, collaboration, and respect across team members –– remotely!
Then, turn the answers to these questions into the new hire’s first 3 months of priorities. It gets them in good with the team, builds trust, and gets them small, team-driven wins.
What solves big problems for one of us, solves problems for all of us. We cross the finish line as a team, or we don’t cross at all.
Create that culture.
Where to Find Meaningful Remote Work and Expert Remote Employees
With most of the country working from home for the foreseeable future, big players like Indeed and LinkedIn have made their search functions more remote-friendly, but there are a wealth of resources available for those looking for roles that allow employees to be remote at all times — even sans-pandemic.
Consider the below resources in place of a recruiter to connect with job seekers who prefer flex jobs and remote work.
Here are a few sites that keep up-to-date with regular remote job postings:
Joining a managed marketplace is another option for those who have learned to love the flexibility and focus they’ve gained being away from the office.
Not only do professionals have the freedom of choosing the companies they work with, those same companies enjoy world-class expertise with fewer strings attached than they’d have with a full-time employee.
“Remote workers have figured it out”, says Chad Keller, co-founder of MarketerHire, who has been working remotely for over eight years as a performance marketer and CEO of the marketing agency GrowthStackers.
“Right now, unfortunately, everyone is being forced into remote work,” Keller says. “But the truth is, some of the best marketing professionals have chosen to be remote for years now. In my experience, you can hire better-quality workers remotely because these people have figured it out. They were the first to take the risk, they’re opting to live the lifestyles they want, they’re happier people, and they’ve figured out how to work remotely so they’re less institutionalized and think more creatively.”
Conclusion: Go Remote (At Least Part-Time)
No one can say what the other side of this pandemic will look like for remote work.
While video calls and virtual happy hours will remain the same in the near-future, the distant future doesn’t look all that different when you consider the sheer amount and breadth of companies who are switching to a fully remote model.
When you consider the benefits that come from a distributed workplace over the cons, it’s hard to argue that the future of the workforce isn’t a remote one.