I started my career with a clear goal in mind: I wanted to travel.
Naturally, I took on a role as a management consultant that focused on the aviation industry. Later, while working in big tech, I transferred to the Singapore office; being in a regional role in a satellite office gave me some flexibility. But, for all my finagling, I was still tied to an office, at least part of the time. And when I asked to go fully remote, the answer was clear: no.
It wasn’t until I joined Automattic, a fully-remote company, in 2017 that I witnessed what it was like to work in an organization that was remote from the ground-up. Everything was different: how we communicated; how we spent our time; what was expected of us. It was refreshing, and I felt free to work according to my own energy rhythms and skip the commute. No one asked where I was—except if something fun was going on in my Zoom background, whether a vibrant coworking space in Malta, or why my cafe looked like a grandmother’s attic in Tbilisi.
At that time, I had no idea what the future would hold: a global pandemic, a worldwide shutdown, and a mass impromptu experiment in remote work and eventually hybrid. Even without the structure or processes to make remote work actually work, it took off.
What Employees Want
According to WFH Research led by Nicholas Bloom of Stanford, employees, on average, would like to spend 55% of their time working remotely. And over 80% of employees would prefer to work at least one day per week from home, with over 30% preferring to be remote 100% of the time.
From our perspective at Remote Works, if one employee is remote, then the whole company is working remotely. That is to say: the culture, collaboration, documentation, and business operations should be remotely accessible and inclusive.
Given the change in employee sentiment, you’d expect companies to shift. Better for recruitment and retention, right? Let alone some potential cost savings from reducing your real estate footprint.
What Companies Offer
Obviously, we recognize that not all jobs should or can be remote—whether that’s an ER doctor, a baseball umpire, or a hair stylist—but even in those brick-and-mortar domains, there’s often more flexibility than we think. Even industries thought to be less flexible, like Restaurant & Food Services, and Retail & Apparel, still show 18% and 27% of companies with location flexibility, respectively.
The Flex Index found that while 51% of US firms offer work location flexibility, there are two distinctly different flavors: fully flexible (31%), and structured hybrid (20%). The latter still requires employees to live within commuting distance of the office, with the most common hybrid model requiring a minimum number of days in the office per week. Two to three days being the most common.
Despite all the talk about “remote work,” we’re still only seeing 8% of companies adopt the fully remote workplace model with no offices, and the majority of those companies (65%) have less than 500 employees.
According to the Flex Index, the majority of workplace flexibility decisions are made top-down, with 48% decided at the company-wide level and 29% made at the function level. In only 17% of companies, office requirements are set by the manager, even though they have the greatest purview into their team’s workload and capacity to work autonomously.
While there are some fantastic hybrid organizations, we've observed that many decisions are hurried and made by "satisficing"—merely looking for a solution that would produce an acceptable level of agreement across the organization. To make sure you don’t fall into this trap, we recommend asking a question: If you were to start your organization over today, what mode would you choose? If it's a hybrid model, awesome. If it’s not, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.
How to Shift using a Design Thinking Mindset
To make better decisions about office flexibility at your organization, we recommend adopting a designer's mindset. Now is not the time to copy-and-paste what you did in the office to a digital screen. Instead, you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly change the way you live and work.
1. Ask Questions
When I was a designer at IDEO, we always started our projects with a question, often using the lexicon “How Might We...” Because designers thrive on constraints, the questions needed to be broad enough to encourage brainstorming while also having some structure. For example, how might we use in-office days for activities that can not be replicated virtually? How might we create an equitable work experience for employees, both in-person and remotely?
Rather than beginning with an action item and a deadline, such as "we need a remote work policy by the end of the quarter," give your organization room to breathe and create.
2. Do the Research
Don’t assume you know what employees want. Do the research.
Based on the US companies surveyed in the Flex Index, Tuesday is the most commonly required office day, followed by Wednesday and Thursday. But that might not be the case in your organization.
For example, Jason Morwick, the Head of Remote-First at Cactus Communications, was surprised by the choices at their India headquarters. According to Jason, “The day with the highest footfall in the company's headquarters in Mumbai was Friday. Exactly the opposite of what I'd expect in the US. Commuting is so bad, they want to work from home or a nearby coworking center during the week. But they come in on Fridays to socialize and then go out together after work.”
For a comprehensive look at your organization, we recommend both quantitative and qualitative research using a survey and interviews. Make sure your survey uses clear definitions of the new terminology around remote work. For example, rather than generically using “hybrid,” be specific about the hybrid models. The Flex Index specifically calls out four models: minimum days, specific days, minimum & specific days, and minimum percentage of time.
3. Agree on Principles
It can be tempting to jump right into creating policies, like when Shopify removed all recurring meetings with more than two people earlier this year. While a drastic change can serve as a good forcing function to reconsider your meeting approach, we recommend taking a step back and agreeing on principles first.
What are the most important elements of your solution? What absolutely must be true? For example, one of Meta's remote work principles is "Distributed, Not Disconnected," whereas Doist is committed to "Working Without Borders."
Once you've decided what must be true, you can get creative with the how.
4. Experiment First, then Codify
According to Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic and a remote work advocate: “The truth is, there are a thousand ways to do remote work, but it starts with committing to it at all levels of the company. If you assume positive intent and place trust in your coworkers and employees—knowing that if they do great work in an office they can do great work anywhere—then you will all succeed.”
You won’t know what will work for your team or organization until you try it. For example, maybe you try a top-down, M-W-F in-office cadence, only to learn that it makes more sense for teams to decide on their own when to come in—based on their workflow and needs. Or you thought that you needed a weekly in-person drumbeat to ensure personal connections on your team, only to find out that a bi-annual in-person meet-up does the trick (and is more fun!)
I can’t tell you what will work for your organization or your team. But I can tell you that not all decisions need to be final. Try prototyping options if the way forward is unclear. Set a clear time frame and success metrics to compare the options tested.
Author Byline: Tamara Sanderson
Tamara (Tam) Sanderson is the cofounder of Remote Works, an organizational design and consulting firm with a mission to liberate teams from the nine-to-five and teach them how to do their best work anytime, anywhere. Her book, Remote Works: Managing for Freedom, Flexibility, and Focus, is available on Amazon and is distributed internationally through Penguin Random House. She can be found at remoteworksbook.com