Remote Work Only Works If You Keep Enough People Out of the Office

In talking about the vision for a hybrid future, there’s one line I keep hearing over and over. “Time in the office will be used for collaboration and strengthening relationships.”

Except, that approach will undercut the very things it was meant to support.

In November of 2019, I moved away from the state where my company is headquartered. I stayed on with the same organization, mostly working from my living room but traveling into the office for a few days a month. We already had a handful of remote employees on other teams and were generally supportive of occasional work from home. But I was the first and only person on my team to work from out of state.

What I quickly found is that it is extraordinarily difficult to be the only remote person on a team. The fraction of a second lag on video conferencing makes it hard to smoothly jump in on group discussions. You miss out entirely on on-the-fly conversations, which turn out to be how a huge amount of collaboration gets done. Pinging people on chat and scheduling regular meetings to check in only gets you so far when so many conversations happen when somebody is in line of sight. Even having already established strong working relationships didn’t seem to mitigate these challenges.

When my whole team abruptly became remote four months later, these issues evaporated. I was no longer the lone face on a screen, but one of a dozen in the Brady Bunch-style gallery view. I was regularly getting pulled into conversations across the team again. And I quickly settled back into the kinds of collaborative rhythms I’d had when working in the office.

Now, I don’t believe it requires an entire team being remote to overcome those obstacles. It just requires a critical mass of people being remote. Time and time again I had seen one-off remote people struggling to feel connected and plugged in with what was going on. But once those teams hired more remote employees, the complaints eased. 

It’s easy for one or two remote workers to be out of sight and out of mind. But once enough people are working from out of the office, things shift. Again, this doesn’t mean that everybody must be remote, but it does require that enough people be remote.

And that is why hybrid plans will fall apart if collaborative and relationship-building work caters to those in the office. Those who are off site will be left behind from this work. Communication will wane, relationships will deteriorate, and that segment of the workforce will rightfully wonder if their company is still a place they want to work.

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There are plenty of ways to get to a hybrid model through some combination of employees who are fully remote, fully in-office, and whatever balance of occasional work-from-home rounds things out. 

What is key is that there are enough people working away from the office to force everybody to maintain remote-friendly practices. 

It’s easy to forget about one or two people who you aren’t seeing, but it’s much harder to overlook half the team.

What are the signs that you might need to shore up your offsite representation? If meetings or trainings are frequently delayed — “Oh, let’s wait until they’re in the office for that” — that’s a red flag. If decisions are made in impromptu meetings based on who happens to be around, that’s a red flag. And over time, if there are discrepancies in compensation or promotion rates between those who are in the office more or less frequently, that is a red flag.

The year-long forced experiment of being fully remote has propelled forward the reality that businesses don’t need to have everybody in the office all the time. And if they intend to make a hybrid model truly work, they need to ensure that a critical mass remains remote.

Kari Sutton owns and operates Living Room HR, a consulting company that supports nonprofits and small businesses with their human resources needs. She specializes in the employee experience from onboarding through offboarding, including process and policy design, change management, and employee engagement. You can find her on Twitter @livingroomhr or on the web at livingroomhr.com

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