For every survey I’ve read stating that over 70% of people are looking forward to getting back to the office, I’ve read another stating 70% would be willing to continue working from home.

These results should come as no surprise, as it is not - and has never been -  a black and white issue. Shopify’s recent news, along with many notable tech firms, to be digital first and 100% remote will create much needed discussion but it does not have to be an “all or nothing” proposition.

This shift in the nature of work (e.g. teleworking, remote work, gig economy, virtual work, flexible work programs) was occurring way before the pandemic. Many organizations – granted mostly in high tech -   such as Buffer, GitLab and Zapier – which were already 100% virtual, are proving that the model does work and some of their practices can translate to more traditional industries and corporate cultures.

However, what we are seeing now is a crisis-induced shift rather than an intentional change to flexible work practices, so I would caution that survey results must be taken with a grain of salt.  

The team at Differly has worked with many organizations over the last decade who want to modernize how they work and in my experience, the first challenge is a shift in core beliefs and mindset usually around autonomy and trust. This is worth examining before making a rash decision or as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft put it "switching [...] to an all-remote setup would be replacing one dogma with another dogma".   The key will be to learn as much as possible from this unprecedented experience and begin to formulate a plan that can be sustained in the long term.

Five Fundamentals to Consider

There is so much to unpack here but as always, I think it's better to boil it down rather than boil the ocean. Five key fundamentals to consider when thinking of remote work flexibility:  

  1. Tools (infrastructure and tech enabling work, workflow and communications)
  2. Connection and collaboration  (between teams, colleagues)
  3. Access (to information, files, data)
  4. Security of said access to files and data
  5. Culture

There are many remote work guides, (see GitLab's) that will take you through this in much more detail. I’d like to pause for a minute on the one that is causing much conversation, and that is culture.  

On Culture…

One of the biggest concerns in relation to remote work is the lack of socialization or feeling of isolation, which is certainly heightened with the current reality. I would argue that “culture” is fundamentally a set of behaviours we encourage that are not tied to a physical location per se.  I’ve been in many workplaces over the years where everyone is in the office but eating at their desks, not speaking to one another.

The feeling of “connection” stems from a common purpose (bigger than revenue goals), collaborating on demanding but rewarding work and having conversations that are aimed at getting to know each other personally. This can be attainable at a distance. Many fully remote organizations institute bi-yearly or yearly face to face retreats that staff say feel like a family reunion vs. a “get to know each other” gathering like many of their non-remote counterparts.  

So where to start?

1. Learn from those doing it. There is an abundance of resources from those organizations that have been either fully or partially remote.

2. Assess your gaps from the five fundamentals mentioned earlier. It's beneficial to get outside help as it’s difficult to evaluate yourself objectively.  

3. Move from command and control to sense and respond. Communicate with staff often about what they need to do their best work.  Humans are like the weather. You can attempt to predict the weather but you can’t really control it… you can only observe and manage.

4. Try things as pilot initiatives. Assess positive and negative trends (Double down on what works and reduce the rest).

5. Set clear guidelines and expectations but give teams autonomy and decision making over how they want to work. (See the idea of team charters)

Organizations are not complicated (with simple cause and effect). They are complex simply because they are made up of humans.  We need to rethink how we work and the operating model of our organizations starting from a human-centric approach.

And please, can we once and for all kill the term “work life balance”?  The idea of “balance” already sets us up for failure as one thing must be perfectly balanced with the other, and let’s be honest, this rarely happens. The future of work is tech enabled and it can happen in any environment of our choosing. Let’s start talking about “work life integration” and make this very human crisis a catalyst for a re-imagining and rethinking the workplace.

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P.S.S. I'm gathering insight for an upcoming Masterclass or mini course and I'd love your advice. Considering the massive shift to online and digital business, when it comes to building the skills and knowledge to succeed, what is your single biggest gap, need or frustration? Five quick questions that will help me meet your needs.



About the author

Isabelle Perreault

Isabelle is the Founder and CEO of Differly. She has spent her career helping business leaders understand the major drivers of change and helping them survive and thrive in a digital economy. She brings deep expertise in business transformation, corporate and business model innovation and go-to-market planning.

For over 20 years, she has been helping leaders in a wide variety of sectors develop and deploy human-centric, tech-enabled growth strategies. Passionate about entrepreneurship she also serves as a business coach to Startups with several incubators. Prior to launching Differly, she led one of the first Digital Transformation Practices in Canada and was head of Digital Strategy and Marketing for the Ottawa Senators, NHL Hockey Club. Isabelle is Chair of the Ottawa Youth Services Bureau Foundation and a champion for women entrepreneurs.

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