We’re starting a company in the UK, as things begin to open up again. The pandemic gave most startups no choice but to be fully remote for a year, and our day to day working lives were thrown upside down. For some it has been unimaginably difficult. Others feel secretly guilty about how it all seemed to have panned out quite well for them. Like most things in life, many of us lie somewhere in between. And that will dictate how we each feel about the prospect of things ‘returning to normal’, or whatever that means.
But what if you’re starting from scratch now? At ‘ProjectVault’ (real name TBC) we have no special authority to pronounce what we believe the future of work to be. We have no legacy, no existing team, no office mid-way through a 3-year lease. We just have a blank sheet of paper and it’s up to us to figure out what we believe is the right approach for us once we’re out the other side of lockdowns and restrictions. This post is an attempt to articulate that.
To cut to the chase – as a good ex-consultant I’m going to follow the pyramid principle. Start with the conclusion we reached and then explain the reasoning.
Our approach to office/remote working is ‘Office First’. Yes, that’s totally a made-up term, so let’s unpack it.
Office. Remember those? We’ll have just one to start. In London. A mix of communal space and desks. Maybe when we’re successful we’ll buy a ping pong table and then we’ll know we’ve really made it.
First. It’s not ‘Office only’ – remote working is going to be part of how we work. The ‘First’ bit means our locus will be primarily, but not solely, in the office. Many of our company rituals will be centred around being in person in the office and all the team need to be able to commute to the office.
I learnt a lot about remote working in 2020 – both positive and negative. I could easily write another post about that. Some of the things I found difficult when fully remote were:
For this company, at this point, we believe all of these are critical to our success. We don’t have an established playbook we’re following. We’re forging a new category and lots of the interesting challenges will be at the intersections of disciplines. It’s solving these types of challenges that we think benefits the most from interacting IRL.
It’s not to say these can’t be achieved remotely – but it’s hard. (And often fully remote companies resort to in-person away days, off-sites etc. to solve these problems. We can’t limit ourselves to only having these types of sessions for one week a quarter.)
We’ve all got used to being fully remote and it’s not always easy; I find a day of video calls tough. You know what is worse? Being dialled into meetings where everyone else is in person.
The big risk of hybrid working is you end up being stuck in the worst-of-both-worlds. By trying to be equal you end up with something that doesn’t really work for anyone.
I believe if you want a hybrid working pattern to work – you still have to pick a side. Are you going to be ‘Remote-first’ or ‘Office-first’?
Let's use the example of a meeting with 4 people in the office and 2 people remote. If you are ‘Remote-first’ you optimise for the remote experience. If anyone is remote, everyone should dial in to the meeting on their own devices. This is the only way to ensure that everyone has the same experience and opportunity to contribute. You make it equal by bringing the fidelity of those in person down to the lowest common denominator. (And yes, I’ve done this. It’s weird at first but you get used to it pretty quickly)
If ‘Office-first’, those in person will meet in person, and those remote will dial in. Of course everyone will try to accommodate those dialling in, and good technology can help, but let’s not bury our heads in the sand; there is a real trade off here. The experience of those remote just isn’t as great as those in the room. They’re missing out on something.
We believe in explicitly exposing trade-offs rather than pretending they don’t exist. These are hard trade-offs. Are the benefits of being together in person really enough?
For this company, at this point of our journey, with the challenges we’re facing we believe the pros outweigh the cons. This may change as the company changes or as we better understand the implications of these trade offs. This is a pragmatic view not a dogmatic one; at my previous company Trouva we endeavoured to be 'Remote First' before Covid hit, and I stand by that being the right stance for that company at that time.
Many of us have realised that for certain types of work, being remote is more productive. Typically tasks where you ‘just need to get something done’, requiring focus, concentration and minimal distraction. (This very much depends on personal circumstances, some need to go to the office to escape all the distractions at home).
Remote working also gives more flexibility. The need to be in the office for a full day every day is often most difficult for those which have other commitments on their time – the most common being families. I care deeply about making building a great company compatible with being present with those you care about. On this, you shouldn’t need to compromise.
I’m also not going to ignore the fact that sometimes working from home is just nice. I enjoyed talking with my wife over lunch. Sometimes it does seem pointless commuting to the office and back again when you could just happily sit at home and get stuff done.
Office first doesn’t have to mean remote last. We’re going to do what we can to integrate remote properly into our ways of working; one of the first things we bought was an ‘Owl’: a fancy 360 degree webcam/microphone. I’m still trying to figure out what the best solution for whiteboards is.
With flexibility comes responsibility. We need to move at pace – but this has to be measured by outputs, not inputs. Everyone knows what we’re trying to achieve and will make their own trade-offs about when it makes sense for them to be remote and when in-person. If there are differing views on whether the right trade-offs are being made then we’ll talk it through. There’s going to be a natural draw to the office especially where group-work is needed but we’ll make it work if not everyone is in person.
We’re going ‘Office first’. This means our default is coming to the office, but with individual flexibility to adjust where necessary. Based on the information we have now, we believe this is right for this company at this time – and that as circumstances change or we learn new information we may review and change our view.