The Future of Work: Doing it Right

Getting work right, a deep dive into best practices for remote, hybrid, and in-office work.

I have been thinking about the ‘right way’ to work over the past couple of years as we recover from a pandemic where offices & company leaders struggle to come to terms with an employee relationship scenario they didn’t foresee. The forced WFH for most office workers during the pandemic, the varied and disastrous return to office protocols — the emergence of strong remote hiring — and the randomness of hybrid roles.

For every argument against one type, there’s an argument in favor. So rather than try to look at why you should not do one or the other type of work, I want to look at best practices for each type of work setup. These are things that you must do if the method is to be successful for any one company.

The caveat is that the company must commit to the type of work they are doing. And they must write out the method of work. If a company can do this, then I don’t think there’s a pure disadvantage for any one type of setup. There’s no prescriptive thing where you can say that remote is best, or in office — Hybrid — whatever. Instead, there are only choices, and all choices should be able to be successful if you do it correctly: by fully committing to one.

But the trick to all this is clear rules and definitions for how you are working, such that everyone at the company knows why they work the way they work, and if there’s an exception, why there is an exception. The worst thing a company can do is to have unclear rules. If you have some people in the office, some hybrid, and some fully remote, every employee should be able to point to clear definitions of what it takes or why some can work in different ways than others. It’s that simple, yet I see this fumbled all the time.

Let’s dive into the best practices for each type of working environment.

Remote Work Best Practices

  • Remote first mentality: Everything is always built around the idea that everyone is remote.
  • Remote only: taking this one step further, a company with mixed in-office/hybrid roles trying to work with remote-only employees will always cause the remote employees to suffer. A company that wants the best fully remote employees must be remote only. There is no office, only a mailing address for the IRS.
  • Minimum of one yearly in-person gathering: the team still needs to meet face-to-face at least once yearly. This should be in a ‘neutral’ location, with the only real goal of being the dreaded ‘team building,’ or if you so choose, drinking and hanging out. Without this, the team will lack a cohesive culture and will struggle to function as a true team. There will always be a disconnect between the staff at the company if they’ve never met in person. Getting everyone together at any one time will never be possible, but most is better than none.
  • Maximum of three gatherings per year: more is not better here. If your company wants more than this, it no longer wants to be a remote-only company. People do not want to work remotely and then come to a work gathering every other month. This runs counter to the benefits of remote work, and risks putting unnecessary stress on staff, instead of focusing on a strong remote culture.
  • Culture of always-on video: a core expectation of calls should be that everyone is on video all the time. (The only exception is during presentations when the presenting person/team has their video on, which might prove more effective than everyone.) This trivial change has an outsized positive impact on communication, creativity, and team building.
  • Strong written communication: the lifeblood of a remote company is written communication. No information of any importance should be lost because it was only had during a call. Instead, write it down and share it — this is the way of the remote. It also means that people who prefer/want to work remotely need to be strong communicators in writing. The death toll of remote work productivity is someone making random calls because “it’s easier to say on a call than writing it all out” for every single thing.
  • Async is the default: the second part of strong written communication revolves around remote work, which is best done with asynchronous communication being the default expectation — even if it is not the reality. When sending/posting a message, the base assumption should be that you do not know when someone will see the message. No hanging questions before a thought is completed, no missing context in hopes a colleague will message you later. A fully formed thought within a single message. Avoid the “Hey” message, which doesn’t respond with more until a “Hey” is received in kind.
  • Extreme foundation of trust: the leadership and management teams must be very willing to trust those who work for the company. This means more than just starting calls with ‘I don’t like to micro-manage people, but…’ — no, this is actually not micro-managing workers. Knowing that all employees will finish their work without wondering why they have not responded to your last message. This is defaulting, at all times, to trust. This single attribute can make or break remote work at any given company.
  • Best for IC work, and managers of IC work: there’s a common thought that remote work is only viable for people labeled ‘independent contributors’ — something like a software developer writing code. But this is a bit of a misunderstanding. Remote work is best for this type of individual contribution, but it also works equally well for those who manage teams/products comprising individual contributors. This type of setup can lead to more mentoring and 1:1 time with managers and leads than even in-office.

Another way to summarize the crucial aspects of a remote company is the default assumption should always be that you are working on the other side of the world from someone. You both regularly hike deep into the woods for unknown amounts of time before returning. Still, you both trust each other to do your jobs on time and do them well, such that you should never need to worry about when the other person is, or is not, working — you need only worry about getting your work done and syncing up with them from time to time.

It’s easy to look at remote work as the easiest and cheapest option, but it’s logistically difficult to pull off. Requires dedicated employees, excellent managers, and financial commitment to bringing people together.

The Hybrid Office Best Practices

This one warrants a little more definition since it’s still the most evolving of the options. Effectively, what I see as working best here is a setup where the company has a dedicated office space, and the employees of the company all live within commuting distance of that office. However, the expectation is that the employees do not need to be in the office every day of the week and that, in fact, the employees have some ability (in varying capacities) to work remotely. That’s the hybrid office I am referring to and the only setup I see as sustainable over the long term.

  • 60/40 rule: I’ll start here as I assume this will be one of the more controversial stances, but a hybrid office should be 60% remote time and 40% in-office time. That’s three remote days a week and two days in the office, but I’ll return to this later. A company wanting to do Hybrid, which is spending more time in the office than they are remote, is not doing anything other than begrudgingly appeasing employees with a small perk more likely to be canceled 50% of the time. The 60/40 split works well but is also the minimum; you can push this higher if you want/need it.
  • Don’t think only in days a week: more thought should be put into how the hybrid office will work than anything else. As mentioned above, you could ask employees to come into the office two days a week, or you could ask them to come in 1.5 weeks per month — working remotely for the remainder of the month. However, not coming into the office at least monthly will likely defeat the purpose of an office, and perhaps the company is better off as fully remote. Things like three days per week, every other week, can be quite an idyllic setup.
  • In-person time is always focused and planned. This seems obvious, but an excellent hybrid setup assumes remote working is the default. However, there are robust and scheduled in-person working sessions. And as with any other working session or conference, those times need to be planned with clear goals, so everyone knows the reason they are happening.
  • Strong goals and tasks for remote times. Likewise, each employee should return to the remote intervals, knowing what is expected of them and their overall goals.
  • There is always a call setup for every meeting: not everyone can be in the office every time when others are, so every meeting should have a call-in link/number for those who cannot come in to join — no exceptions.
  • Small companies or clearly defined teams within a larger org are needed. Hybrid work is more complex and needs to be done well the larger the company. If the company has dozens of offices and tens of thousands of employees, the structure of hybrid work has to be different. Thus, hybrid work is most successful in a smaller company or a company with very well-defined teams/departments, where those teams/departments can operate as if they are smaller companies. Thus those silos can better establish their hybrid habits and times for their team/department/company.
  • Best for sporadic ideation and focused execution. The trap with Hybrid is to focus in-person time on building team culture, bonds, or status meetings. Status meetings are always better remote. The culture and bonding will happen through proper usage of in-person time rather than focusing explicitly on this since in-person time is on a set cadence. Instead, when teams meet in the office, the focus should be on ideation/brainstorming where spontaneous communication might be needed. Or focused on executing a common goal or task — a push to release or fix something, things of that nature, where spontaneous communication aids in the work.
  • Medium-high trust foundation: with remote work, I talked about how you need a very high trust environment — with Hybrid, depending on the setup, you only need a medium to high trust setup. This expands the hiring pool for workers and managers and allows for more on-the-job training on how to lead/manage remotely (as well as work remotely) since the teams will regularly come back in person to continue building trust.
  • Best for individual contributors whose work is driven by team creativity and problem-solving. Or, the type of work where you might define the team(s) as: ‘We work together as one, but do it individually.’ This type of work fits well with coming together to move the entirety of a project forward and then going off to refine the work more individually. I would guess that most companies would/can fit this mold well.

Most well-managed companies should readily be able to pull off a hybrid work environment. I advocate for a setup where you work three days in the office in a row, the following seven working days from home, and then repeat the pattern. This helps to temper the novelty curve of being in the office while helping to maximize the planning and lives of the employees during the remote work periods. Or put another way; it’s vastly easier to plan for six days in the office during the month for things like childcare and other services than to try and arrange something that has to happen every week. And the more an employer can do this for their employees, the higher the retention for that employer will be.

Fully In Office

Yes, companies have been doing this for a while now, so there should be no need to write out best practices, yet that’s what I am about to do.

  • 100% in office always. I get it; employees are complaining, and you think giving them one day a week from home will resolve it, but it will not. Instead, default to always being in the office for every employee. There should be accommodations for the ad-hoc need to work remotely, but that should be the exception, not the rule. If you are going to work in the office, commit to being in the office.
  • Offices with doors are a must. You ask everyone to come into the office; why would you ask them to work in an ‘open office’ environment? You should not; it’s less productive and leads to more resentment of the office in general. Give everyone an office with a door they can close; if you cannot, consider the Hybrid work option.
  • Lots of meeting spaces are needed. Again, if you are in the office, you should commit to being in the office. All meetings should happen in a meeting space, not over calls in your office. If you are doing video meetings with people sitting beside you, it makes no sense for anyone involved. The tradeoff to being in the office is that you’ll need a lot of meeting rooms.
  • Everyone gets lunch time. All too often, companies allow meetings to be scheduled over lunch, which is bullshit, and you should never do it — even if lunch is being provided. People need time to decompress mid-day, and lunch is the best time. Additionally, meeting over lunch will destroy crucial culture and team building, naturally occurring over lunch breaks.
  • In-office is best for creativity, innovation, or general group creative work. I am not saying that these things cannot be done in other work setups, but I am saying they are best done in an office environment you are in daily. This is partly because of human nature and how ideas form when sitting with others and talking. But it’s also about the higher level of trust to say something stupid, which only comes when people know each other well enough to know that it won’t be recorded by Microsoft Teams or otherwise held against them later. And knowing that you are there every day takes the pressure off of trying to force creativity during scheduled times.
  • Strong presentation skills are needed. If you work in an office, presenting should be a part of your average week. Thus, you’ll need people with solid presentation skills because written documentation will be less of a part of life than PowerPoint.
  • Meeting discipline needed. Part of office life is attending meetings — it’s part of professional life. However, in office work, meeting discipline will be necessary for productive work to have the space to be done. This means ensuring employees don’t spend entire days in meetings. Each meeting has a goal, and the company has an established meeting etiquette for everyone to help enforce.
  • More vacation days are needed. Even for those with very short commutes, going into an office is still draining, and a good recharge will be needed. But, if people come into an office five days a week, they will also be missing out on the ability to take care of other aspects of their lives. For instance, having a repair made in your home does not require anything other than you being home. Thus, someone remote or Hybrid could accommodate it without disrupting their overall work days when they are already at home. But someone who goes to the office cannot. Thus, it’s best to over-allocate vacation time to employees who come into the office daily, such that they can both take a real vacation and use some vacation time for what needs to be done in their lives during the work week. (Employees: be aware that unlimited vacation policies are usually bullshit.)
  • Best for ‘real time’ work. Another aspect of the work best handled in an office is what I classify as ‘real-time.’ Think stock trading, negotiation, medical care, learning, and monitoring—the type of work where real-time communication with others is paramount to success.
  • Off-sites are a must. At the same time, the office will become a trap at some point for all those who go there every day. Thus, companies that choose this model should have off-site events for every employee at least once a year — a time when they are still working but in a different environment for a different reason. The return on such an investment is often undervalued by at least 3x.
  • Low trust environment. At the heart of a fully in-office setup is the quiet thing no manager will say: it’s a low-trust environment. This can be good for certain activities where you must ensure someone is operating their station (help call center, for example). Ignoring or fighting against the idea that this type of environment has a basis of low trust will only lead to frustration among employees. It’s best to admit it and then try to operate with trust.

There’s a strong revolt among workers about going into an office, but this essentially feels to be the case since so many companies do in office so poorly. When done well, working in an office can be a huge source of happiness for employees. It’s just that it won’t be for everyone, and not many companies do it well enough. And then, of course, there’s the issue of commute times, which is the true crux of the complaints for most people.

The Commonalities

There are four common attributes of each model. Things that can be mitigated but are best knowing and accepting going into it.

All three suffer from:

  • Distraction: I love hearing managers complain that remote workers suffer from many distractions in their days. While at the same time, employees complain that they suffer from a mountain of distractions while working in an office. The truth is that humans are easily distracted, and all types of work environments can cause people to suffer from distractions. It’s like being frustrated that people get tired instead of accepting they will. At home, people will be distracted by errands/chores/life/pets; at the office, they will be distracted by coworkers/coffee breaks/drama. In any work setup, you must accept that distractions are a part of life, leading us to the following commonality…
  • Work is always less than a whole scheduled week of work hours. It does not matter your work setup; no employee will ever work the full-day hours you asked for. It’s not possible to work all 40hrs, partly due to distractions, but it is also possible for practical reasons like bathroom breaks, food, or other things. You can fight this losing battle or account for it and make everyone happier.
  • High costs. Each of these is expensive. It’s not cheaper to have a remote work environment unless you are doing it incorrectly (not paying for home office equipment and internet, not paying employees to travel to meet up, etc). Each setup is costly, so it is best to accept it. If you find your setup relatively cost-effective, double-check that you are not pushing some costs onto your staff, as that will undermine everything.
  • Mixing and matching the models is ineffective (this is what still trips up companies today). This is the biggest gotcha of them all. Mixing and matching these models does not work. You are not ‘in office,’ but sometimes ‘hybrid’ — that model is called indecisive leadership. Pick a model, embrace it, and execute it. Anything else is a compromise and will lead to frustration across the company. Delineation can be done team by team or department by department — but those rules have to be exceedingly straightforward to the entire company, and even then, it’s a high-risk, low-reward scenario. The true risk is resentment between employees/departments if people do not understand why another team can do something they wish they could do.

The future of work is still unknown to all of us, but one thing is clear: commitment, not half-measures is the best path forward no matter what the setup. Whether you opt for remote, hybrid, or in-office, go all-in on making it work. Develop clear policies, equip your team with the right tools and skills, and stay focused on your goals.

Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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