Return vs. Remote

Enjoy The Work Blog post. Return vs. Remote

There are party lines being drawn. Each side is fiercely self-righteous. Their arguments are persuasive and well-considered. The debate began months ago. First, informally, casually. A comment at the start of a meeting. A brief tangent mid-agenda. A short debate sparked by a related topic. But as winter shifted to spring and then to summer, the combatants began to realize that real decisions, with real consequences, would soon be necessary.

Should we return to the office?

The Returners vs. The Remoters

The Returners Rave:

We must return! How can we not make use of our expensive office lease? How will we train people effectively? How can we brainstorm, collaborate or support one another when every interaction requires scheduling? What happens when rich relationships are replaced with sterile Slack threads? In-person interactions are required for real relationships and real relationships are required to build a team. We made the best of our remote tools when physical proximity was dangerous, but those days were behind us. Humans can gather once again, and no office means no culture – and that will lead to our ruin!

The Remoters Respond:

Don’t be a dinosaur! The plague was awful but it was not without gifts. Chief among them is proof that we can thrive working from home. The slope you fear us slipping on is inconsistent with the data. It’s been a year since we entered lock down and our team is still together and our performance is still solid. Our employees relish the freedom and efficiency of remote work. They are loath to return to tedious commutes and distracting open floor plans. There is no going back to 2019 — office life was already in decline even before the world learned of Covid. Employees want the freedom to work when and where they choose. If we can oblige, they’ll reward us with loyalty and productivity. If we swim against the tide, we will drown.

Who is Right?

Both sides have merit. But what has struck me about this debate is not the arguments but rather the lack of empathy. There are those who relished the solitude and efficiency of the last year. And there are those who struggled. Until Covid, our leaders operated in confidence that gathering daily in an office is the superior approach to company building. Remote companies were quirky abnormalities, interesting but not worthy of emulation. Building a great team meant operating from an office. A study of the world’s most successful companies found few counterexamples.

But now? There is a choice. Remote work proved its mettle in 2020. Now leaders face an entirely new cast of decisions related to the employee experience. Veer too hard towards or away from the office, and you’re sure to alienate some portion of your current (or future) team. So what to do?

My recommendation: Remind yourself that how you operate is in service to a larger purpose. What is your company’s vision? Mission? Core values? What are the most important goals you need to accomplish next?

The Meeting Inventory

Try this exercise.

Step 1:

List all of the routine meetings you have in a given quarter.

  • Standups — recurring brief check-ins designed for status updates and requests for support.
  • One-on-Ones — direct report + supervisor to connect, unblock progress, and provide feedback
  • Strategy Sessions — deep, topic-specific dive for problem-solving, brainstorming, and/or knowledge sharing.
  • Update Meetings — project check-ins to raise issues, problem solve, and seek collaboration
  • All Hands — company-wide gatherings for alignment, celebration, and recognition.
  • Offsites — periodic sessions to zoom out to shift from short to long-term focus.

Step 2:

Describe the pros/cons of remote versus in-person for each meeting. Pay attention to the following:

  1. Would the meeting be more effective over one medium versus the other?
  2. Would the meeting be more efficient over one medium versus the other?
  3. How much extra time or cost would the in-person meeting be versus remote one?

Step 3:

Ask yourself what your core values say about spending time together. Are deep relationships valued, or is your culture obsessive about efficiency at all costs? Would more time in person be more consistent or inconsistent with the culture you wish to cultivate?

Step 4:

Rank each meeting as more attractive for remote vs. in-person. Does a consensus appear?

Tallying the score…

Here’s my hunch. Meetings that require creative thinking are better served in person. There is an energy to being together. It’s easier to riff off one another. The video requires turns. Heads on screens are an implicitly hierarchical medium— there is an owner to a video meeting to whom everyone blindly defers.

So if your culture values relationships and if problem-solving/creativity is at least occasionally needed, then time in person is needed for maximum performance. The question then becomes, how much?

That answer will be different for everyone.

But whether you’re a remoter or a returner, what I hope you realize matters most is not a specific answer, but that the journey to get to that answer is collaborative. Because the truth is there is no right answer. We’re all right. And we’re all wrong. So let’s experiment together to find a model — one that lets us work together, represents our values, and serves our ambitions.

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