- Why should you read this: in a week where Gitlab and Buffer released their reports on the state of remote work, and Spotify announced their remote plans, we’ve read through it all and pulled out some key takeaways for you and your teams, so you don’t have to. For more insights like this, check out the section on Managing Remote Teams in our Manager Guide.
- People want it, but not everyone wants it the same: Buffer found 97.6% of the 2000+ they surveyed would like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers. Pandemic or no pandemic, it’s clear the flexibility is highly desirable. But there was a much greater range of responses as to why employees want it. Individual firms and teams will have to really understand their people in order to design a remote experience that works for them. Cookie cutter remote work solutions are unlikely to be effective.
- Productivity up, but it’s harder to play as a team: the Gitlab and Buffer studies supported other reporting which suggests remote work doesn’t generally hinder productivity. But, given that the main organisational mode of output in companies is not actually individuals, but teams, it's notable that 34% (Gitlab) found that remote makes teamwork more difficult. Subsequent studies have also found that connections with others outside our immediate teams have been compromised, hindering personal and organisational growth.
- Challenges in setting boundaries and unplugging: both reports were clear when it came to the main issue. For Buffer they phrased it as ‘not being able to unplug’ (27% of respondents). So far, this aspect of remote has not been a success. As Buffer found, 45% of respondents felt they were working more as remote employees. Managers can almost certainly be doing more to help their teams compartmentalize and achieve better work-life balance.
- You can trim the perks budget: Despite the huge amounts of money showered on in-office gyms, salad bars and kombucha taps, Gitlab found only 5% of respondents said they missed those perks.
- Prepare for location discussions: 18% of Gitlab respondents said they planned to move location to work remotely. This sounds relatively small but 18% is a high proportion of your team to work through potential legal, compliance and pay issues depending on where they move to. Teams should try and get ahead of this dynamic by opening these discussions with employees as soon as possible.
- A lot of companies haven’t got it figured it out yet: according to the Buffer survey, 38% of those surveyed still didn’t know whether their company was planning on permanently allowing remote work. Given its desirability and the benefits for retention, that is perhaps a reflection of the difficulty of implementing it successfully rather than a question of its benefit.
We know. Do we really need another article about remote work?
Well there have been a few recent developments which we think are worth reflecting on. In particular, both Gitlab and Buffer (in partnership with Doist, Remotive and We Work Remotely) released large data-driven reports with their conclusions from the past year of remote work.
We generally approach these reports warily. Gitlab and Buffer have been fully remote for a while, and whilst it’s great that they give us these studies, it’s not unfair to suggest that they do come with some spin towards the positive side of remote work. Similarly, we bet you can’t guess what firms called Remotive and We Work Remotely think about the topic!
But by cross-referencing the two reports, and analysing the numbers, we think there are some worthwhile insights to reflect on. Last week also saw Spotify become the latest major company to announce their plans for the future of work for the firm’s 6550 employees. No small thing. Titled ‘Work from Anywhere’, the company hopes to create “a new way of collaborating that allows Spotifiers to work from wherever they do their best thinking and creating.” Employees will be encouraged to elect a Work Mode—”whether they’d prefer to work mostly at home or in the office—as well as their geographic location.”
Interestingly, Spotify’s blog post echoes some of the challenges revealed in the two reports, and we’ll be pointing these out as we go.
Let’s take a look.
People want it, but not everyone wants it the same
Some of the numbers in the surveys are hard to argue with. Buffer found 97.6% of the 2000+ they surveyed would like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers. Similarly Gitlab found only 1% of the 200 they interviewed who wanted to return to the office as it was.
In both cases, approximately 50% of respondents were new to remote work during the pandemic, so there aren’t too many longterm remote workers skewing the numbers. Even so, it seems pretty clear: people like working remotely, at least some of the time. The numbers around retention (69% either likely or very likely to stay because of an employer’s support for remote work) also illustrate its growing importance.
What is easier to argue about is why people want to work remotely. The areas that Gitlab found people cared about were pretty varied. Buffer rather unhelpfully included a catch-all category in their survey of ‘ability to have a flexible schedule’ which could incorporate a whole number of motivations.
So although the desire for remote work is clear, the reasons people want it are much less so. This suggests individual firms and teams will have to really understand their people in order to design a remote experience that works for them.
As the Gitlab report says, by taking people out of the office, remote work isn’t just about work, it’s about ‘the future of living’. Employers no longer have people for 8.5 hrs a day in a controlled environment where they can assume they have most of their attention. Employees are more seamlessly fitting work into life, and that requires better understanding them to optimise that experience.
It is perhaps no surprise that the Spotify WFA arrangement states that “The exact mix of home and office work mode is a decision each employee and their manager make together.” Getting it right could be different for everyone, and it will be up to managers to approach these conversations in a nuanced way.
We were initially sceptical of articles proclaiming that Head of Remote Work’ will become a commonplace job title. But given these complexities, it seems clearer by the day that this will be the case. We’re sure managers will appreciate the help.
For more guidance on how to manage a remote team, check out the dedicated section in our Manager Guide.
Productivity up but its harder to play as a team
In the Gitlab report, 59% said remote working improved their output, with 29% reporting no change, and only 12% saying it was harder. Similarly in the Buffer survey, only 12% said their biggest challenge was staying motivated. This chimes with other reports over the past few months which have claimed that at the very least, remote work has a limited negative effect on productivity.
So far, so good. But rather than focussing on personal productivity, the more interesting findings come when we start to look at teams.
34% of respondents to the Gitlab interviews said they believed it had made teamwork more difficult, with 25% saying it had had an explicitly negative impact. On a similar theme, 16% of the Buffer survey said teamwork and collaboration was their biggest challenge.
Given that the main organisational mode of output in companies is not individuals, but teams, we find it interesting that this hasn’t got more attention.
Amidst all the corporate back-slapping about personal productivity, managers should perhaps be taking a closer look at how well individuals are working together and seeing if there’s room for improvement.
More recent studies have also shown that we shouldn't just be looking at this issue within our own teams. The links that our team members have to colleagues elsewhere in our organisations are vital for innovation, collaboration, and professional development. Evidence suggests that these links are severely damaged by swift shifts to remote work.
It’s good to see that Spotify seem to recognise the challenge ahead of them on this front: “A distributed-first structure will challenge us to improve our communication and collaboration practices, processes, and tools.” Other companies will need to face up to the same challenge.
Challenges in setting boundaries and unplugging
Both reports were clear when it came to the main challenge of remote work. For Buffer they phrased it as ‘not being able to unplug’ (27% of respondents), whereas Gitlab found 25% of people put ‘Setting Boundaries’ as part of their advice for people choosing how to remote work.
This is probably unsurprising given the headlines that have already been dedicated to this topic over the past several months but it’s another reminder to managers that they have to go above and beyond to ensure their team members can compartmentalize, as our work and life increasingly overlap.
So far, this has not been a success. As Buffer found, 45% of respondents felt they were working more now they were remote.
You can trim the perks budget
Despite the huge amounts of money showered on in-office gyms, salad bars and kombucha taps, Gitlab found only 5% of respondents said they missed those perks.
Now it may be that companies will still choose to spend on these perks to keep employees on-premise, but it seems clear that they’re not appreciated that much. At least not compared to other benefits. As one ex-Google employee recently revealed, when he joined, he heard a Googler exclaim in the lunch queue, “What? Sushi again???”.
Prepare for location discussions
At first glance, the fact that 56% of Gitlab respondents said they weren’t planning on moving seems reasonably steady. Until you realise that if 18% of your workforce decided to try and work from a different location, it could be very disruptive.
There are a whole host of legal and compliance challenges to support remote workers in certain geographies, not to mention corporate discussions around potential pay differentials (Facebook are considering it, Spotify aren’t, the debate has started). Spotify explicitly acknowledge that “We have considered labour law, tax and insurance readiness for our workforce to be ‘working from anywhere”. For a multi-billion dollar listed company, this is manageable. For other companies, perhaps less so.
If you believe that some of your team are going to want to look at this as an option, best to open discussions as soon as possible.
A lot of companies haven’t got it figured it out yet
It is perhaps surprising that according to the Buffer survey, 38% of those surveyed still didn’t know whether their company was planning on permanently allowing remote work.
Given its desirability and the benefits for retention, that is perhaps a reflection of the difficulty of implementing it successfully rather than a question of its benefit.
However given that that this working arrangement could have a dramatic impact on the lives of employees, employers would be advised to settle it sooner rather than later. As Jean-Michel Lemieux of Shopify said, one of the most valuable things they figured they could do for employees over the past year was give them clarity around their working conditions.