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Remote-First ≠ Remote-Only

Calum Halcrow ·

Culture, Remote Work

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It’s undeniable that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote working. One thing it also did is expose some of us to remote-only working - a sometimes dangerous mode of operation which can lead to undesirable outcomes.

Let’s look at why remote-first doesn’t mean remote-only, the dangers of remote-only, and ways to ensure your remote-first team doesn’t slip into a remote-only working arrangement.

First vs. Only

If your team is remote-first then it is set up to allow its members to do their work independently of location. This doesn’t mean that members cannot be physically together when doing work - it just means that if they wish to be apart they can be.

If your team is remote-only then its members rarely meet in person. Coming together to work at the same location is either highly inconvenient or discouraged by team culture.

The key difference between the two is that remote-first includes a degree of face-to-face interaction. Let’s look at why this is important.

Social Beings and the Transition to Remote

Humans are social beings. We evolved in family and tribal groups, and need the support of our peers to survive and feel fulfilled. A certain level of conversation stimulates us and makes us feel included and valued. For the vast majority of people this is the case.

Before remote working was possible the office brought us together - each and every day. The amount of social interaction was high. For people who had to focus for extended periods to do their work (technical people certainly included) this situation was less than ideal. Furthermore, the baggage that came with having to go to a certain place every day (commuting, parking, owning a car, squeezing on a train, etc.) added up to make remote very appealing. When the opportunity to transition to remote work came it was grasped with both hands. No distractions, no commute, no small-talk was bliss.

But without deliberate action to the contrary, a team that has transitioned to remote working may abandon meeting up physically. The reasons why are that doing so would require a break in routine, would use up time (”you mean I have to spend an hour in traffic just to go hang out?”) and may feel awkward if it doesn’t strictly need to happen. At this point the team is working remote-only.

Cut Off

In this situation, one social avenue from each team member’s life has been cut off: the social relationship with one’s colleagues. This can cause some problems:

  • Team members might not manage to form strong social bonds with one another. Their relationships may remain distant and “professional”. This may work for a time, but when the team faces a major obstacle, they may not have the drive or strength to overcome it.
  • Everyone’s social situation is different. Some team members might have a family and an active social life out of work. Others might not, and might have relied on work to provide this in their lives. For the latter, the removal of this stimuli might have landed them in an isolated personal situation, with the potential to lead to loneliness and even depression.
  • Serendipitous, cross-team creativity will likely take a hit. When working remote-only, communication tends to be purposeful and done only as necessary. When in a physical space, the people around you tend to get drawn in - even if they’re not immediately relevant to a problem or conversation.

Staying Connected

How do you ensure your remote team doesn’t become remote-only? There are many ways:

  • Provide a physical space for your team to use in any way they like. If you’re largely based in one city, consider operating a small, permanent office. Rather than furnish as a cubicle farm, design it to be like a co-working space, with plenty of places for collaboration and small offices for taking calls. If you’re more spread out, create a budget for teams to use to rent co-working space or meet up in cafes. Find ways to incentivise such activity, so that people are encouraged to take advantage.
  • Incentivise self-organised small social events. Make it easy for people to meet up and do things together. Come up with a budget and a policy and encourage people to make use of it.
  • Meet physically for one on ones. Such meetings can be more enjoyable if done over lunch, coffee or evening drinks. Encourage managers to run them in this way.
  • Provide team retreats. There are many ways these things can be done, but if you want a simple suggestion then go with: lets-all-just-work-together-and-hang-out-in-a-chilled-resort-for-a-week.

Hopefully, as you transitioned your team to remote-first you didn’t fall into the remote-only trap. But if you did, we hope this advice can help you out of it.

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