Should you go back to the office or work remotely forever?

Posted by Luke Thomas
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At the time of writing, it is December 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic continues to force millions of people to work from home. For many months, I've chatted with numerous startup founders who are exploring ditching the office and moving their company to a remote-first work environment.

I thought it would be useful to write down some of my learnings and observations from these conversations. Some of you have made quick decisions, while others are still on the fence and continue to punt these difficult decisions into the future, which may not be a great idea.

My hope is that this post provides a framework for thinking about if your company should return to the office in the future, especially in the context of 2021 planning.

As someone who's worked remotely for many years (and runs a remote-first company), my natural inclination is to encourage you to work remotely, but the reality is that only you know what's right for your company.

I will do my best to present the variables and factors you should think about in an unbiased way.

With that out of the way, let's jump into the rest of the post.

The #1 factor you should consider

The first and most important point when considering a permanent shift to remote is how this may impact the people that work for you. Not only do you need to think about the existing team, but you need to consider how this may impact future hires and the overall hiring pool.

From my perspective, this is the most important factor to consider in the long-term.

Remote work exhibits network-effect like characteristics. As more people work remotely, it will become more and more difficult to NOT offer remote work as an option, especially for key talent.

As we've seen with other network effects (social media websitestelephones, etc) the value of a network grows as more people join it. This value compounds and becomes very difficult to "opt-out" of.

According to Buffer research from earlier this year, 97% of people who work remotely would recommend it to a friend. According to Gallup, nearly 2/3 of employees would like to continue working remotely after the pandemic ends. Even if these numbers are inflated a bit, there's a clear trend.

Here's how I would encourage you to think about this factor - are you okay missing out on 30%-40% of potential applications for future job postings? What if a key hire wants to work remotely full-time? Can you afford to lose them? This would make me nervous.

Only you can decide what's right for you and your business. Let's move onto some other points.

Do you have enough data to guide your decisions?

Every savvy founder I've talked to who has considered ditching the office during the Covid-19 pandemic has surveyed their employees to build a data-driven case for their decision.

The return to work survey attempts to understand two drivers:

  • Benefits & pain-points of remote work
  • What do employees think of ditching the office in the future?

I'd recommend asking the following questions in a "return-to-work" survey:

  1. How comfortable to you feel returning to the office?
  2. Have you been equally as productive, less productive, or more productive while working from home?
  3. What is the best part of working remotely?
  4. What is the worst part about working remotely?
  5. What type of work environment would you prefer after the pandemic? (Fully remote, hybrid, full-time in the office)
  6. If $company went back to the office, would you look for a job elsewhere?

A survey will give you a sense of consensus, but you need to think about your top performers too.

Have conversations with key talent

The next thing you should do is meet and chat with some of your highest performers. What do they think? If you force return to the office, do you run the risk of losing great people?

I'd encourage you to run skip-level meetings to try to unpack this. The data won't be as honest as a survey, but you can collect richer feedback than a survey, which helps you paint a clear view into the potential impacts of this decision.

Does returning to the office reduce your ability to focus on core business-building activities?

There's a general consensus that early stage startups should be very intentional about what they focus on. Ideally, you eliminate distractions and outsource "non-core" activities so you have more time to focus on solving your most difficult challenges.

From an outside perspective, it seems like a return to the office in the near future would create a ton of landmines and constant distractions.

Here are a few examples below:

  • Creating and enforcing office policies around mask-wearing, conference room capacity limits, etc. Do you want to be the mask police?
  • What happens if one employee contracts Covid-19 and spreads it to others at the office? Are there liability issues for you?
  • Some employees will be nervous about returning to the office. Do you force them to come back early?
  • You will need to reconfigure desks and space. Is that worth the time/headaches? Do you have enough space?
  • When a vaccine is available, will you require it to return to the office? What happens if some employees would prefer to wait before they take it?

As a Founder/CEO, the worst part of my job is coming up with policies, doing paperwork, and other "housekeeping", so trying to deal with the potential challenges listed above sounds like a nightmare.

Have you hit product-market fit or not?

I rarely hear people talk about this decision in the context of finding product-market fit. For those unfamiliar with this term, here's a somewhat vague, but hopefully helpful definition:

"And you can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it — or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers. Money from customers is piling up in your company checking account. You’re hiring sales and customer support staff as fast as you can. Reporters are calling because they’ve heard about your hot new thing and they want to talk to you about it." - [source]

In the early stages of company-building, the work is much more open-ended and freeform. There's a ton of paths you could take. You don't know much about your customers, you don't have a good sense of what the product will become, and so much more.

This ambiguity is normal in startups, but the goal in this phase is to test these assumptions and build a business quickly. The process of finding product-market fit requires a fast feedback loop, both with prospects/customers, but also internally with your coworkers.

One way to create fast feedback loops as a startup is to meet in person. This helps you accelerate relationship-building and resolve ambiguity faster.

Why? There's more data points. While Zoom is the next best thing, there is no replacement for meeting up in-person.

I'd encourage you to think about the phase that your business is in based on the following:

  • Ideation - lots of unknowns, fast feedback loop is important. Before product-market fit
  • Iteration - There's more "knowns" with the business. You've hit product-market fit. The path you need to take is clear

If you are in the ideation stage, you might want to consider meeting up in-person earlier than if you in the "iteration" stage. The office may help facilitate this.

A time for everything

A counterpoint to the argument above is that businesses go through stages of ideation vs. iteration. There are times when it may be helpful to meet up in person and resolve thorny issues. There are also phases where time for heads-down work is more important.

This is precisely why many remote-first companies before the pandemic would meet-up in person through company meetups.

Ditching the office and becoming a remote-first company doesn't mean you can't meet in person periodically!

There is a middle ground

There's a gray area that may be worth exploring here too. Maybe you ditch the office, but meetup in person once a month? Maybe you ditch the office and meetup twice per year?

Maybe you downsize the office and people show up once a week?

If you think the only options are all-remote vs. five days a week in the office, it may be a false choice. Once again, only you can make this decision. I'm just trying to provide a framework to help.

Parting advice: your team deserves clarity

Whatever you decide, you must set clear expectations with your team. If you hold all-hands meetings and people are asking, "what is our stance on remote work moving forward?", you have probably missed the mark or there's ambiguity that needs to be resolved.

Here's a basic framework to follow if you'd like to create transparency:

  • Are your expectations written down?
  • Is there a timeline for the decision? What factors influence the decision?
  • If an employee wants to move further away from the office, what are the potential ramifications of this decision?

If you don't create clarity, you shouldn't be surprised when employees leave because you can't make up your mind. It's better to commit to one path or the other than constantly punt important decisions like this.

I hope this post helps you make a better decision. Your employees deserve it!

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