Is a "remote-first" workforce just another "open office" trap waiting to happen?

June 18th, 2020

Companies that start as remote-only entities are the loudest evangelists of remote work.

I'm curious how they would rate their bonds with fellow employees. Are they just as strong as they would be in an in-person environment, or are they simply willing to accept less kinship? Are they willing to sacrifice the closeness that "in-person" brings for work flexibility and cost-savings?

Back in March, COVID got serious and we switched to remote-mode full-time at Localist. Using Zoom, we have continued our community traditions, like our Team Tuesday lunches, Wins of the Month, and the all-hands Friday Standups. Individual teams are also in constant communication, and our Slack is busy with casual, positive chatter.

A few on the Localist team were already full-time remote and did a great job of expressing company values in their way, even though they were on the other side of the country. They helped a great deal in being a resource for others to make the transition to a remote workforce.

But for those of us who were used to interacting in-person, something is still missing: authenticity. It feels like living in a bedroom community.

Interaction is forced. It's scheduled. Scheduling is necessary, as without it there would be no interaction at all. But that means all of our interactions are not as serendipitous as they could be. They don't feel as authentic as say, bumping into someone in the office kitchen and coming up with a way to help a customer in the moment.

While team morale remains high, I have personally struggled to be fully remote. I'm in constant contact with the executive team every day, but it doesn't feel like I'm sitting around the table with them, bonding on a deeper level.

We're just as productive as we were before, but our culture and values feel a bit stunted, as if they can't fully express themselves in the way we used to. Is this the "new normal," or do we need to change our values?

I wouldn't be surprised if most in-person companies that transition to remote struggle, because they are less willing to accept less of a bond. They're familiar with a different way of interacting and butt up against the forced nature of virtual.

I'm a huge fan of VR. It's very close to prime-time-ready for simulating true "presence" between people in a virtual environment. But it needs a bit more time in the oven. What should we do in the meantime?

My outstanding questions

  • Is serendipity gone because it can't exist in a virtual world, or can serendipity be orchestrated?
  • What are examples of remote-first companies that have incredibly strong interpersonal bonds between employees?
  • Do these bonds rival in-person-first companies?
  • What are these companies doing to create such an environment?
  • What will the long-term impact of remote-only companies be? Will we realize the downsides, like with open offices, and demand cubicles (in-person offices) again?

When it's safe to be together again, I suspect many on the team will want to remain remote-only. I fully support that, especially if we can still get together in-person quarterly. The remote-first companies I know about that thrive still get together, and those times together are what create the bonds that last when everyone is apart again.

To be exclusively remote, with no plans for in-person interaction, it's certainly possible to be a productive company, but productivity isn't everything.

What's become a clear opportunity for us, and others in the community space: create rock-solid connections between people who are exclusively virtual.