I wrote about this a few years ago, and I probably won’t write about it again for four years or so. I’m convinced that we should be unconvinced about the long-term impact of remote work, and specifically in this field. What I’m going to offer below is some interesting research, a hopefully balanced view of the pros/cons, and some tentative suggestions about where to land on this. I hope you will join me in staying away from the extremes regarding remote teams: it’s just not that simple or even clear.
Do employees love it? Most do, and by a wide margin. But that doesn’t mean that it’s good for your business as a whole (though it could clearly be good for your recruiting). Employees would vote for more substantial raises, too, which doesn’t make them right for the business. It’s not always a democracy.
I’ll start with the most recent data I can find, specifically for this industry. I say that because we should be wary of applying call center research to the creative field, and that’s where most of the research comes from: call centers, because they are remote…and because their productivity is easy to measure.
We aren’t running call centers. As the NY Times has noted, studies of remote work have “tended to focus on call centers where productivity is easy to define and measure—but where creativity, collaboration and mentorship may be less important."
Regardless of what we don’t know, remote work is here to stay. In fact, it’s use has grown 10x faster than the growth of the workforce as a whole. Too fast, I’d say, to understand how to incorporate it well.
But unlike all the data from call centers, we have recent data, and data from the industry. Here’s what the SoDA Global Outlook study showed (a collaboration w/ Forrester) in March of 2023:
Over the past 3 years, much has been made of the benefits of the hybrid-remote work environment, but a strong minority of agencies report declines in company culture (49%), internal team communication/collaboration (43%) and, to a lesser extent, levels of creativity/innovation (34%).SoDA Global Outlook
But let’s be clear about the advantages and the challenges of remote work, first.
Advantages of Remote
Most of these are obvious, but not all of them:
- You have a massively larger employee pool from which to draw. Not just because you can literally hire from anywhere, but because people can afford to live on what you pay them outside of expensive urban environments.
- Less time wasted in a commute.
- Employee tenure is lengthened (assuming you want this). This is something that didn’t show up right away in the early studies.
- Forces central and ubiquitous use of the appropriate SaaS tools, appropriately moving a firm from an oral to a written culture, bringing countless advantages to workflow and process.
Challenges of Remote
These are the ones we know about—others might show up later:
- Some managers are struggling to learn how to lead team members remotely. It’s a unique skill and humans are complex.
- Onboarding new employees is a greater challenge when they are remote. It’s one thing to take a team that’s worked well together and scatter them, because in that case they already have a shared understanding and a cultural net underneath them.
- There are widespread reports of loneliness and isolation.
- Remote employees—when there’s a mixed composition—are not as readily promoted, and they don’t have the same sort of input in company policies.
- There’s less collaboration and the sharpening of ideas.
- Without the generous benefit of the doubt, there are more misunderstandings and resulting conflict. It’s classic Hanlon’s Razor stuff.
- There’s a disparity in how various groups adapt. Three economists (Emanuel, Harrington, and Pallais, from the Federal Reserve of NY, University of Iowa, and Harvard) just released a very important study. They found that remote work enhanced productivity of the senior team, but reduced the feedback offered younger team members. This latter group was more likely to quit because of that lack of feedback, and it was equated with fewer career opportunities. They found that this feedback they craved was difficult to replicate on Zoom and Slack. And while it’s not clear why, every study I read found a disproportionate impact on women who work remotely.
How To Adapt
Regardless of the pros and cons, we have to find ways to adapt. The benefits are so substantial that the challenges are worth addressing. If I were running an agency, this is what I would do:
- Take all the money I had been spending on a facility (and maybe more), and create twice-yearly in-person retreats, one week at a time. These would be mandatory (except for family or health emergencies).
- Establish four or five hours each day of overlapping, concurrent working times. The rest could be asynchronous to account for different time zones and the flexibility that remote workers crave. Team member availability during that time would be no different than the old days of working together in a facility.
- Be intentional in planning for what used to be the spontaneous passing in the hallways or grabbing something in the lounge. This small talk is critical for human to human appreciation and understanding.
- Shift most brainstorming away from contemporaneous Zoom (ineffective according to important research from Stanford and Columbia, by Mark Walsh in Workplace, June, 2022) to asynchronous digital collisions, something that Steve Jobs used to talk about a lot. Learn more about that here and here.
- Fund generous employee development opportunities and urge team members to take advantage of them together, wherever possible.
Nothing will surface your control freak tendencies—if you have them—like switching to a remote arrangement, so you’ll need to grow as a person, too. People are the same in an office or at home. They are either disciplined or they aren’t. They are either trustworthy or they aren’t. They’ll either be engaged or they won’t.
If you aren’t going to embrace full office or full remote, apparently the ideal mix is to have your team spend 25-40% of their time in the office, and the rest of the time in a “work from anywhere” mode (Prithwiraj Choudhury, in HBR). This mix allows people to enjoy flexibility without feeling isolated, and they also develop the most original work with the highest performance ratings.
But if you embrace the remote world maturely, you’ll end up with a higher percentage of employees that you can trust rather than the ones that you feel like you must always watch.
Humbly pick a path, but don’t be afraid to develop a point of view and shape your firm around it, even if it creates unique challenges. But no matter what you choose, flexibility is important.
The pull from teams that want remote arrangements will be difficult to resist, but we're going to need to develop new ways of working to counter career development gaps and collaboration holes.
We are not there yet and this is an exciting time to absorb all we can and maintain a tight focus on the humans who set our work apart, regardless of where they work.