Before the coronavirus pandemic, there was an implicit social contract companies had with their employees: We (employees) all work in a similar place. In the “old normal,” we were expected to be in a centralized office space during specific working hours, and we were expected to relocate to the city where the company was based.
COVID has altered that contract entirely. What started as a (necessary) experiment to have everyone working from home as a result of CDC-mandated social distancing and lockdowns is now an indefinite reality.
Many companies in the United States are accepting or embracing that their employees work remotely and are leaning further into the “new normal.” What were initially temporary remote work arrangements have been extended or have given way to more permanent remote work options at companies like Zillow, Twitter, Square, Reddit, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Atlassian, and Dropbox — and that list grows longer every day.
What does this mean for what the workplace looks like when we have the option to return to the office post-vaccine? We believe the “work wherever, whenever” era isn’t a future possibility; it’s already here, and all signs point to it being here to stay. How and where work happens has shifted, and leaders need to have the conversation about how we work must change or adapt to meet this reality. Let’s dig deeper into the radical shift taking place in workplace communication and structural practices — and why there is no going back to the way they were before.
Why the temporary shift to all-remote work is permanently changing the employment social contract
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically accelerated an existing shift from co-located, office work to remote and distributed work. There’s plenty of content about how we’re never going back to “normal” in the context of the majority of workplaces — but none addresses that even when these office spaces reopen, work won’t function in the same way for two primary reasons.
1. Employees don’t want their old schedules back.
Employees who have been able to work remotely will not want to return to a full-time, in-person office schedule. After months of COVID shutdowns, there is a desire for the social environment of being in a physical space together and the chance interactions of water cooler conversations. If we dig deeper, though, no one wants to return to a five-day commute or the lack of flexibility of a full-time, in-office schedule. Most people want to come into the office just two or three days a week, which means they may come in only to find that everyone they wanted to meet with is working from home that day.
2. Asynchronous work works.
With 42% of the U.S. labor force now working from home full time, we have proven that collaboration and productivity don’t require synchronous meeting time. The traditional co-location argument is no longer relevant, especially given the prolonged period of time people have been working from home — and successfully, as 77% of remote workers actually report being more productive.
Working from home is no longer seen as an earned privilege or an exception to the rules. Whether it’s the welcome reprieve from commuting or having closer proximity to home and loved ones, your workforce wants (and needs) flexibility. And if you as an employer don’t offer it, they’ll take their talents elsewhere.
Part of the reason it’s hard to imagine this future today is that because we’re in virtual meetings most of the day and we haven't adapted to a new way of working. As leaders, we need to create a hybrid model that merges the social benefits of in-person communication with the personal benefits of the remote experience.
My philosophy? We can't go back to the way we used to approach this social contract with employees, and we have to embrace a new one.
Reimagining productivity and how we work from home
The problem with working from home today is there's so much exhaustion around it because we haven’t done the work to truly envision how to support employees as we adjust to indefinite remote work. We’re still trying to shoehorn this remote reality into the traditional office and employee management box. Even once you remove the COVID-related circumstances and we're no longer forced to work from home for public health and safety reasons, what happens? Generally speaking, especially for technology workers, we don't have to be in a physical location.
In addition to the pandemic dissolving location barriers, we've confirmed that distributed teams can be productive, because we know that collaboration doesn’t require synchronous meeting time. We’re also reframing what engagement and participation — and the expectations that surround them — look like. For example, we just had a Leadership planning session which, pre-pandemic, would have been followed by a dinner. As a parent — and as a mother, specifically — I would not have been able to attend the dinner. When the norm allows me to choose where I can participate from, the playing field feels more level.
Of course we know how hard working from home has been for many parents who also have caregiving/virtual-schooling responsibilities, but once childcare and open schools are back in the picture, I still don't know that I'd want to be in the office, traveling for business trips and doing dinners in the evenings.
So the question is: How can we reimagine working from home while remaining the productive, innovative teams we’ve always been?
What we’re doing at Loom to adapt to the new normal (and what you can do, too)
Even as a remote-first company that lives and breathes asynchronous communication, the pandemic has highlighted how much we still need to do in reenvisioning how we work and manage teams in the remote-first workplace. Here are some of the things we’re doing at Loom.
1. Managing goals instead of time
The way we manage needs to change, because the workplace communication norms we had for meetings and expected work hours no longer apply, and new ones are in order. A completely synchronous communication culture is not a viable option for many tech companies. So where is the middle ground?
I believe the answer lies in being comfortable managing people by goals and not by synchronous time. When you manage by time, you say, "I'm going to assess you based on what I see over this time period," which is very common but not specific about what this person is going to achieve. If you can manage the outcomes where the goal and not the time is the main evaluation criteria, it doesn’t matter if it takes them two hours and is completed in one day or if the work happens over two weeks, as long as the outcome — the goal — is done within the expected (and communicated) timeframe.
One way we’re implementing these goal-based management methods at Loom is in our performance review process this year. Though most companies at our stage don’t conduct 360 reviews, we implemented a 360 review process this year and are creating training for new managers on how to better set goals.
2. Ramping virtual onboarding
In the past we relied on having people come to the office for onboarding, often flying from out-of-state or even overseas. At first, we just moved to a limited online format with a new-hire mixer event. We quickly realized that wasn't enough to really help them feel at home at Loom, and we’re actively working to change that. Other changes we are making include creating new-hire cohorts and making sure every new hire meets virtually with 10 people one-on-one without any agenda so they have an immediate group of people they've connected with personally outside of work conversations.
As proof that this works, half of our Leadership team has onboarded remotely — including Loom’s VP of Sales and Success and yours truly! — and they've never met anyone in person, but I would say most people know who I am and to some extent what I am like without being in a Zoom meeting with me.
We have also jazzed up our onboarding experience by adding an interactive activity called Two Truths and a Lie to the intro Loom videos that new hires create and share with the company.
These intro looms are an asynchronous way for new hires to share personal and professional details, interests, and information in their own words.
3. Making time for fun
The initial excitement for Zoom happy hours and yoga classes has died out, but synchronous virtual time still can be exciting if we are creative. For example, Loom employees dressed up as characters and worked together to solve a murder mystery, our Product team did a watercolor class that was a huge hit, and our upcoming virtual offsite is prompting us to reimagine how we might connect without being on an 8-hour Zoom call. We created a budget for managers to do more of these smaller events, and while I don't think Loom has solved the remote social engagement conundrum by any means, these are some of the engaging ways we’re thinking differently.
4. Addressing employees’ needs at home
While the opportunity to work from home has been met by most with positive responses and results, it has also illuminated new challenges or exacerbated inequities related to employees’ sense of belonging, mental health, living situations, and available resources.
For example, not everyone has the space or funds to create a home office that meets their needs. While some employees already had a dedicated home office space and equipment pre-pandemic, others are now cohabitating with other family members and juggling childcare and online education responsibilities on top of their jobs. (Many are forced to choose between the two, and there’s inequity there, too: Of the one million Americans who exited the workforce in September 2020, 80% were women.) Others are struggling to secure a functional workspace and an adequate Wi-Fi connection.
Though we have always embraced a remote-first culture at Loom where people can work when it's best for them, we’ve updated our policies to address these work environment shifts due to COVID-19 circumstances. The home office stipend was previously available to employees who were hired as remote employees; we now offer home office setup and monthly internet reimbursement to all employees, regardless of location.
We also encourage everyone to truly take time off when they need to — it’s always important to recharge, whether working remotely or not — and create a flexible schedule that works best for them to manage their work on their time.
A Curated List of the Best Remote Work Resources — The Loom Blog
How work is changing at Figma — Figma
11 Tweaks to Fine-Tune Your Remote Work Routine — The Loom Blog
Moving into a new normal
It's all about managing expectations, which we used to do more synchronously and in person, and now do remotely — and asynchronously. I can record a bunch of looms at 5 a.m., which I do often because that’s what’s best for my schedule. My colleagues can watch and respond when it’s most convenient for them, too. Again, as long as the work gets done, there are no time boundaries to create and enforce and you and your teams can cultivate better work-life balance on your own terms.
As author and future of work strategist Heather MacGowan says, “Human beings are remarkably resilient and highly adaptable creatures. It took a pandemic to make that plainly obvious.” And she’s right: Employees are our greatest assets. As HR leaders, we now have the opportunity to reshape our company communications and structural cultures in ways that lean into change rather than resist it when it comes to where and how we work.