The concept of global remote work sounds exciting in theory, but many CTOs that I talked to, before the COVID-19 pandemic and now, have reasons for preferring their office-based teams — to build trust, to communicate during daily stand-ups, to come together to resolve problems or brainstorm new concepts. They have worked hard to foster a strong culture and they don’t want to disrupt that.
But what happens when a significant portion of the core team chooses to (or must) remain remote themselves? CTOs are facing the reality that the teams they’ve worked hard to cultivate in the office are not likely to return to the old in-person routines.
Remote-First Starts With CTOs
CTOs have new incentives to rethink their culture building approach. In a recent survey of 12,000 employees, Boston Consulting Group found that “companies expect about 40 percent of their employees to follow a remote-working model in the future.”
A study published by the Harvard Business Review notes that remote work is most successful when it is supported from the top-down — but 40 percent of the 215 supervisors and managers surveyed had a negative view of their ability to manage remotely. The study also discusses the value of training managers, and creating a trusting work environment with clear and measurable goals to set the stage for success.
To accomplish this, and to attract and retain good talent in the future, CTOs must design for a remote-first culture. “Remote-first” is a philosophy to ensure one maximizes culture, performance, productivity, and structure as a fully or largely remote organization.
Doing this successfully requires intentional planning through specific phases.
- Replication: Most companies that are waiting to go back to their office-first ways may find that replication of in-office habits leads to team burnout, decreased productivity, and a loss of culture. Companies should take note of what processes are simply being mirrored that are creating the most strain on employees to improve upon in the next phase.
- Evolution: This requires building structures and processes to realize the benefits of a fully remote world and make them a competitive advantage. Here, CTOs should start to consider the business benefit and what going fully remote means for talent supply strategies and productivity tools.
- Formalization: Developing an organizational culture based on a remote-first philosophy requires processes and structures that support remote work and underpin productivity. When people can’t walk over to a colleague’s desk to ask a question, they benefit from more detailed documentation around process and best practices.
- Maturity: Having a fully functional organizational design that sets up employees for success and provides an environment where they drive business results is the mark of a successful remote strategy. CTOs here have implemented new collaboration technologies, and updated management styles and team goals to support autonomy.
Making these changes isn’t simple, CTOs should also consider four distinct elements in the evolution: mindset, culture, process, and structure. Leaders, managers, and employees must change their thinking in order to thrive in a remote environment. An accepting mindset is necessary to keep everyone motivated to make that change better than what they had in the past.
As mindset changes, that is when it becomes possible to have the culture transition to remote-first too. CTOs need to consider more than formal meetings, but also reimagine elements like water cooler conversations and company happy hours. Keeping people engaged requires a culture that goes deeper than a move to embrace Slack channels and Zoom parties.
Embracing Remote Work
Many companies have been successful at this, even before the pandemic. At GitHub, 60 percent of team members work remotely. As such, they designed and continue to iterate guidelines around transparency and documentation and intentionally apply these into their daily practice. This has reshaped how they position productivity to be more autonomous and results oriented — and less about when and how their team members do their work.
And at Stack Overflow, where 80 percent of engineers work remotely, the company has an emphatic remote culture that offers a valuable case study for CTOs looking to improve their remote strategy. The company has invested in a wide range of online collaboration tools that encourage engineers to work together, communicate efficiently, and access information quickly. For instance, they have built a huge database of questions and answers that remote workers can refer to when they can’t just tap on a colleague’s shoulder (especially if there are big time zone differences).
Clearly, creating a dynamic that develops a strong, inclusive culture for both in-person and remote teams can help drive many goals forward, from delivering product to reducing churn and retaining knowledge. This will only be a reality when the company’s collaboration and communication is largely online, inclusive, and increasingly asynchronous, and every member of the team can participate effectively and feel invested in the company’s success.