Like most companies, ours transformed virtually overnight into an entirely work-from-home environment due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
As a CEO who rarely worked from home before the pandemic and still prefers the creative vibe and in-person collaboration of an office, I have found the shift interesting and sometimes surprising.
While working remotely has been on the rise nationally for several years — 43% of U.S. workers telecommute at least part of the time, according to a Gallup report — only some of our 450-plus employees were remote pre-coronavirus. Most reported to our headquarters in San Francisco and our hubs in Sunnyvale, CA, Atlanta, and Edinburgh, Scotland.
Some of what I’ve observed these last several weeks has surprised me in positive ways, while other considerations leave me dubious that an all- or largely-remote workforce is as simple as some would like to think.
Three changes I wasn’t expecting and that I love:
Better large meetings. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, meetings are a reality of corporate life. And we’re having more than ever so everyone can stay connected and in step. But I’m noticing new dynamics in the Zoom conferences where every participant is remote.
First, there’s a certain energy — a spirit of being flexible, adaptable, and understanding each other. There’s a “we’re-all-in-this-together” feeling that transcends the usual professional camaraderie.
Second, I’m seeing that, perhaps counter-intuitively, these large virtual meetings feel more collaborative. Take our periodic all-hands gatherings, for example. Normally, I’d present in person to employees in the San Francisco headquarters, with all others joining by teleconference. The live participants almost always seem more engaged.
But all-remote somehow levels the playing field. Involvement increases. The Zoom interface lights up with comments and non-verbal feedback like handclaps emojis. And our chat channel has taken off. Our last all-hands had almost 500 comments in the thread celebrating promotions, recognizing customer wins, etc.
I’d like to find a way for this vibe to carry over after shelter in place is done.
More interaction with customers. Before, here’s what typically would happen if a leader at one of the companies we work with and I decided it would be great to meet in person. We’d try to line up schedules. We wouldn’t be able to find a match for weeks. Then we would, but something would come up and we’d have to reschedule. I might end up traveling months later, if at all.
Now we just say three magic words: “Let’s do a Zoom.” We could have said that before the outbreak, of course. But we didn’t because it seemed impersonal. Now it’s as personal as can be.
The same is true for fellow CEOs, venture capitalists, and others in my world. Ironically, in this time of social distancing, it’s never felt so easy or comfortable to be in touch with people. We’re connecting more often, and we’re all enriched by the conversations and deeper relationship-building.
Narrowing of the extrovert-introvert gap. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, believes that introverts, who make up one-third of the workforce, are often overlooked because of the emphasis on collaboration and constant communication at most companies. One study found that highly extroverted people had a 25% better chance of landing a higher-earning job.
I’m sensing that the all-remote world tends to act as an equalizer. In our virtual gatherings, I’m no longer seeing just the “usual suspects” participate but contributions to the discussion from a much wider range of employees.
Those are all cool surprises. But I have an additional observation that dampens my enthusiasm a bit about the all-remote life.
There’s more than meets the eye to the work-from-home productivity bump. Survey after survey has shown that working from home can improve employee productivity by eliminating daily commutes, reducing sick days, and improving focus, among other benefits. I agree that these benefits can be real. As a CEO, I also like how a flexible work policy can help us attract the most talented people regardless of location.
That said, I think we should be careful before proclaiming that telecommuting will become the norm simply because millions more workers are now finding themselves to be more productive. The reality is far more complex, with factors to be weighed on both sides of the productivity equation.
For example, it bears remembering that people new to working remotely are still benefiting from relationships they may have initially built in the office, whether working side by side every day or just during periodic visits. Think of those face-to-face relationships as a bank account that is now being drawn down. We need to assess the degree to which “natively” remote environments — those where vast swaths of people have never worked together physically or may not even have met — produce effective relationships.
Also, people are motivated to work very hard to help their companies through the crisis and for a variety of other reasons unique to each individual.
Other factors to be considered:
Many remote employees are juggling parenting while working — children demanding attention can be a drag on productivity — yet those same employees would likely see productivity improve once kids are back in school.
Constraints on extracurricular activities like shopping may create an artificial bump in productivity, while the necessity for anyone who normally relies on domestic help to do that work themselves may create an artificial drop. Fewer outlets for socializing may drive more engagement in work meetings (an artificial bump). Closed restaurants could mean more cooking (drop), while more ordering in could result in a bump.
We need to take all of these intertwined variables into account when we assess the output of the all-remote workforce during this time.
In many ways, COVID-19 is a crucible for remote working. I’m sure I’m not the only business leader watching with fascination as we continue into uncharted territory.
Andy MacMillan is CEO of UserTesting, a human insights platform.