Return-remote first-Lead
Dave Hewett
Dave Hewett Engagement Lead

Our Thinking Mon 11th October, 2021

The return to office “bear trap” – why remote-first meetings are the future

When the pandemic hit, many organisations were faced with the prospect of making something work that they’d never previously wanted to consider. Remote working had been seen by many as too difficult to achieve, but suddenly the laws of lockdown required exactly that. What not many anticipated was just how successful remote-first meetings would become, and how quickly!

A lot of teams have thrived in the fully remote environment. During lockdown, productivity wasn’t impacted nearly as much as most people anticipated, and in many cases it actually improved as teams put remote working tools and practices quickly in place to ensure ongoing delivery. In fact, it forced us to do what some of us didn’t think we could!

Results of a study by the University of Southampton suggest that 54% of remote workers assess their productivity as better than previously, based on tangible output per hour. This worked largely because the teams were all remote, which allowed the emergence of practices which were centered around co-locating virtually.  

But as businesses are now considering going back to the office, there is a real threat to productivity as teams become neither fully remote nor fully on-site.  

The choices as we see it are these:

  1. Stay remote-first (virtually co-located): this only works if you keep operating as if everyone is 100% remote.
  2. Go back to the office and be physically co-located: with this option you can go back to the old ways. Get the whole team into the office, get the post-its out, and forget your digital whiteboard and messaging systems. This might be perfectly acceptable for your business. Just cross your fingers that there won’t be another lockdown, or a teammate who has to work from home for an unexpected doctor’s appointment…
  3. A hybrid model of work: with this option you risk falling into the bear trap of trying to combine the two and ending up with the worst of both worlds.

Why a slide back to pre-lockdown working practices is so alarming

Remote-ish companies face even more obstacles than the fully remote ones, according to Michael Dell, CEO and Chairman at Dell Technologies. Pre-COVID, most teams were at best remote-friendly. For example, if someone worked from home, they might be included in meetings by a thoughtful colleague pointing a laptop camera at a whiteboard. 

But more often than not when everyone else was in a meeting room, people attending from home would be left struggling to hear what was being said at the end of a badly setup video conference. 

With teams now considering a return to the office there will be a natural tendency to revert back to patterns of co-working and meetings which prioritise physical location. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the lockdown lifted, I immediately witnessed meetings with part of the group sitting in the conference room and others joining via zoom; instantly the frustrations of those on zoom were evident as they became unable to meaningfully contribute, either to the conversation or by active participation with tools like whiteboards. 

The gradual downturn in remote working will inevitably mean that working practices decline back to their lowest energy state – in this case a progressive drift into ‘physical location’ centric practices. The result will be poor communication between physically co-located and remote workers, as well as frustration, misunderstandings, and the loss of shared context.

The antidote:  If one is remote, everyone is remote

The only way to keep the lines from blurring as we consider any kind of return to the office is to behave as if everyone is remote, even when they’re in a central location.

There are easy ways to implement a remote-first approach, but it will require serious effort from both employers and staff to resist the slide. The benefits you receive are worth it: continued high bandwidth communication, no matter where you are located. Read on for some of the potential pitfalls and solutions.

8 Remote-ish meeting traps you might fall into and how to avoid them

The preference, in my view, is for remote-first meetings. This means that we keep running our meetings over video conferencing unless 100% of the team are in the office. In the past, I’ve seen teams resort to an almost comical gathering around someone’s monitor to talk to the teammate who didn’t manage to get into the office. We cannot allow ourselves to go back there!

Here are 8 ways you might fall into the bear trap when adopting a hybrid work practice, and how to avoid them:

1. Bad audio in a conference room:

  • It is often instinctive to concentrate on the people and conversation in the office with you, but this can leave remote members of the team feeling excluded and disengaged. This disconnect is substantially exacerbated when there is poor audio and acoustic quality in the room.  A lot of the detail of an in-flow, in-person conversation gets missed by remote participants, and frequent requests have to be made for things to be repeated. This interrupts the creative flow of the meeting.
  • Focusing on a remote-first practice removes this challenge. By keeping the remote-first tools and information channels you reduce the chances of individuals becoming isolated, and therefore less productive.

2. Background noise in the office space:

  • Office space can often be noisy. A lack of meeting rooms in most offices means staff from different teams who sit close to each other can frequently be in different meetings at the same time. This causes irrelevant background noise to interrupt the flow of creative meetings – annoying enough for the people in the office, but for those trying to contribute from home it’s even more challenging!
  • Conversely, people working in their own space makes for better quality meetings with more valuable focus on the topic at hand.

3. Not wearing headphones in the office:

  • The way to eliminate background noise is simple. If one person in a meeting is remote, then everyone should adopt remote-first practices. The meeting should be joined individually, with each person using their own quality noise cancelling headsets. This levels the playing field and addresses most of the issues typically experienced in remote-ish meetings.

4. Writing on a physical whiteboard:

  • While a physical whiteboard can be a creative place for a co-located team to explore ideas, in a meeting with remote participants it is disengaging. I’ve seen well-meaning colleagues try to point a camera at the whiteboard for those who are at home, but it is impossible for remote participants to really participate. 
  • Very expensive online boards improve the situation from a graphical perspective, but don’t address other remote-ish concerns. A better and considerably cheaper solution is using common online tools like Miro, with everyone using remote-first principles.
  • DO NOT move to a physical board unless the team is 100% physically co-located, 100% of the time.  Remember, you’re looking to avoid an imbalance of information between home and office workers, so that every team member has the same tools, regardless of where they are working.

5. Having side conversations outside of the virtual context:

  • It is very easy for co-located meetings to become split into two or three smaller meetings as various options are discussed. For remote participants, this is impossible to follow, adding further to a feeling of being disengaged.
  • Ad-hoc conversations are bound to happen but keep the learnings from lockdown working and update your messaging channels with what’s going on, even when everyone is present – it’s unlikely that 100% of the people who might benefit from that anecdotal conversation actually overheard it.

6. People in the room forgetting about the virtual participants:

  • We’ve all been in meetings that have been wrapped up in a room without even a goodbye to the remote participants. I’ve even heard of meetings where those not physically in the room weren’t even asked to share their opinions! Out of sight, out of mind becomes a reality when remote-first principles are not applied.

7. Poor documentation of remote-ish meetings:

  • There’s often an assumption in remote-ish meetings that because everyone was ‘present,’ there is no need to document decisions and outcomes. This sometimes leads to doubt and conflict months down the line when different recollections appear.
  • Remote-first by definition leaves a trail on online tools like Miro and Slack, and allows the team to have far more consistent communication than is the case with a co-located or remote-ish team.

8. Assuming in-office meetings are required at all!

  • Sometimes jumping straight to a “we need a meeting” conclusion is a knee-jerk reaction that causes a major drag to a team’s momentum. Decisions are delayed until everyone can get together, or very poor quality meetings – for all the above reasons – take place in shared spaces. 

Don’t fall into the bear trap! 

For now this may seem like a small problem to businesses who are only just beginning to decide on their return to office strategy. However, once critical mass is achieved in the office, and fewer people are working from home, teams will inevitably start using tools which exclude their remote colleagues.

The pandemic has given businesses a unique opportunity to learn how to deliver what employees have been requesting for decades – flexible working from home. And it’s been a success! Let’s not now throw away the digital transformation that happened in lockdown and allow the previous centuries of deep-seated inflexibility to rise again. It’s time for remote-first businesses to lead the way with deliberate decisions based on productivity, not old habits. 

Want to learn more? Get in touch today.