How smart companies handle remote work

When Apple’s Tim Cook sent out an all-staff memo announcing plans for a widespread return to the office after the pandemic-enforced period of remote work, it triggered enough ire amongst employees to mobilise an actual campaign

Meanwhile David Solomon, CEO of investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, has called working from home an “aberration”, and “not a new normal”. Sentiments echoed by executives at other corporate giants like Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase.

It doesn’t take a sociology doctorate to figure out that the conversation on the future of work will dominate in the short term. What’s intriguing are the fault lines along which the debate seems set to take place.

In a recent survey of 8,800 frontline employees and office workers by Boston-based communications platform Fuze, 75% of respondents saw flexible work as a must-have, with 65% saying they’d consider changing jobs to have greater flexibility over the long-term.

With record numbers quitting their jobs in the past year, it seems many are re-evaluating their priorities and what they want, or don’t want, from their work lives.

How will it play out? And what might this mean for how companies attract and retain their talent in the future?

I recently took part in a Notion Capital panel discussion on What’s hot in 2021 on this very topic. Here are some of the things I talked about. 

Wellness matters

Historically, the thing that allowed you to differentiate yourself as an employer was a cosy, convivial environment in an office. But if you no longer have that as a potential asset to attract and retain talent, you need to think of other ways to make your brand stand out.

I believe wellness is a big factor companies should focus on.

It’s the Brené Brown effect. Brené talks about the benefits of being really open about your mental health and wellbeing. Even in the past five years or so, it’s become more and more acceptable in a corporate environment. 

Now there’s this very active discussion about mental health in the office, so companies have an incentive to address it in creative ways. Being the leader of a company and dealing with a distributed team, a lot of my time is spent thinking about how to make them engaged. How do I make them feel healthy and well?

With multiple studies now demonstrating the connection between wellness and productivity, how businesses approach this issue won’t just impact their ability to recruit talent, it will be essential to garnering a competitive advantage in actually harnessing the talents of their workforce too.

Of course, the million-dollar question is how to do this?

Deep work matters

Until now the modern work environment has been geared towards teamwork and distractions. But empowering teams and individuals to work independently for focused intervals of time doesn’t just enable them to get more done, it makes work feel more meaningful. 

FLOWN has embraced the remote work model and established a framework for enabling staff to do more and find fulfilment in the process.

What’s interesting is there’s a mounting body of evidence that supports an outcome-based model – where employees work from wherever they please, whenever they please to complete tasks within agreed timeframes. It’s been shown to increase employee productivity and support their wellbeing.

In a review of a study carried out by the Harvard Business Review in 2014 the “opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on [one’s] most important tasks and define when and where [one] gets their work done” was cited as a core requirement of being productive and engaged.

Working this way promotes focus, one of the central tenets of ‘deep work’. Popularised by writer and computer scientist Cal Newport, deep work is defined as any cognitively demanding activity “performed in a state of distraction-free concentration”. In short, it’s an approach designed for accessing flow states – a working style that boosts mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s what gave me the idea for FLOWN. 

Supporting people to work remotely with autonomy allows them to access productive flow states more readily. No wonder Jody Thompson, cofounder of CultureRx and co-creator of the ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) model, says that what employees really want is “complete control over their time”.

So, what can companies do to make this a practicable and sustainable reality?

What leaders need to know

Utilising no-code solutions to set up sophisticated automations – allowing technical tasks to be done easily even by non-technical people – will be a powerful tool for businesses in this space.

There are three tools that have completely changed mine and my business’s life: Notion, Zapier and Airtable. At FLOWN, we run our entire business on Notion. It’s our Wiki, document management, task tracker, database, content production tool… it houses almost everything.

But alongside the digital tools needed to support communication and collaboration, companies that embrace the remote work model will also need to think about how they build a culture of deep work and foster connection among distributed teams.

We use rituals to help achieve this. We start our week with a meditation and intention setting. Some teams start the day answering a random question. And the entire FLOWN team ends the week with ‘Jolly Trolley’, where we reflect on our intentions, and play an online team game. These rituals anchor us to something deeper.

And it’s that ‘something deeper’ that is becoming an increasingly significant part of how people make choices on where and how they want to work.

The future belongs to convention breakers

Employees’ growing desire for flexibility has thinkers like Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury of Harvard Business School forecasting a huge advantage for “early adopters and companies embracing and building [their] organisation around that remote work model”.

Nonetheless, assuming the benefits of such change will be easily reaped is – as Cal Newport recently put it – naïve. Convention has a gravity, escaping and reshaping it takes work.

Which means the future will not belong to those who are trying to get back to normal.

The future will belong to those who are agile enough to let go of old practices, and diligent enough in their approach to creating new ones.

The future will belong to those seeking to build a new way to think and work.

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