When asked when her company transitioned to a fully remote work environment, Shenna Fitzgerald responded, "that Thursday when everybody was sent home." It's a flashbulb memory for so many business leaders: "March 2020. I think it was the 19th," she said. Fitzgerald is the director of impact and strategic communications for Creative Alignments, a small recruiting firm that partners with client companies to quickly grow their teams.
Three years later, what started as a necessary response to a public health emergency has become a purposeful strategy for engaging a diverse, talented workforce. The leaders at Creative Alignments, which has 35 employees, decided to remain remote after giving employees the option to return to their office in Boulder, Colo., when they safely could—and realizing people weren't using it. So, when the building's lease expired in January, they didn't renew.
"The way we pivoted and made things work was really working well," Fitzgerald said. In the process, they realized some benefits they didn't expect. "It helped us recruit from across the country," she said, noting that 46 percent of their workers are from locations outside of Colorado. Moreover, the flexibility that came with allowing work from anywhere promoted a diverse and inclusive environment, she said.
Still, the key lesson coming out of the pandemic for business and HR leaders is not to shut their office doors tomorrow, according to Fitzgerald and other remote-work proponents. Rather, it's to be intentional—regardless of whether you forgo an office or offer limited offsite options.
"Quarantine work from home is not the same as an intentionally designed remote workplace," said Darren Murph, vice president of workplace design and remote experience at Andela, a job placement network for software developers. Murph—who was recently named one of Forbes' "Future of Work 50"—began working at Andela in early 2023. Prior to that, he pioneered the title "Head of Remote" at the tech company GitLab.
"I like to say that, in 2023 and beyond, every organization is a remote organization," Murph said. "If anyone works outside your office, it changes the way you work," he said. Yet "instead of spending time and energy to evolve their systems, many companies are trying to pull the past into the present." Here are three questions to help leaders think intentionally.
What Do Your Employees Want?
"Start with asking how people on [your] team feel they're able to do their most productive work," Fitzgerald said. The culture at Creative Alignments, which started in 2010, was always flexible and people-centric, she said. The company not only surveys employees often but observes which modes of work resonate with the team. She noted that if Creative Alignments' employees had expressed a desire to keep their office, their decision would have been different.
"What you're seeing in these forced [return-to-work] offices is they're obviously not listening to their employees," said Kaleem Clarkson, chief operating officer at Blend Me, Inc., a remote and hybrid-remote people operations consultancy. "Every survey will tell you the number of times employees want to be in [the office]. And it generally conflicts with what leadership is requiring," he said.
Whatever the reason, U.S. employees are feeling burned out and dissatisfied. The percentage of engaged employees declined for the first time in a decade, according to the latest Gallup survey—dropping from 36 percent in 2020 to 34 percent in 2021.
What's the Purpose of Your Office?
Pre-pandemic, most knowledge-economy workers thought of offices as the places work got done. That's no longer a given—so it's incumbent on employers to communicate why the office matters, Clarkson said. "If you're going to do this hybrid thing, there needs to be a real purpose to go to the office," he said, adding that employees get frustrated when they must commute somewhere to sit on Zoom calls they could do at home.
At Creative Alignments, employees are encouraged to adopt flexible, collaborative mindsets—perhaps choosing one place for meetings, another for brainstorming and a third for work requiring sustained concentration. "We have teams that get together weekly at coffee shops to collaborate," Fitzgerald said. The key, she said, is asking: "What work needs to get done on what days and what's the ideal environment?"
Are You Clearly Defining Terms and Roles?
Similarly, be clear on which roles can operate remotely. "A lot of times in small businesses, people talk about the person and not the function," Clarkson said. He recommends creating a list of positions that can be hybrid or fully remote and those that can't—and explaining why. Define what each term means and what the rules of engagement are. For example, Clarkson suggests asking yourself: When will you use chat versus e-mail? When are meetings needed? Should video be on or off?
That clarity is critical because "wherever you have gray, you have confusion, and that's when people question and are uncomfortable," Clarkson said. Once anxiety sets in, "that's when people resign."
Another question from Murph: "How are people going to bump into each other in virtual space?" Just as offices were architecturally designed with socialization in mind, online work environments must be engineered to foster collegiality.
As much effort as all of this takes—to say nothing of reimagining mentorship, onboarding, performance evaluation and compensation—it's necessary to do in today's talent landscape. "There are a lot of candidates out there who won't even consider a job, no matter what it is, no matter what it pays, if it's not remote," Fitzgerald said.
Christina Folz is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Va.