Work from Bali

Since time immemorial, humans have always gone to a place of work. Whether it was hunting or farming, we had to go to work. With the industrial revolution, we went to factories. My father in the Army went to the frontier. And with my generation, as the tech scene hit, we all went to fancy offices. The last two decades were indeed all about office perks and how one is cooler than the other – whether it was the Apple Park, or the Amazon Spheres, or numerous other amazing spaces that many called their second home.

Then came the pandemic, an event none from our generation had seen or dealt with. We were forced to shut all those cool workplaces and prep our study tables to begin working from home, or for that matter anywhere. 

According to researchers from the University College London, it takes an average of 66 days to form a new human habit. Most of us have barely stayed away from the workplace, until now. So with over 100 days in the new working environment, it may be safe to assume that the pandemic has changed our habit – it has made us more comfortable with working remotely and has compelled us to rethink why we need to go to an office to do what we can do from anywhere. 

At Near, we have seen the productivity increase manifold as teams are no longer subjected to long, time-consuming commutes freeing their minds from traffic woes enabling them to better concentrate on the task at hand. Having said that, many of us have started questioning the existence of a central workplace. Employee requests are pouring in asking if they can work from anywhere, be it Manhattan or Bangalore.  If working from home is the answer to increased productivity, then why not? 

In fact, Twitter, Shopify, and Upwork among many others have announced a permanent remote working option. This is a 180-degree turn from our traditional instincts to go to work. And most of us are excited, waiting for the skies to clear to be in our favorite place on earth and still be able to work. Effectively a very long working holiday or a ‘workcation’. Destinations too are being creative to lure remote workers, like Barbados which has a new Visa for this opportunity

On the flipside, this has made companies rethink about the way they employ people, how they remunerate them and keep them motivated. The big debate is that if you are not in San Francisco you may not need the same pay that you used to get to accommodate the high cost of living there. Some companies have already taken this (we can say unfair) opportunity to cut pay if their employees chose to work remotely.  

The way I see it is that eventually the glamour of ‘work from anywhere’ will fade away as people will start missing social interactions, will have difficulty maintaining personal discipline and garnering shared knowledge. This will result in people messing up processes, start feeling lonely and becoming complacent, and lose the ability to think creatively.

But most importantly, it may not work for organizations because of two key reasons:

1. Culture: At Near, we give importance to the startup culture. I’m sure it’s the same for many great companies across the globe. Culture ultimately is the cornerstone of what you stand for, and where you’re heading. Without a good culture, there is no purpose.

In a remote setup, it becomes almost impossible to inculcate a culture and develop a sense of belonging. It is people who make the culture, and not  empty offices. For example, in the case of onboarding new employees, things become more complex in a remote situation. Not meeting their team leads to limited bonding. You might end up working with strangers, not colleagues. 

Which is why communication becomes key. You need to ramp up efforts on communication and transparency with internal and external stakeholders – increase the frequency of all-hands meetings, exploit technologies such as web chat tools and timezone tracker for uninterrupted communication flow. Remember the ‘water cooler’ effect that is known to boost productivity in the office? This effect can transcend into the virtual workplace as well where teams should be encouraged to have informal conversations allowing them to get to know one another and at the same time take a breather. 

As an organization that cares about its people, it is important to give opportunities to employees, old and new, to express, address, and engage.  

2. Innovation: About seven years ago Yahoo! and HP revoked work from home privileges after providing that flexibility for years. People are more collaborative and innovative when they are together – they debated. I agree. 

Remote work is great for execution (once things have been agreed upon and frozen) and not for innovation. Lack of continuous innovation leads to status quo – a passport to Death Valley. 

Having said that, you need to set the stage for your employees to frequently brainstorm and act on good ideas. It’s definitely challenging in a virtual workplace without those dedicated spaces designed to stimulate creativity, but possible to achieve with the right approach. One such successful approach is design thinking which focuses on finding solutions through the lens of solving people’s needs which leads to creating more impactful and relevant products. 

To get the ideation engine running, people leaders need to increase the frequency of workshops, have cross-functional brainstorming sessions, hire people with varied perspectives and backgrounds, and empower teams with the right tools to optimize their productivity giving them time to go beyond their ‘to-do list’ and think strategically. 

After all, continuous innovation is an integral part of building a great culture.  

Now is the time to experiment with different operating models and figure out which model best suits the company. If I could, I would have loved to work from Bali for some time, but then again…