It’s not often that I receive an invitation from another tech company to speak to their internal team. So, when a cybersecurity company reached out to me and asked me to share my experiences in running a company and leading communities across different parts of the world, I enthusiastically accepted.
The talk is titled “Defying the Divide – Finding Daring Ways to Work Together even when We are Apart.” As you can imagine, it revolves around the prevalent remote work setup that many organizations, especially in the tech industry, have adopted.
As I delved deeper into the topic while preparing for the talk, I found myself contemplating the subject from both a leadership and engineering perspective. Like many leaders, I struggle with finding the right balance between the flexibility of remote work and the sense of togetherness that comes with physical presence. Yet, as an engineer, I am unwavering in my belief that I can effectively perform my job from anywhere and maintain a healthy working relationship with my team, regardless of distance. This conviction is rooted in my extensive experience of collaborating with a remote development team for over thirteen years.
The industry as a whole is divided on this matter. Big tech companies have implemented their own “Return to Office” policies, each with a unique approach. While the majority require employees to be present at least three days a week, a few have gone so far as to mandate a full five-day office presence.
Here in Denmark, the situation is more varied. I haven’t come across anyone who is required to be physically present at the office every single day, but it seems that two to three days a week is the norm. In fact, many individuals I’ve spoken to express a preference for going to the office as frequently as possible. Some do so to establish a clear separation between their personal and professional lives, while others appreciate the convenience of cafeteria lunches. However, almost all agree that being physically present alongside their teammates fosters a heightened sense of productivity and connection. Additionally, it becomes easier to establish distinct boundaries between work and other aspects of life.
In the Philippines, the situation appears to be quite different. Many engineers prefer working from home permanently, primarily to avoid the arduous traffic in metropolitan areas. We encourage our team members to come to the office at least twice a week, but it’s not mandatory, and each team can decide on the days when they need to work together. For those who live far away or endure long commutes exceeding an hour each way, coming in once a week may be sufficient. And in certain cases, they only need to be physically present when necessary, such as during team days or long-term planning sessions. On the other hand, those who live nearby have the freedom to come to the office as frequently as they desire.
These divergent strategies pose challenges for companies striving to establish their own approaches. Regardless of the decision made, there will always be someone questioning, “But why?” or “Why aren’t we doing it like that other company?” It was simpler when everyone had the same expectations— we all have to go to the office five days a week. It was more straightforward, at least for the decision-makers.
I refrain from criticizing the decisions made by leaders, as each organization is unique. However, the question persists: What is the right strategy when it comes to remote-only, remote-first, hybrid, and traditional work arrangements?
I wish the solution were that straightforward. But perhaps we should be asking ourselves the right questions. Maybe we can all benefit from addressing a deeper challenge that concerns most leaders and engineers, regardless of their physical work location.
When I ask managers about the major disadvantages of remote teams, they often mention three things: productivity loss, longer feedback cycles, and a weakened company culture. These concerns are valid and can undoubtedly harm the overall business. However, I also challenge them to reevaluate whether it’s the remote setup itself that is the true culprit or if these problems have always existed within the organization, even before the surge in remote work.
Haven’t we all encountered these situations before, just now we have something else to blame?
This realization sparks an intriguing reaction. Suddenly, leaders are compelled to peel back the layers of their work environment and examine whether their challenges in productivity, feedback cycles, and culture are not actually caused by remote work itself, but rather symptoms of underlying deficiencies in how their people work and collaborate.
We recently received fantastic feedback from a customer regarding the effectiveness of our team, despite the challenges of a remote setup and cultural differences. Initially, they had some hesitations, likely due to past experiences where remote collaboration had proven difficult. However, we surpassed their expectations and changed their perspective on remote team collaboration.
Eager to understand what contributes to our team’s success and how we consistently achieve it, I sought to identify the key elements that make our approach sustainable while continuously improving. During one of our retrospective sessions, I asked our customers what they believed worked well with our team. Their feedback highlighted the remarkable sense of close collaboration we maintained, even when physically separated. They commended our exceptional communication skills and streamlined methodologies tailored to each project’s needs. While there were minor challenges in the first two weeks, we swiftly identified and addressed them, incorporating recommendations for improvement from both our customers and teammates.
As a result, with each iteration, we observed a continuous increase in productivity. We improved feedback loops and minimized obstacles caused by delayed responses to inquiries. Most importantly, we fostered an enjoyable work environment, building strong relationships with our teammates as we collectively strive towards our shared goals.
So, what are we doing right? How do we manage to cultivate a sense of togetherness whether we are physically co-located or spread across various home offices? What transcends distance and cultural differences in a hybrid workplace? What is our secret ingredient?
The answer came from my own team. They believe that the cornerstone of our success lies in our high-trust culture. This culture provides them with the freedom to contribute, grow, and collaborate, while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
While numerous factors contribute to a well-functioning team, trust has the most significant impact. A team built on trust thrives in the face of an ever-changing landscape. Biases, on the other hand, breed fear, which erodes trust. In a diverse and geographically dispersed workplace, biases can easily prevail, jeopardizing the very foundation that holds people together.
The level of trust within your team is a critical factor to consider. Understanding the extent of trust can greatly help with the development of effective policies that address how, when, and where individuals carry out their work. By assessing and nurturing trust within your team, you can establish a solid foundation for creating the culture that promote collaboration, productivity, and well-being.