We already have long had a number of “all-remote” organizations, with minimal-sized or no physical headquarters, that provide the world with high-quality products. Those are the open source software providers, who rely on global networks of experts and professionals from across the globe who collaborate online (and gather at occasional meetings) to build the platforms that power the world’s industries.
These open-source foundations or bodies provide solid proof that all-remote organizations can operate quite successfully. Startups often operate 100% remote, at least in the beginning, and tech companies GitLab and Zapier lead the way as all-remote organizations. The question is, can mainstream organizations — especially those who have been operating with physical workplaces for decades — function as well as all-remote entities?
“We have been a remote-only company for about a year now,” says Matt McConnell, chairman and CEO of Intradiem. “We transitioned to remote work in March 2020, and last year our employees voted to stay remote permanently. All internal metrics are positive: low attrition, high employee engagement, new product development, robust customer orders, strong profit growth.”
All-remote work “is not only possible, but the reason we have been successful,” says Dr. Devan Kronisch, talent development coach at Chili Piper. “With 250 employees across 50 countries, we found that a diverse team of people from many different backgrounds has allowed our company to consider and make choices to solve problems in unique ways. For example, a US-based company can do well with US employees, but when you add perspectives from different cultures across Europe, Asia, or South America, problems are solved more outside the box as people from other cultures will bring fresh views to the table.”
Business leaders and experts across the board still have mixed feelings about the possibilities of all-remote organizations, suggesting that while remote work is a working reality, it helps to have an in-person component. “It is possible for certain companies to be 100% virtual,” says Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “These companies are generally in areas where information is the key service being offered, such as accounting firms, financial companies, or gaming companies. However, about half of all jobs require physical presence. Moreover, it often necessary to meet new clients in person at least once. After the relationship has been established, you can communicate online with your clients.”
The hybrid model is emerging as a preferable structure for workplaces, versus all-remote or all-onsite. “More businesses are evolving or emerging as virtual-only, but these are dwarfed by the vast majority that operate in the hybrid model,” says Mark Dixon, founder and CEO of IWG. “For those companies that don’t have any fixed office space, they’re still fully aware of just how important it is to bring people together regularly for strategy and bonding sessions.”
Still, there are business leaders who do not quite see all-remote in their futures. “Our relationships with our customers, partners, and colleagues are based on trust and that’s much harder to establish in a remote world,” says Fredrik Nilsson, vice president of the Americas for Axis Communications. “Our main competitive advantage is our solid culture, and it has been built on face-to-face relationships.”
The need to maintain face-to-face workplaces is a powerful deterrent to all-remote movements. “We have heard of very few, if any, who want to be 100% virtual — but also, no one is planning to be 100% in-office either,” says Ashley Dunn, AIA, director of workplace for Dyer Brown. “Hybrid is the future of workplace. We learned that people really like being together, and that a mix of in-person and remote work gives us the best of both worlds. The only question is whether your workplace supports your workflow, culture, and mission.”
While many have realized that there is an important element to in-person engagements, the Covid crisis helped business leaders recognize that the idea of all-remote organizations was not a far-fetched idea. “It’s not a new concept; it was possible to have a 100% virtual company pre-2020,” says relates Amy Freshman, senior director of global human resources at ADP. “There are organizations who have done this quite successfully for some time — it fits with their unique needs. Then there are those who, post-pandemic, recognized the benefits of moving to 100% virtual. This arrangement is not a fit for all, but we can expect more companies to lean in this direction with hybrid models and more flexibility.”
While it may be easy, and even preferable, for a startup to operate all-remote, it may be more challenging and laborious for traditional businesses to make the move. In 100%-virtual organizations, “their entire business from workflows and business processes to employee onboarding have all been built — or have been transformed — to support this way of working from the top down,” Freshman says.
At Intradiem, some adjustments were necessary, McConnell says. “For example, impromptu drive-by conversations that happen in the office don’t happen between remote employees, and we saw a steep rise in scheduled Zoom meetings. So we created a framework for structuring meetings in a very intentional way, to limit their proliferation and ensure their effectiveness.”
Other business leaders agree that it’s not easy to make the switch. “The truth is managing a remote workforce isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy,” says Kristin Langdon, senior vice president of people and culture at Botify. “It takes extensive and intentional work. But it’s entirely possible for organizations to operate a 100% virtual workforce if they properly manage and communicate with their employees to ensure they cultivate a people-focused atmosphere.”
McConnell recounts that he was “worried initially about the ability of our people-first culture to survive in an all-remote context. But I’m happy to say that the underlying trust we’ve always cultivated not only survived the shock of going remote, but it actually grew stronger. And though our employees made it clear that they don’t want to be required to work in an office, they do want to get together regularly. We’re working to figure out the right cadence, formats, and locations for in-person meetings. We need to strike a balance between satisfying the urge to interact with each other while limiting the burdens that can place on individual employees.”
This means a greater reliance on technology that sustains networks and connectivity. “Sustaining a business 100% virtually is 100% possible with the proper tools in place to ensure employees feel connected, even around the globe,” says Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at the Achievers Workforce Institute. “Companies who operate virtually in any capacity – whether it’s full time or two days a week – must invest in technology to cultivate a culture of belonging. Giving employees the digital tools to flourish in a virtual world will pay off, given that a sense of belonging drives three-times greater trust, engagement, advocacy, commitment, enthusiasm, and productivity.”