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Zoom out if you really want to support remote working

In light of Zoom CEO Eric Yuan mandating employee office attendance, the remote work debate has taken a new turn. Yuan has cited difficulty building trust and overly polite Zoom etiquette preventing spirited debate as the reasons he's calling Zoomies back into the office. But, is he overlooking what's possible with the evolved digital workplace? Unily's Kaz Hassan gives his take on the debate.

Flexibility or culture: Can't we have it all?

Over the last few years, we've all been involved in the biggest remote work experiment ever conducted. We're still working out what the best way of working looks like, and we're pretty sure it'll be different for every company. But for now, many high-profile companies - see Meta, Apple, and now Zoom - are settling on a hybrid approach that sees employees attending the office 2-3 days per week. 

In his recent announcement, Zoom CEO, Eric Yuan directed employees that they would be asked to return to the office for a minimum of 2-days per week, citing difficulty in embedding and building trust with new employees, as well as overly-polite Zoom etiquette preventing spirited debates through video conferencing. In his all-hands address to employees, he said:

"Over the past several years, we’ve hired so many new ‘Zoomies’ that it’s really hard to build trust. We cannot have a great conversation. We cannot debate each other well because everyone tends to be very friendly when you join a Zoom call."

It was an unexpected admission from a company that has grown exponentially out of the remote work movement. Many were surprised that an organization so rooted in enabling flexible working would propose returning to the office as the solution to remote work challenges.

So, what's our take on the topic? Do we really still believe the best work gets done when people are in the same room? What are the downsides of going back to pre-pandemic ways of working? Do we have to sacrifice flexibility to stay innovative and build trust? With the right digital workplace strategy, can we not have it all?

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How to fuel a positive culture for remote workers

Even under normal working conditions, cultivating a positive culture is both a challenge and a priority. Remote work can add an additional layer of complexity because it’s more difficult for dispersed workforces to unite under one vision. Paired with proper strategy and open lines of communication, the right set of digital tools can fuel a positive culture that boosts employee satisfaction and encourages every user to reach peak performance.

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It's our view that with the right technology, culture, and leadership, it is possible to create a remote working environment that equals, if not exceeds, office working culture. Businesses that get it right increase diversity and inclusion, encourage new ideas and innovation, and nurture a sense of trust that brings businesses into the real digital age of work, fit for the modern, diverse workforce.

Having it all: Remote work and innovation

One of the reasons Zoom has taken the decision to bring employees back into the office is because it's thought that Zoom etiquette is preventing colleagues from challenging each other in a way that they would if they were meeting in person. This, in turn, is thought to be holding back innovation. 

However, when it comes to creating the essentials for great debate - a team of diverse employees with a range of perspectives is the bread and butter. But, according to Gartner, when enterprises mandate a return to office policy, this negatively impacts team diversity.

"Forcing employees to return fully on-site is also a risk to diversity, equity and inclusion because underrepresented groups of talent have seen vast improvements in how they work since being allowed more flexibility — and could be lost if flexibility isn’t an option."

Brian Kropp - Chief of HR Research at Gartner

Aside from less representation, the idea that scheduled meetings or workshops is the only place to generates ideas should also be cause for debate. A focus on single meetings - online or offline - requires staff to immediately come up with and share their thoughts in an isolated, short period of time. The thinking space that is often necessary to contribute thoughtful opinion is lost. This gives less space to the development of views, another vital part of fair and useful debate. Not to mention, loud, extroverted, and more senior people are more likely to contribute in the single meeting format, meaning the company loses out on the opinions of those from different viewpoints. Sharon O’Dea, Founder at DWXS and Lithos Partners suggests that “women [in particular] are more comfortable contributing via enterprise social tools as they allow people to cogitate before contributing.”

This thinking is reminiscent of 2020’s remote working culture, when digital workplaces consisted of little more than video calls, which are easily switched to physical meetings. Digital workplaces have evolved. Unily, as an example, creates cross-company communities on key topics. Video calls can be part of the debate, in combination with other tools that facilitate cross-company and diverse participation, regardless of timezones, native tongues, and how employees prefer to share their ideas. If companies want global perspectives, genuine debate, and original opinions garnered from the entire company, they need this kind of community, combined with features like anonymous polls, ideation portals, and other more dynamic methods of eliciting ideas.

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Re-thinking how we foster ideas

Zoom’s CEO suggests their remote working culture hurts the team’s ability to “come up with great ideas”. Although many ideas can come from office workers during workshops, it’s important to recognize that if you want to understand a company’s problems, most of them can be found at the frontline level, where staff work directly with customers.

Toyota, for example, is known for the excellence of its TPS (Toyota Production System). This was created using a culture of “pulling” ideas from the frontline, rather than “pushing” mandates from the top. Office mandates don’t empower frontline workers. Instead, they often create ivory towers where ideas are created far away from customer issues. The Iceberg of Ignorance, created by consultant Sidney Yoshidam, reports that employees know 100% of frontline problems, while supervisors know 74% and middle management 9%. That decreases to just 4% at executive level. 

Expecting frontline workers to be honest and creative in a completely different environment, like a formal meeting in Head Office, is unrealistic. Time and place constraints don’t always yield creative solutions, which can come at any moment, especially when the brain is idle or given permission to daydream.

Companies must democratize ideation, using online iteration portals with forms, for example. This gives all employees an equal standing and allows others to vote on the best solutions, giving ideas space to grow as they’re socialized. Suggestions should be submitted on demand when they’re fresh and exciting, rather than during a specific time or in a specific place.

Ideation

On-demand ideation allows teams to submit ideas whenever and wherever suits them. This not only results in more ideas - it socializes the concepts, allowing them to grow and become stronger through perspective, as many other people across the business build on them. Voting also allows for fairer prioritization allowing considered, smart ideas to thrive.

If more companies took this approach to innovation, executives would have to put some of their pet projects on the back burner to make way for some the top-voted employee ideas. Not an exciting prospect for executives, which could explain a key driver behind backpedaling on work-from-anywhere policies.

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Empowering teams to make their own decisions

Zoom has mandated that “employees living within a 50-mile radius of a Zoom office must clock in onsite at least 40-percent of the time”. There’s no doubt that there’s value to be had from in-person meetings, but blanket time-based mandates are rarely the solution to getting the best work from company teams. Better outputs are often the result of empowering employees to choose the projects, types of work, and roles that are best supported by working in an office.

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Employee productivity in the remote work era

In the second episode of our all-new podcast, our host Paul Seda invites Unily’s Kaitlin Auriemma, Kaz Hassan, and Matthew Boyd to the show to tackle the issue of employee productivity in the remote work era. Grab your headphones and get down to the details of employee productivity with the latest episode of the Unily podcast.

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For example, developers working on a single project with a tight deadline may be introverts, meaning when they’re creating, they’re likely to prefer working from home and entering deep work. However, when they’re solving problems and creating solutions, an office where they have access to the product team and other developers may be a better environment. Allowing employees to choose between the two creates better work and more engagement. Geographically dispersed teams are also shown to benefit from hearing every employee’s input, not just those based in the office. When some of the team are in the office while others work from home, it’s often shown that the opinions of the former are heard above the latter. 

The deep work required in most roles, but especially those like development, is an often-overlooked yet vital part of work. Working from home is conducive to deep work. This was demonstrated when a lack of quiet space for her team to focus when required to work from the office led one CIO to leave her company. Other executives support this vital part of work. Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of Basecamp, famously introduced "No-Talk Thursdays" to his company. This is a practice where employees are encouraged to spend the entire day working individually, without any meetings, chat, or communication related to work tasks. 

Having it all: Building trust doesn’t mean being in the office every day

"Over the past several years, we’ve hired so many new ‘Zoomies’ that it’s really hard to build trust"

Eric Yuan - CEO at Zoom

There are many solutions to building trust in the workplace beyond return-to-work mandates. The digital workplace, if used to its potential, can become an inclusive space for colleagues to connect with leaders and learn about company strategy. A part of that is richer digital profiles.

Profile

Employee experience platforms like Unily encourage employees to create digital identities that help colleagues get to know them and how to interact with them. Employees can create rich digital profiles to share more information about themselves, like their location, pronouns, tea and coffee preferences, hobbies outside of work, family details, and other small, social indicators that build trust. David Cancel, CEO of Drift, is known for his practice of scheduling "No Agenda Meetings." These are designed for employees to connect on a personal level and have been shown to build huge amounts of trust and stronger relationships between teams. 

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Creating mandates, suggesting the top don’t trust those below ironically erodes that sense of trust. As outlined by Yahya Mohamed Mao, “trust also means knowing that employees can decide for themselves what is best for their workflow and have confidence in their judgments.” Instead, companies can build trust in remote teams through the right away days, dedicated virtual social spaces, or mentorship systems. This creates a trusting team, as well as building a more diverse workforce, including those who may have difficulties coming into an office. 

A thriving digital workplace goes far beyond video calls

There's little doubt that the benefits of facetime exist. However, reactionary moves back to pre-pandemic ways of working should be considered with caution.

For those under the false impression that video conferencing is the be-all and end-all of the digital workplace, this may be a sign that you are yet to explore the full potential of a true employee experience platform. With the right technology and leadership, it is possible to build a truly diverse global remote-first workplace that nurtures trust, creativity, and inclusion.

If you're still not convinced, try out a free demo of Unily and discover how your enterprise can create an employee-first culture of engagement whether you're IRL or WFH. 

Kaz Hassan

Having spent his whole career in the employee experience space, Unily's own Kaz Hassan has a reputation for being ahead of the latest trends and delivering disruptive takes on all things content, communication, and culture.

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