As the pandemic has unfolded and our days of completely remote work have stretched on, I have found myself thinking back to that choice I made long ago to work outside of an office context and in relative isolation from others. It was a very different felt experience for two main reasons: first of all, I could leave my apartment whenever I wanted and connect socially, in person, with other people. Second, because of the complete lack of sophisticated remote working platforms, I had the creative freedom to design exactly how my work got done. Because it wasn't easy to connect, I could moderate the intensity and cadence of communications with relative ease.
Years later, at the turn of the decade, I had the chance to help design and launch an entirely virtual law firm and I was introduced to the idea that there is a science to remote working. The team had hired an expert from the London Business School to explain to them how they should design their virtual working platform to preserve and enhance the capacity for teamwork and collaboration and mitigate against the potential for alienation. I often marvel at how true those principles have proven to be.
We were advised that our platform should endeavor to replicate the contextual cues of a collocated environment, including presence tracking and the ability to seamlessly integrate email, video, and chat. We also stored all of our documents in transparent client folders and designated dedicated work areas for projects. It may sound quaint to say that given the proliferation of collaboration platforms that now exist. But this was groundbreaking stuff at the time and all of us who worked there remarked about how different it felt to work remotely in a virtual space that was designed for teams to thrive. Still, one of the important factors that made our positive experience possible was the fact that we did have the option of getting together in person. All of us – with few exceptions – were located in the DC area and we made a habit of hosting dinners and happy hours as well as meeting up from time to time to work together in the company's very small storefront.
Our situation now is so different. To state the obvious, we do not have the option of connecting in a physical space – at least not in a way that feels satisfying or meaningful. Also, since last March, many of us have become seduced by the idea that remote work mainly means replicating in person meetings on a video platform. (You may be familiar with the oft-shared New York Times article published in late April about why Zoom meetings can be so exhausting. If not, it is worth a read.) So, ruminations on my early experiences of remote working have been occupying my mind. I think a lot these days about how work gets done and the importance of adapting organizations to accommodate team members with different work styles and needs – especially in the context of a devastating pandemic that has rattled us all.
Personally, the pandemic has upended my usual ways of working. I have had to adapt to coworking with three other people – including a hyperactive Pokémon-obsessed fifth-grader and a gloomy overachieving seventh-grader. My younger son – who has no concept of the distinction between work and social calls – has been known to randomly drop in on my meetings and ask to meet my friends. And, because our family made the somewhat dubious choice to adopt a puppy in the fall, we are now also managing a strict exercise and feeding schedule that commences at 5:30 a.m. On my good days, I am grateful for the flexibility and the opportunity for my family to grow closer. Other days, I fantasize about having a commute and the blessed work-life boundary that might imply.
My dog, Sophie, is pictured at left in her favorite perch under my desk.
I firmly believe that strict rules about where and under what conditions work gets done is one of those things the pandemic has obliterated for good. We have a chance now to rebuild our concept of ways of working for the better, to embrace people more holistically and create the conditions for teams to access greater well-being and creativity. We are still several months away from being able to think about returning to the office in large numbers. Nevertheless, the time is right for us to start looking at and actively thinking about how we should collaborate in the future.
We recently surveyed all Silverchairians to find out how we were collectively feeling about all this. How are we feeling about our current work arrangement? What is working, what isn't, and what are we hoping the future might bring? Here’s what we learned.
- Silverchairians rated their overall experience of remote working during the pandemic 4 out of 5
- Teamwork and collaboration was rated 4.2 out of 5
- Manager communications were rated 4.4 out of 5
- Company communications were rated 4.5 out of 5
- 88% of survey respondents said they felt just as or more productive during remote working compared to working in the office
- With the exception of social connections and support for self-care, Silverchairians report that they generally have what they need to be successful while working remotely
- Silverchairians wish to continue working remotely to some extent in a pandemic-free future
Moving forward, we will engage in deeper analysis of the results, looking at responses by role, by family obligation, and by team, to help answer the following questions:
- Which people and teams are in the physical office and how often?
- How do we configure the space?
- How do we ensure seamless transitions between remote and collocated work?
- How do we optimize for the remote work experience?
- e.g., if 70% of the team is in the office and 30% are working remotely, how do we create a meeting structure that fully engages all team members?
- What ways of working do we want to embrace moving forward?
- We will remain completely remote until the public health situation changes markedly for the better
- Once it is safe to return to work, we will have remote working as part of our model
- Silverchair will maintain a physical office location (although we will need to sort out how much office space we actually need, and how we use it best)
Lily Garcia Walton is Silverchair’s Chief People Officer. Lily drives the company’s people strategy, enabling the success of Silverchair’s exceptional professionals. She has more than two decades of experience leading technology, education, media, and professional services organizations through transformative change while preserving a strong culture and a sense of mission.