Are they forcing you back to the office?

Aha! teammates spend time volunteering together at every onsite. | Photo by Jodi B Photography

July 8, 2024

Are they forcing you back to the office?

by Brian de Haaff

When did you first start working remotely? I ask because there is a high likelihood that you spent at least part of the last four years working from somewhere other than an official company office. And there is an even higher likelihood that you are still operating in a distributed environment — whether it is 100% remote or hybrid. According to recently released data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one-third of employed people did some or all of their work at home.

Remote work is no longer an experiment or fringe approach. It is here to stay — remote work will forever be part of our lives.

When we founded Aha! in 2013, we intentionally chose an entirely distributed model for the company. As a startup, we knew it would be the best way to minimize operating costs and enable us to hire top talent no matter where they lived. We knew that a distributed team would also increase happiness for teammates and (by extension) our customers. We now have more than 130 Aha! teammates working from eight countries.

But we were outliers for many years. At least until 2020, when nearly everyone went remote. Any company that could feasibly do so was shuttering offices and investing in a distributed model. Then, the backlash came swinging with return-to-office mandates. Remote work became the bogeyman for company performance. But remember: Bogeymen are created to frighten people into a desired behavior.

You can make plenty of arguments for why remote is better or worse than working in person. But blaming remote work for a company’s productivity is obfuscation. That level of dysfunction is bigger than an office building. Mismanagement, unclear goals, no transparency into work, lack of urgency: These are the real culprits.

The companies that were productive before going remote remained so after. The truth is that productivity is about people, not a place.

In my experience, remote work gives you the opportunity to be your best from anywhere. And after more than a decade of leading a remote company, I still believe it is the best way to achieve. It was a critical component of our rapid success and remains so for our continued growth.

My advice to those who want to set a strong foundation for a remote (fully or hybrid) model is to give folks the tools they need to achieve. To work well, you need a way to work — regardless of where you are doing it.

Here is what I suggest to leaders:

Create the culture

Company culture is about aligning your values with how you want the company to behave. What matters most? What do you want to be known for? What do you want to achieve? When you establish and nurture a strong company culture, you are more likely to attract like-minded people to join the team. Culture becomes something that belongs to everyone and motivates folks to contribute in a meaningful way.

Do it your way

Great companies are truly different from average ones. A distinguishing factor is that there is a pre-defined way of working that is followed by everyone: a clear path forward with no time wasted on pondering how to do the work. It creates a sense of ownership and accountability. These methods are often homegrown and reflect what makes the organization unique. Do not be afraid to make your own frameworks informed by your culture and what you know the team (and customers) need to achieve.

Share information

Every team needs a playbook for success. I am always surprised by how many people tell me that there is little to no documentation or shared plans at their organization. How can you expect people to work with urgency if they are left in the dark? You need a knowledge base so that people can self-serve when they have questions or need a guidepost. Our team has corporate- and team-level wikis that document policies, outline processes, capture meeting notes, and standardize repeat work with templates.

Gather together

The best teams forge deep connections. Bonding leads to trust, which leads to better collaboration. This is why I suggest that all remote teams get everyone together in person a few times a year to create social connections. At Aha! we bring everyone in the company to a destination location twice a year for our onsites. During these weeklong sessions, we review our goals, spend dedicated time getting to know one another, and volunteer together. Expressing our values as a group is a powerful connector and culture reinforcer.

Never stop improving

At its core, a company is a group of people. And people are imperfect. You will get it wrong sometimes. What worked when you were a small organization might not when you grow. New folks who join will bring ideas that can make things even better. Model your dedication to continually improving by actively seeking out feedback from the team. Aha! team leads do this ad hoc. We also survey folks formally twice a year as part of our onsites to gauge how we are doing.

Most of us want to live a meaningful life, which means having meaningful work, too. Working remotely allows many folks to be their best in all aspects.

Logistics is not what makes a meaningful work experience. What is most important is to find a company where you believe you can achieve your best.

Today, it is likely that at least some of that work will be done remotely. And if you are in a leadership position, spend your energy on finding ways to support folks in achieving at their highest level — not worrying about their physical location.

Aha! is a 100% distributed company. Learn more about how we work remotely.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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