11 mins

As you decide whether your team should return to the office, it's important to know there are some significant differences between teams forced into working remotely by the pandemic and teams that were purpose-built for it.

I vividly remember sitting with a friend in a small bistro in Budapest after speaking at a conference in February of 2020. As we ate dinner, our conversation turned to the new respiratory virus in China, and I recall guessing it would soon be relatively contained like SARS and MERS before it. I had no idea how wrong those words would turn out to be, or that my flight back to the US would be the last time I saw the inside of an airplane (one of my very favorite places) for the next 15 months.

The year that followed proved to be the hardest of the more than a decade I’ve been working remotely. I joked that because I was already accustomed to working from home, work was the most normal part of my life during COVID. And that’s true, but it leaves out just how hard working from home was during the pandemic and how lonely I felt most of the time doing it.

As vaccine distribution has ramped up, offices have started opening back up in some parts of the world. Maybe you’re trying to decide if yours is going to be one of them, debating if you’re going to ask your team to come back in or make remote work permanent. As you make that decision, it’s important to know that there are some significant differences between teams forced into working remotely by the pandemic and teams that were purpose-built for it. Knowing about some of those differences may help you in making your decision.

FaceTime vs. face-to-face time

If you were used to being in an office every day pre-COVID, one of the first losses you and your team likely felt were face-to-face connections with your colleagues. There’s no denying that in-person conversations are higher bandwidth than video calls, and spontaneous chats about the game last night or the Netflix show you binge-watched over the weekend help build the connections with your colleagues that you need to get work done. You may have found yourself feeling a little lonely from the sudden loss of these connections.

What you may not have realized is that even folks who have been working remotely for years (like me) were struggling with the same loneliness. Video calls are a great snack of human contact, but those snacks can only sustain us when they’re drawing on a foundation of connection with a relationship that already exists, and that rapport needs to be built by periodically spending time together in person. Dehumanization starts to set in and trust starts to wane after several months of only seeing colleagues on a computer screen. Purpose-built remote teams are good at sustaining themselves between in-person get-togethers, but the pandemic meant that we couldn’t just circle a date on the calendar to spend time together again. Even practiced remote workers started feeling a little hopeless and felt their motivation start to dip without an in-person get-together to look forward to.

This prolonged time between seeing one another in person is not how the best distributed teams function. Most teams get together at least a couple of times a year. Leaders, who have a lonelier job, often get together even more frequently. The time that distributed teams get to spend together in person tends to be incredibly effective and highly connective just because it’s a rare and valuable treat. Once you've built that rapport and trust together, your video calls feel authentic rather than performative, and allow you to grow and sustain your relationships online. If your first experience with distributed work is being stuck at your house for 18 months without seeing any of your colleagues in person, you should know that this is not normal for almost any distributed team. We’ve all been doing distributed work on hard mode.

Pretend office culture vs. real remote culture

When offices were forced to close down almost overnight, many teams made the mistake of continuing to try and operate the same way they did when working together in person. They took their regular meeting cadence and moved it wholesale from conference rooms to video calls. They set mandatory working hours that matched the team’s regular office schedule and required intrusive presence indication so managers could ‘see’ their employees at work during the workday. The Friday happy hour that everyone loved in the office turned out to be awkwardly quiet as a video call.

Experienced distributed teams know that working remotely requires different communication patterns than working in an office. The ease of synchronous communication in a colocated office is both a blessing and a curse. It’s easy to talk to coworkers, but it can create an environment that thrives on unnecessary interruptions and meetings. Because synchronous communication is constrained in a distributed team, you have to become skilled at communicating asynchronously.

For the teams that embrace this constraint, it can be incredibly freeing. Because so much of your communication is asynchronous, your team is constantly writing stuff down that would otherwise be stuck in peoples’ heads. It takes a little more time, but you end up with rich context and history that you can reference far into the future. There’s friction in not being able to walk over to a colleague’s desk and ask a question, but folks have fewer interruptions to navigate in finding flow and getting work done. These patterns take time to grow into, so if your team has only been working remotely since the start of the pandemic, there’s a pretty good chance you’re still early in this journey.

Trust what you see vs. trust by default

Perhaps the most critical difference between highly-functional distributed teams and their colocated counterparts is the amount of trust and autonomy distributed leaders give their teams. A meaningful part of the push for teams to come back to the office is that many managers and executives aren’t comfortable trusting and empowering their teams to the degree required for distributed work to be successful. They sometimes operate by ‘butt in seat’ management without even realizing they’re doing it, managing team members not by their impact but by how much time they’re spending in the office and how busy they appear to be.

When their teams are working from home, leaders who are used to managing their teams in person are missing a critical part of their feedback loop. Their attempts to make up for this sometimes show in things like daily status meetings, required presence on chat during business hours, and even tendencies towards task micromanagement that weren’t visible in the office. This change can turn a role that was wonderful when you were working in person into the stuff of nightmares, and it’s tempting to pin the blame on remote work.

The best remote leaders, though, make sure their teams have the context and input to know what work is the most important and help them build the leadership and self-organizational skills to get that work done in an environment where they can’t walk around and look over everyone’s shoulders. They build lightweight processes to communicate status without needing to check in with everyone every day. They help their team members learn when to push on and when to stop and ask for help. The best leaders of colocated teams do these things as well, but leading remotely means that they’re essential if your team is going to be successful.

What to do next?

Despite all the rhetoric around remote vs. in-person, there’s no universally correct location for work. It’s important, though, to understand the differences in how teams succeed in both settings so that you can make a good decision for your team. The most successful distributed teams are the ones that understand the natural constraints of working remotely and choose to lean into those constraints rather than constantly fighting them. If your team is one of the many that were colocated before the pandemic but will be staying distributed after, your odds of success will go way up if you do the same.