The year 2021 was when things were supposed to go back to "normal."
Instead, employees resigned en masse, the much anticipated return to the office simply didn't materialize, and a pandemic that seemed to be on the way out apparently missed the off-ramp.
Even Dilbert, sardonic chronicle of office despair, got stuck in Zoom meetings.
So what's next, and how do we prepare for it?
In anticipation of the new year, The Async Review recently posed that question to ten CEOs, Heads of Remote, and experts in the remote work community. They all agreed that the way we work is in a period of radical change.
We gathered their responses here in the hopes that, together, they might serve as a guide for anyone determined to thrive, not just survive, in the new normal.
Bring on 2022.
"The Great Resignation will not only be a 2021 phenomenon. It will continue.
With the Covid variant, there's going to be a delay in old-school companies' efforts to pull people back into the office. That will temporarily delay the exodus of talent leaving from those companies to more remote-first companies.
"The first step as a leader is to listen to where your employees are at.
It could be a very difficult time for business leaders who try to go back to the way things worked before 2020.
Blanket back-to-office plans are going to cause a lot of stress and put undue pressure and pain on workers who have enjoyed more freedom, flexibility, and time with their families during the pandemic. Those folks will start to resent their work environment and look for different opportunities.
Remote-working flexibility is one of the easiest things that businesses can offer to their employees to improve employee satisfaction and retain that talent." — Rhiannon Payne, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Remote; author of The Remote Work Era
"Remote work has evolved from 'work from home' to 'freedom and flexibility' which will eventually turn into 'people-first' cultures. The companies that will thrive in the modern remote work environments are those which offer the freedom and flexibility to work from wherever, whenever.
The tech titans that offer the highest pay packages and beautiful campuses are struggling to get their employees on board with 'return to office' dates. If they can't keep their employees settled, this opens the door for smaller remote-first companies to poach their talent." — Joe Giglio, author of Making Remote Work, Work For You
"Smaller, nimble startups will continue to lead the way in building great remote-first cultures, offering opportunities for growth, continuous learning programs, harmony between work and personal life, flexibility, and respect.
Many have remote work in their DNA, have no offices at all and have grown up during the pandemic. To these companies remote work is simply work. They know of no other way.
"The number one thing we all need to be thinking about as we're trying to build high-performing teams is, how do we do that while preventing burnout?
With remote work, because of the loss of work-life boundaries and the heightened insecurity of not having unconscious belonging cues around us all day, the tendency for burnout is more serious.
As an organization, we try really hard to create early warning systems to detect potential burnout before it's too late. Most humans are terrible at knowing when they're on the verge of burnout. They only know after the fact, which is harmful to your personal wellbeing, and really disruptive to the team. The blast radius around someone needing to just shut down and take time off without notice that has a huge impact on productivity." — Rajesh Anandan, CEO, Ultranauts
"Requiring real-time meetings and synchronous communication can play havoc on a team’s nervous system. Some teams are stuck all day in meetings, feeling fatigued — and then have to work extra hours to catch up on the work they couldn't do as a result of the meetings.
One of the most fundamental aspects of building a thriving remote organization is creating and improving remote-first processes, including remote-first communication." — Shauna Moran, Founder and Managing Director, Operate Remote
"Embracing remote work means having as few meetings as possible, working asynchronously, and working really hard to avoid creating a culture that incentivizes being present. If you don't trust the people that you work with, and you feel like you have to monitor them because they're no longer in the office, you're going to create an awful culture. It's a very dangerous and very easy trap to walk into." — Job van der Voort, CEO, Remote
"The simple way for companies to thrive is to let people work less.
How? By introducing a four-day work week. This is actually not a new idea, but we are starting to see a new wave of remote companies experimenting with this, including Buffer, Atlassian, and Microsoft. Even some governments noticed this solution and are moving forward. Spain is already doing a trial, and there is also a debate about such legislation in US Congress. As employees are dictating terms on the market right now, I strongly believe that more and more companies will embrace a four-day work week in 2022.
Of course, this change should not happen overnight and requires a lot of internal work to create a perfect work environment.
For employees, it has a very positive impact on well-being and mental health. The people-centric approach pays off and helps with talent retention — so important these days from the employer's perspective! There is also another advantage: a productivity boost. When Microsoft Japan tested a four-day workweek, it led to a 40% boost in productivity. It's a win-win." — Iwo Szapar, CEO, Remote How; author of Remote Work is the Way: A guide to making the most of our office-optional future
"We pioneered the Head of Remote role at GitLab and, throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen many organizations realize the need for an experienced lead to evolve their remote fluency. Charting a path forward must be someone's full-time job.
A Head of Remote considers everything from the remote worker's perspective. A dedicated remote leader can audit every single workflow and policy, and shepherd the necessary changes to convert a company from an office-first mindset to a remote-first mindset. Without someone in this position, a company indicates that rearchitecting their workflows and culture isn’t a priority.
Senior leadership roles continue to grow as work expands, collaboration occurs across borders, and software continues to eat the world. It’s especially crucial for organizations considering a hybrid workforce to think about the Head of Remote role, as hybrid-remote teams run the risk of creating two opposing cultures and employee experiences." — Betsy Bula, All-Remote Evangelist, GitLab
"In a remote world, virtual communities will take center stage and companies who get virtual communities right will win. As workers become more distributed, inherently so do customers — spoiler alert: they are the same people — and the most sustainable businesses will thrive through community-led efforts that are network based and self-reinforcing, as opposed to paid channels or field events." — Heather Doshay, Managing Director, People + Talent, Signalfire
"If you talk to any long-distance marathon runner, they'll tell you that if you wait until you are physically thirsty to drink, you're already dehydrated. It's too late.
It's the same with making sure our social reservoirs don't get depleted.
If you're a distributed team, you need to make time to spend time together in person or for team-building activities. To make time for each other. Before everyone gets burnt out.
"In a remote-first organization, there's a risk that some people will not feel like part of the company. And to the rest of the company they will become invisible. You have to work really hard to make sure that people feel connected, and intentionally make time so that people can connect with each other out of the context of work." — Job van der Voort, CEO, Remote
"Employee engagement surveys are not going to be enough to retain the best talent in what looks like another year of the Great Resignation. Getting a pulse on your employee base can be very helpful, but a once- or twice-a-year survey is often a lagging indicator that reveals which demographics are at risk after they've already started interviewing elsewhere.
Companies will need to find ways of being proactive about retention before it's too late. For small companies, consider adding a 'stay interview'. It's similar to an exit interview, but before an employee is on the verge of putting in their two weeks' notice. Companies who interview every single employee at the one-year mark are more likely to get ahead of themes that could cause disengagement." — Heather Doshay, Managing Director, People + Talent, Signalfire
"Should salaries simply be role-based? Should someone's location matter in determining their salary if they work remotely? Perhaps companies should pay remote workers more than those who work from an office. After all, the company is making free use of the employee's Internet, HVAC, and real estate.
If your company pays based on location, what if someone moves to a location where the cost of labor is lower than their previous address? Will you cut their pay? What if they move to a more expensive area? Will you give them a raise?
How does this translate to true digital nomads who may not keep a permanent address but live on the road, perhaps from an RV, etc? What is their salary band?
"It's important to recognize that, with distributed teams, there's no way to actually achieve 'equal pay.' Equitable pay is important, but it's up to companies to decide what's most equitable — based on localized compliance, ability to be competitive in market, and doing what they believe is 'the right thing to do.'
One-size-fits-all benefits and perks programs, too, are almost impossible with a global workforce. Companies need to start offering global-friendly perks that meet team members where they are — such as mental health programs that combat burnout and isolation." — Heather Doshay, Managing Director, People + Talent, Signalfire
"If you save four hours a day by not commuting, don't take three and a half and then go back to work. That is your time. You're a human being — do something human with your time. The big risk of this moment is that companies turn workers' recaptured commute time into productivity time. That should not be the goal." — Darren Murph, Head of Remote, GitLab
"There will still be companies out there that are primarily or exclusively office-based. There's still a place for that. They'll potentially limit their talent — but they'll get the people that want to work that way. In theory, only people who want that will apply for roles there. They will self-select, and that's fine.
The same thing goes on the opposite end of the spectrum. The companies that are async-first. And, sure enough, there are people who will self-select into that.
And that's a good thing. You don't want somebody spending six months in a candidate recruitment cycle only for them to think, six months into the job, Well, this is not what I thought it was going to be!