Protocol | Workplace

How to keep remote workers from falling behind in their careers

We're all disembodied faces on Zoom, and we write on whiteboards with invisible hands.

Rendering of LinkedIn's new headquarters in Sunnyvale

LinkedIn's new headquarters in Sunnyvale will be outfitted with design solutions for hybrid work when it opens in January.

Image: LinkedIn

For all the lofty predictions on the future of work, the future will probably just look like this: some people working in an office all of the time, some people completely remote, everyone else somewhere in the middle.

Companies around the world have either been preparing for this scenario or are already living it, and one question's been nagging them. How do you avoid creating two classes of workers: those who are in the office, getting face time with executives, and those who are just Zoom boxes on a screen, locked away from all the excitement?

This question isn't purely theoretical. New research from Citrix revealed that 38% of a thousand U.S. office workers surveyed believe remote employees will be at a career disadvantage for not working out of a central office, and 47% think they'll be less likely to be considered for a promotion.

The solutions run the gamut. On one end, there's simple norm-setting: Here's how to set up a meeting, here's how to communicate before and after a meeting. On the other end, there's redesigning entire office features, from whiteboards to furniture.

Set some ground rules for norms and behaviors.

The first ground rule: Everyone joins a meeting as an individual box on Zoom. No more conference room cameras pointing down at a group of people giggling around a desk with one remote, disembodied face watching from afar. In the hybrid world, we're all disembodied faces.

Evernote, whose largest office is in Redwood City, used to broadcast its all-hands meetings from that office's cafeteria, with CEO Ian Small standing at a podium in front of rows of bleachers. According to Susan Stick, the company's SVP of people and general counsel, that format was a terrible audiovisual experience for remote employees.

Today, Evernote's policy is that every medium and large meeting takes place virtually, with Small's face on a screen side by side with every other employee's. "We want everyone to have a common and equal experience," said Stick.

When a virtual meeting takes place, a few steps can go far in leveling the playing field, things as simple as calling on people who are remote first, said Traci Palmer, VP of people and organizational development at Citrix.

Another ground rule according to hybrid work experts: If you are in the office together and engage in side banter, perhaps coming up with another plan of action in the hallway after everyone else has hopped off Zoom, it's your responsibility to update remote colleagues on what was decided in the hallway.

Rendering of LinkedIn's new headquarters in Sunnyvale A rendering of LinkedIn's new headquarters in SunnyvaleImage: LinkedIn

Some companies are trying to mimic that "running into someone in a hallway" feeling through Slack integrations like Donut, which pairs random people from across a company and sets up short Zoom meetings for spontaneous, casual chats. "People love them," said Brit Malinauskas, VP of people & workplace at Hover, a 3D data and tech company that has been using Donut. That being said, not everyone likes forced socialization.

Even language can play a part in eliminating the class divide between in-office and remote workers. PagerDuty has eliminated the word "headquarters" from its company lexicon, as well as the word "international," instead opting for "global," according to Chief People Officer Joe Militello. (International denotes there's one country that's "national," with the others merely orbiting around it.)

Redesign your office.

All this Zooming in physical offices brings with it a design challenge. Modern open-plan offices weren't designed for everyone to be taking video calls within earshot of each other. Conference rooms weren't designed for everyone to be in the same meeting from individual laptops either.

A range of solutions has cropped up to address these new problems. But workplace design experts agree: Nothing has risen above the pack yet, and companies are testing out a range of solutions at a small scale to see what sticks. "The desire for this kind of technology is somewhat outpacing the actual availability of gear or software," said Stick.

Brett Hautop heads up the workplace design team at LinkedIn, which is buying and testing out hybrid work gear across its 33 global offices. He called the traditional conference room setup — the long rectangular table — "an artifact of medieval times," hierarchical and awkward to sit around, as well as not inclusive of remote meeting participants.

One thing that LinkedIn is trying: partnering with a Steelcase designer to create something that looks like a campfire, four seats around a center square. Within the square there would be four monitors and a 360-degree camera capturing the faces of those seated. Everyone who's in the meeting physically can talk to each other naturally and see their remote colleagues on their individual monitors, while the camera captures their faces so that virtual participants see them as individual boxes on a screen as well.

Whiteboards are another key area of testing and potential innovation. LinkedIn has invested in one that allows users to use a regular whiteboard alongside camera capture technology that picks up what's being written, but which is able to — get ready for this — make the writer's hand disappear and instead capture the text behind it. The new company headquarters in Sunnyvale will have five rooms outfitted with these whiteboards alongside other new design solutions when it opens in January, according to Hautop.

"What we want to avoid is the experience of haves and have-nots," said Stick in regards to Evernote's investments in furniture and tech to bridge the in-office and remote work divide. Although they haven't pinned down the solution quite yet, she believes the key lies in simply being intentional about it.

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