Your Workforce Will Be “Variably Remote” — Permanently

August 25, 2021 Jamie Notter

I have a hypothesis, and I don’t think you’re going to like it. What if, for the rest of your days, there will be zero possibility that you can know which of your employees will be remote and which will be in the office in any kind of predictable, stable way?

Let that sink in.

Congratulations on your new plan to have people in the office 3 days a week (and Marketing definitely on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 80% of the management team in every day but Friday, etc.). It’s a beautiful plan—and it’s not going to happen.

At least, it’s not going to happen in the way you planned it. Why?

  • Partially, because what people told you they wanted may not be what they really want once they get it.
  • Partially, because once we handle Delta, there will be E through Z to deal with (or something else not yet imagined).
  • And partially, because the world of work has changed permanently as a result of the pandemic (see our new ebook for the full explanation of that one).

In today’s environment, you won’t be able to predict or control when your employees are remote and when they aren’t. But a bigger question, perhaps, is, why do you WANT to control them? The world of work has been transformed, and your response is to go back to factory thinking and start scheduling your workers to show up in “shifts?!”

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We shouldn’t be defaulting back to command and control right now. We should be creating new systems for maximizing success in a completely new environment. So for the issue of employee location, I think our focus should move away from designing the perfect model for the “hybrid” workplace and move towards managing a variably remote workforce on a permanent basis.

I think at least some of your employees are going to be remote all the time, you just won’t know which ones or at which times. A global pandemic hits? You ALL go remote for an undetermined amount of time. And when it’s safe to come back to the office, there will be other factors. Is school in session? Are the kids learning at home? What kinds of projects are your employees focused on this month and what kind of work is required on those projects? There are too many factors to consider, many of which are unpredictable, and all of which change over time.

So what do you do? Start with getting more data. 

  • Don’t mandate when they’re in the office—measure it.
  • Don’t ask them what they want—track what they do.
  • Don’t tell them what successful collaboration looks like—measure the impact of their collaboration efforts, so you can then build a new model of what successful collaboration looks like.
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Remember the old social media maxim, “roam before you pave?” It means let people walk naturally through the park before you pave the walking trail, or else you end up with unused bricks and a dirt path through the grass where people naturally wanted to go in the first place. In the social media old days, that meant watching where your audience naturally interacted, rather than forcing them into a new Facebook group just because you thought that was cool.

Today it’s about letting your variably remote workforce show YOU what the future of work is going to look like.

It’s fine to come up with some rules, like the Tuesday/Thursday thing for Marketing, if that makes sense to you and your team. Just treat the rules as hypotheses to be tested, and understand that the testing requires data.

I was just introduced to a software platform, CentralF, that tracks and analyzes those data. If you’d like an introduction to the founder or want to explore a project together where we start gathering the data and using it to shape your new culture moving forward, let me know.


Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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