In a significant move that has ignited debates on the future of work, ANZ, one of Australia’s most prominent banks, recently warned its employees that their bonuses could be at risk if they don’t spend at least half of their time in the office. This decision reflects a broader trend seen in companies globally, including video conferencing giant Zoom, pushing for a return to in-person work post-pandemic, as highlighted by Frédéric Plais, the co-founder and CEO of platform.sh, a trailblazing startup in remote work.
Platform.sh has been at the forefront of remote work since its inception in 2014, with almost all of its 300 staff working remotely. In a recent interview with its boss, Plais, we delved into the lessons other employers can learn from the company’s successful approach to working practices in the post-Covid era.
Covid made it very clear that running a company 100% remote was a viable option. And also that people had no choice to make that switch almost overnight.
The pandemic: a catalyst for change
The COVID-19 pandemic forced a radical shift in work dynamics, revealing that remote work was not just possible but, in certain instances, preferable — such as when team members are spread around the globe. Before the pandemic, scepticism and reluctance from employers — because of lack of supervision, among other reasons — hindered widespread adoption of remote work. However, the crisis made it evident that running a company entirely remote was not only feasible but, for many, a valuable asset provided managers would agree to go through a phase of swift adaptation.
“Covid made it very clear that running a company 100% remote was a viable option. And also that people had no choice to make that switch almost overnight,” Plais says.
He adds that in 2014, investors shunned his business because they did not believe in remote work. However today the situation is very different.
While the initial surge towards remote work was fuelled by pandemic-induced lockdowns, companies later embraced hybrid working models, allowing employees to split their time between home and the office. Plais notes that economic cycles played a vital role in sustaining remote work as a phenomenon. “Companies grappling with layoffs during the pandemic found it challenging to replace workers during the recovery,” he says.
What every company is trying to do is get the best team possible. The opportunity of remote or hybrid work is to hunt beyond your local area.
Shifting power dynamics
The ebb and flow of economic cycles have shifted the balance of power in the employment landscape. Initially, a tight labour market gave employees newfound bargaining power to negotiate remote work arrangements. However, with widespread layoffs, particularly in the technology sector, the pendulum is swinging back to employers.
This shift has emboldened companies like ANZ, Zoom, Amazon, and Google to enforce return-to-office mandates or enact more subtle coaxes. “We’re seeing a massive trend for returning to the office, especially in Silicon Valley. Things are shifting,” says San Francisco-based Plais.
Significant investment in building offices, for instance, has left companies seeking returns on these substantial expenditures. All of this led to a quick turnaround with a lot of CEOs mandating drastic return to office policies. However, Plais says that the workforce is pushing back, especially amid rising inflation that makes commuting costs less appealing to employees. “Tech companies fired a lot of people, so the market is favourable for employers, not employees anymore. That’s why they mandate office returns,” he adds.
Navigating the new phase of work
As companies grapple with these shifts, the discussion over working practices is entering a new stage. Plais offers insights into how employers can manage the tensions with staff and navigate the complexities of hybrid work effectively, based on his own experience running platform.sh, a platform for hosting web applications in the cloud.
Plais says that remote work options are crucial for hiring and retaining top talent. Platform.sh’s decision to go remote-only was driven by the necessity of recruiting engineers globally. The approach has not only provided a better work/life balance for employees but has also resulted in a more culturally open and diverse workforce, he adds. “If you want to take your business global, this is a big win. What every company is trying to do is get the best team possible. The opportunity of remote or hybrid work is to hunt beyond your local area.”
While hybrid work offers flexibility, it comes with challenges, particularly in managing teams across time zones. “I cannot overstate the need for efficient asynchronous communication and the use of tools like Slack and Teams and in general for written information,” Plais stresses. “You need to make sure that everything is accessible, that information flows in your organisation smoothly. This is the foundation of a company that can work remotely.”
He further stresses the importance of proper utilisation to ensure recorded communications and avoid expecting employees to be available at all hours. “Slack and Teams are not instant messengers; you cannot expect for everyone to wake up in the middle of the night and respond in real-time if you have a globally dispersed workforce.”
Plais acknowledges that occasional in-person meetings are essential for the success of remote work. “There’s the basic human need for engagement, preventing burnout and boredom. As social beings, the importance of periodic face-to-face interaction cannot be overstated.”
You need to make sure that everything is accessible, that information flows in your organisation smoothly. This is the foundation of a company that can work remotely.
He adds that trust and accountability are essential. “Remote requires a really adult relationship where the only question becomes what’s your contribution to the company, not how many hours did you work and when did these hours occur,” Plais says. “It requires a special management style. Control freaks have a really hard time with remote.”
In his experience, hybrid is the toughest model of all, since it often leads to some employees feeling like “second-class citizens”, often the last to know, sometimes never informed about a decision that was made in the office. “And hybrid also kills the purpose of being able to recruit beyond your natural commute zone and reach out to talents that were previously not going to be considered,” Plais adds.
Done correctly, remote or hybrid work presents an opportunity to enhance workforce engagement and productivity, contributing to overall organisational performance and effectiveness, as Plais concludes:
“Offering employees a better work/life balance translates into increased stickiness and retention for teams, providing companies with a competitive advantage. Navigating these changes intelligently is the key to success in the evolving world of work, where companies that embrace these shifts stand to be the true winners.”
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