Godfather of Remote: ‘Work is now an output, not a place’

Grow Remote chair and seasoned Shopify and Apple exec John Riordan on what the hybrid work revolution means for employers.

The future of work is undeniably changing, with the debate around remote work, flexibility, Return to Office (RTO) mandates, productivity, workplace trends, and leadership being more relevant than ever.

The advancements in technology, employee preferences, and new legislations around the globe are weaving a new narrative, irrevocably changing the traditional office-centric model.

“The main problem with return to office mandates is that they often fail to acknowledge the diverse needs of the workforce, leading to diminished employee satisfaction without the anticipated improvement in productivity or company performance”

This new narrative has been at the epicentre of podcast conversations I have been having lately, pointing to a future where flexibility and hybrid work models are not a fleeting response to a global pandemic but the foundation of the future workplace.

As we’ve navigated through these changes across different episodes in the series over the past year, several key themes have emerged, each marking a pivotal shift in how we understand and enact work-life dynamics.

The emergence of remote work and flexibility

I first dipped my toes into this world back in 2002. In the early days, remote work was a novelty, a perk that few companies offered and even fewer employees experienced. The technology that supported remote work was rudimentary at best, making communication and collaboration challenging. It was a time of experimentation and learning, of understanding how remote work could fit into a broader organisational structure.

As someone involved in pioneering work from home (WFH) policies at Virgin Atlantic Airways in 2002 and then at Apple in 2007, I saw firsthand the potential benefits and the significant hurdles we needed to overcome. My time at Shopify (2017 to 2022) was a testament to how far remote work had already come and a glimpse into its future potential. As I reflect on my journey through the landscape of remote and hybrid work, I’m struck by the profound evolution that has taken place since.

The advancement of technology has been one of the most significant catalysts in the evolution of hybrid and remote work. Tools like Slack, Zoom, and Asana have become the backbone of remote teams, enabling seamless communication and collaboration across borders. These tools have not only bridged the gap between remote and in-office teams but have also opened up new possibilities for how work can be done. Imagine conducting a brainstorming session in a virtual room that simulates the physical presence of all participants or using AR to overlay digital information onto your real-world workspace. These technologies could revolutionise training, design, and collaboration, making remote work more engaging and effective.

The shift towards remote work has also broken down geographical barriers, allowing companies to tap into a global talent pool like never before. This has not only expanded the opportunities for talent acquisition but has also significantly contributed to the diversification of workforces. With the ability to hire from anywhere, organisations are now more inclusive, bringing together people from different cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives.

The impact of diversity is not just about geographical spread; it’s also about opening doors for individuals who may have been marginalised or overlooked in traditional office settings. Remote work has provided a platform for people with disabilities, caregivers, and those with other commitments or challenges that make office work difficult or impossible. It has democratised employment opportunities, allowing individuals in remote or underserved regions to compete for roles on a global stage. And it’s where introverts become extroverts because they are comfortable in their surroundings.

RTO mandates and their impact

The RTO mandates underscore a crucial oversight in the one-size-fits-all approach. Remote work and flexibility have proven to be more than a pandemic-induced necessity. They are a strategic advantage in today’s global talent market, which has opened up access to a broader talent pool, democratised opportunities, and enhanced employee satisfaction.

The main problem with RTO mandates is that they often fail to acknowledge the diverse needs of the workforce, leading to diminished employee satisfaction without the anticipated improvement in productivity or company performance. That impact is not just theoretical anymore; it’s a reality that is reshaping the workplace in profound ways.

The narrative isn’t just about working from home; it’s about reimagining where and how we work, fostering a culture that values output over presence. The Flex Report by Scoop demonstrates a direct correlation between flexible work arrangements and revenue growth. The report also underlines a mismatch between supply and demand for remote roles, advocating for a more nuanced, flexible approach to work arrangements.

A great example of these contrasting approaches towards remote work and RTO mandates came from Nvidia and Roblox a few months ago. Nvidia, under the leadership of CEO Jensen Huang, has embraced a fully remote model, prioritising trust in employees and recognising the diverse needs and preferences of its workforce. This approach is founded on the belief that employees are best positioned to determine their most effective work environments, underscoring the value of autonomy and flexibility in fostering a positive and productive work culture.

In contrast, Roblox’s approach, which mandates office attendance, reflects a more traditional perspective on workplace management. This model places a premium on physical presence, potentially overlooking individual employees’ varied circumstances and preferences. The success of companies like Nvidia highlights a broader trend towards valuing flexibility and trust as essential components of a supportive and adaptive work environment.

Productivity thriving in distributed work environments

A recurring theme across our discussions has been the misconception that remote work impedes productivity. Contrary to this belief, evidence indicates that with the right framework, the appropriate tools, leadership, and company culture, remote work can boost productivity. By allowing employees the autonomy to balance their work with personal life, companies can harness a more engaged, motivated, and ultimately productive workforce.

Companies like Atlassian have experienced a significant boost in employee connection and company performance, as shown in their 1,000 Days of Distributed Work report, with remarkable uplifts in employee morale, enhanced productivity, and improved business outcomes, thereby challenging this long-standing workplace myth. There is a lot that can be learned from them.

The success of a hybrid or remote work model hinges significantly on leadership. Effective leaders must champion flexibility, trust, and clear goal-setting, not just manage tasks. By fostering a supportive and inclusive environment, and prioritising communication, they can maximise the potential benefits of remote and hybrid work arrangements, and ensure employee well-being and engagement.

Trust, autonomy, and effective leadership are pivotal for the success of remote and hybrid work models. Our discussions have repeatedly highlighted the importance of management styles that prioritise clear communication, goal setting, the right boundaries, and employee well-being. Emotional intelligence, empathy, and mental health awareness are becoming key competencies for leaders navigating the complexities of remote team dynamics.

The role of trust and autonomy in a distributed work setting is really important and I encourage everyone to check out Nick Bloom’s findings around the tangible benefits of working from home, including commute time savings, cost savings, increased flexibility, reduced grooming time, and quiet time for innovation, effectively challenging the notion that remote work diminishes productivity.

Venturing into the future

As we’ve navigated through the initial waves of remote work adoption, it’s become clear that the future of work is undeniably flexible. Companies that will thrive in the future will be those that have built a resilient culture capable of adapting to changes, fostering a culture of openness, inclusivity, and continuous feedback, without losing sight of their core values and mission.

The journey towards a more inclusive, global workforce is ongoing, and the advancements in remote work are paving the way for a more diverse and connected world. As we continue to explore this uncharted territory, it’s essential to remain agile, empathetic, and innovative. The goal is not just to adapt to the future of work but to actively shape it in a way that enriches our lives and deepens our human connections, regardless of physical distance.

Adapting to a changing work landscape is a necessity – especially given what we have learned post-pandemic about our ability to embrace new technologies.

Work is now an output, not a place.

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John Riordan
John Riordan is chair of Grow Remote, having retired from Shopify in 2021, where he served as chair of the Board of Shopify International Ltd. A long-time advocate for remote work, he has invested in a number of companies in the remote workspace, picking up the nickname “Godfather of Remote” along the way. In addition to Grow Remote, John is on the board of a number of startups, including Otonomee, Boundless and Habitus Health and serves as an advisor to a number of other companies, including Radious and Swyft Energy. John is also a board member of the Sanctuary Runners - a solidarity-through-sport initiative which uses running, jogging and walking to bring together asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and all Irish residents.