Redefine the ‘office’ to create inclusion and belonging for remote workers

When the entire workforce is adept at conducting their work in the virtual office, it creates an opening for more voices and more time and space to cultivate inclusion, engagement and creativity.

As we launched into the third year of the pandemic in 2022, the business world cautiously began removing COVID-19 restrictions. HR leaders and communications departments have been tasked with “back to the office” policies and campaigns designed to resurrect the way things were before the pandemic. Many have yet to realize that this reality is no longer possible due to the sleeping giant in the workforce – the remote worker. 

Remote vs. hybrid

In 2020, organizations implemented makeshift solutions, asking employees who could carry their responsibilities out virtually to work from home. For many this was the first time working from home, along with sharing the home office with children and spouses, who were also displaced. Companies that were not prepared to send workers home had to cobble together technology, both hardware and software, as well as policies, protocols and procedures to keep their businesses open.

The work-from-home experiment opened the possibilities for limitless configurations of how work can be delivered, and in turn has created greater potential for more flexibility and control of where, how and when employees work. The hybrid worker was born out of this experiment, whom the McKinsey Quarterly recently defined as someone whose job does not require a full-time, on-site presence. Today’s hybrid worker expects to determine where and when they conduct their work, and their “back to the office” plans may not align with what their CEO and HR team have in mind. 

The term “remote” has emerged as a classification showing up more frequently on job boards. Throughout the past several years, companies have recognized that the diversity of talent and the knowledge and expertise they seek may not reside in the same locale as company offices, and therefore are casting a wider geographical net to attract candidates. 

By indicating a job as remote, the employer is saying the work can be accomplished anywhere – the employee’s physical location is not a condition of employment. What distinguishes hybrid from remote has to do with physical proximity to a company site. The truly remote worker works 100 percent in the virtual office. For the remote worker, the words “back to the office” have no context.

Redefine the office

In today’s corporate vernacular, the opposite of “work from home” is “in the office.” There is a difference between the worker who had to suddenly convert their kitchen counter to a workspace in response to office buildings closing, and the remote office worker who has established their formal workspace in their home. The former was out of necessity – the latter by design. Remote workers have prioritized where they live over where they work and seek opportunities that will allow them to continue in this mode. With the right technology, remote workers are limited only by the mindset of their organizational leadership. 

To shift the mindset and be inclusive of all employees – on-site, hybrid and remote – we must reshape the language of where work happens, beginning with how we imagine the office. Instead of using language that can be divisive – you are either “in the office” or “working from home” – consider digital terms such as online and offline.

This reframing advances the conversation beyond where the work gets done, to more importantly, how, and opens up the dialogue for managing and leading a dispersed, hybrid workforce. With coordinated application of virtual office tools that provide instant messaging, information sharing and collaboration technologies, a manager can “see who is in the office,” regardless of where their employees are physically working. 

Reimagine the workplace

One of the biggest challenges with a physically dispersed workforce is sustaining a cohesive workplace culture. This requires deliberate efforts to translate the company values into how they apply to individuals and teams, regardless of their physical location. Redefining the construct of the workplace, hours of operation, and how the organization connects and operates within its virtual and physical walls can be a highly engaging and collaborative process that enables rethinking your formal and informal working practices and rules of engagement. Here are just a few examples of reimagining your workplace:

  • Collectively create norms around the application of virtual technologies that support synchronous and asynchronous teaming, such as when to use email vs. instant message or when to launch an online discussion forum vs. host a virtual meeting. Experiment with different approaches, identify what works best for your culture, and codify it through published protocols and modeling by leaders.
  • Bring teams together frequently via videoconferencing. While many may read this as “more meetings,” the emphasis should be on keeping these gatherings brief and informal to stay connected, share timely information, and generally check in with each other. Label it a “virtual coffee break” and timebox it to be the same as walking to the break room and chatting over a cup before getting back to the task at hand.
  • Repurpose your company campuses as gathering places for bringing teams together when in-person work will accelerate team progress. Establish with remote workers the expectation that travel will be required to periodically join their colleagues in a central location. It is equally important to ensure teams have a sufficient travel budget to bring them together. 

Above all, strive to be highly inclusive in crafting a vision of the ideal working environment and the culture that will support it through fully engaging your talent and utilizing technology.