If you want to love working remotely, go back to the office.
As someone who literally wrote the book on remote work—it’s called Remote, Inc.—I was as surprised as anyone to realize just how deeply I believe this. But in conducting the survey and interview research for the book, my co-author Robert C. Pozen and I were struck by the stark differences in productivity and wellbeing between remote workers before and after Covid hit. Even relatively experienced remote employees shared the ways their work lives had gone downhill since the pandemic started.
The culprit? Online meetings.
Yes, of course there were online meetings long before 2020, but pandemic-era remote work has led to a meeting explosion, making our already excessively meeting-focused work culture worse—for longtime remote workers as well as those new to WFH. For many of us, the expansion of meeting time means that our working lives went from having a lot of meetings to having an utterly over-the-top number of meetings.
Back-to-back meetings, without a chance to get a glass of water or a bio break. Extra-exhausting meetings, thanks to the widely documented effects of meeting with our faces only, instead of our whole selves. Camera-required meetings, where you have to stare at yourself, and camera-optional meetings, where you have to talk to a screen full of black boxes.
For more on the future of work, sign up for the free Charter newsletter.
It didn’t have to be this way. It’s not like we don’t have the tools to prevent it. Email, Google Docs, Slack, and Basecamp: These are the types of applications that make it easier for us to share ideas and information without being in the same room, so that we can collaborate without necessarily working in the same place or even at the same time.
But we stuck with meetings out of habit, because it’s how things have always been done—at least since the good old days before electronic communication, when it really was a hassle to work with people if you weren’t in the same room. And as long as we were at the office, there wasn’t a lot of cost to that meeting-centric work style (because really, how much work could you get done when you weren’t in meetings, considering all the interruptions and distractions that are typical in a modern office?).
But now, as companies begin to embrace a hybrid work model, we have a chance to reset that pattern: to embrace the new style of work that Bob and I have dubbed “punctuated collaboration.”
In punctuated collaboration, we only get together (IRL or virtually) when it’s crucial to advancing our work—and we seize the chance to make significant progress on our solo work in between those meetings.
In the best-case version of hybrid work, you might go back to the office one or two days a week—maybe even three, if your work is highly collaborative. When you’re face-to-face in the office, your days are packed with meetings: team meetings, project huddles, all-hands or interdepartmental catch-ups, one-on-ones with bosses, and check-ins with direct reports or closest colleagues. And when you’re not in meetings, you’re loitering in the hallway, seeing which colleagues you can run into to knock a few other key conversations off the to-do list.
But here’s the reward: The other days of the week, you actually get to experience remote work at its best. The beauty of remote work lies in being able to do the focused analytic, creative, or detail-oriented work that is incredibly hard to tackle in between office interruptions or non-stop video calls. Get rid of those interruptions and calls, and you’ll be amazed at what you can get done in a day.
Here’s how to use punctuated collaboration to turn office days into your best remote-work asset:
Treat hybrid work as a strategy, rather than a perk. Make your schedules as a team, so you’re in the office on the same days as the people you work with closely. If you work closely with people in other cities or countries, try to sync with their workdays, too—maybe the sales department on every continent can stick to the same Monday/Wednesday schedule—so that even your video calls can happen on your office days.
Go home exhausted. Yes, a 9-to-5 day of back-to-back meetings is really tiring, especially if it’s followed by after-work drinks with your colleagues. But now you’re only going to be exhausted by meetings two days a week, instead of five.
Protect two or three meeting-free days a week. The strategy of using office time as collaborative time works best if there is an organization-wide (or at least, department- or team-wide) commitment to keeping remote days meeting-free. If you aren’t in a position to set that policy for your employer or team, set it for yourself: Close off your appointment-booking windows, block off big blocks of time on all your at-home days (even if you need to leave some bookable times), and try to block off at least one entirely meeting-free day a week.
Run great meetings. How can two or three days of in-person meetings substitute for five days a week of video calls? It works if we are really thoughtful and effective in how we run our meetings: sharing and sticking to agendas, inviting people only if their contribution is needed (and then ensuring they have a chance to make it), and treating the process of connecting and trust-building as a central part of meeting work. Run half-assed meetings, and you will find yourself booking the other half of the ass as another WFH video call.
Focus on your focus days. The point of this whole approach is to get some actual head-down, focused, productive work time. So on the days you’ve cleared of meetings, put your head down! It may take some practice to make the most of a four- or five-hour block of uninterrupted time, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that you can get more done in five good hours of remote time than you would in nine or ten hours at the office.
And when you tap into the joy and power of working in the zone like that—well, don’t fill up the rest of the day with video calls just because there’s space. Put your five focused hours in, and then get up from your desk. Because you’ve now earned the real reward of remote work: making time for your whole life.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Remote, Inc. newsletter.