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We want to create a partly remote policy - meaning that we expect at about 50% of the working time to be spent in the office and the other 50% can be done remotely.

But so far, our efforts to create such a remote policy have failed. Employees started to expect unlimited flexibility in terms of if, when, and how much remote they can schedule. Simple guidelines such as "don't schedule remote shifts right before your vacation" or "inform the team at least 18 hours ahead of time about remote shifts" are questioned and are a cause for frustration.

Has anybody here successfully implemented a remote policy where colleagues were still expected to be in the office partly? Do you have a list of simple rules that are easy to understand and easy to communicate?

This simple remote policy should accomplish the following four goals:

  1. It should outline easy to follow rules to all colleagues
  2. It should give managers and stakeholders an easy way of knowing when a person or team is available for a personal meeting and team discussion in the office
  3. It should prevent discussions and arguments between colleagues and managers about this remote policy
  4. It should give colleagues as much flexibility as possible

Additional information about our company

I hope that my question and the answers here can be independent of the individual circumstances of a company, but I want to still give additional information, if you think this is necessary.

We still expect 50% of the time spent in the office so that personal meetings, personal communication, and collaboration with managers and stakeholders can still easily be done without complicated scheduling. When we hired our current team members, remote was explicitly ruled out. So the fact that we are willing to offer a partly remote policy should be a positive change for our colleagues, but it seems that they are unhappier than ever and especially our managers are frustrated.

We basically tried four different approaches which all failed:

  1. No clear rules: We tried to just give a reference such as "at least 50% in the office". However, we ran into the issue that colleagues were unavailable in the office for several weeks in a row or several weeks before their holiday. And if a manager wanted to schedule an important meeting in person, then the colleague questioned and discussed the necessity of this meeting, which caused additional friction and overhead to everybody. Some traveled and were completely unavailable for personal meetings.
  2. Clearly written rules with exceptions: We tried to clearly define rules for if, how, and when remote is possible. We also stated that exceptions could be granted for important reasons. The problem here is, that from an employees point of view, any reason whatsoever could be valid for an exception. This basically morphed to "No clear rules" since it is tedious for managers to endlessly argue with employees whether or not something is a valid exception or not.
  3. Clearly written rules without exceptions: We tried the same as above, but this time with the additional caveat that we ruled out any kind of exceptions. Here we ran into the issue that some colleagues could validly argue that in their specific circumstance at this specific time a certain rule did not make sense.
  4. Fixed remote slots: We discussed fixed remote slots such as the first half of a day has to be spent in the office and the second half can be remote. This caused the issue that many colleagues found it very inflexible. They wanted to be able to have full remote days and to schedule their remote shifts more flexible around and change them from week to week.

We could start a 100% remote policy. However, in this case, we expect higher communication overhead and higher overhead overall for managers and stakeholders. So this is something we want to prevent. Some people might argue that 100% remote policy would allow to access a bigger talent pool and therefore a better ratio of salary cost vs. employee performance and this could offset any additional overhead. We do see this argument, but we want to work with our current team and current salary structure without any additional overhead caused by remote.

Note about trusting employees

I believe some comments and answers imply that we are not trusting employees. So let me clarify:

  1. I do trust my colleagues that they work productively during remote shifts. We don't check if someone is really working during remote shifts.
  2. Disallowing remote shifts right before vacation is not because we think colleagues will use remote to prolong their vacation. Instead we want to ensure that stakeholders and managers can schedule necessary meetings and discussions right before the vacation instead of having to wait until the colleague is back from holiday.
  3. Expecting employees to announce remote shifts 18 hours ahead of time is not meant as a way to control or micromanage anybody. Instead, we just want to ensure that managers and stakeholders can plan meetings and discussions at least 18 hours ahead of time

This questions is really not about if and how a company should trust their employees during remote work. What a colleague is doing or not doing during their remote shift does not matter for the sake of my question and the answers here.

Addressing Criticism

First of all thank you so much for the amount of input I already got.

But I like to address common criticism and clarify some recurring topics that appear in the answers and comments here:

  1. Just do 100% remote and all meetings digital: Many people suggest that I should drop my requirements of mandatory office time and just allow 100% remote and allow all meetings to be digital. However this is not what I am looking. I am looking for a partly remote policy where some office time is still required.
  2. Questioning my assumptions: Connected to 1., there seems to be a recurring theme here, that I should question my assumptions and requirements in general. This might be a common side effect of working in IT, which I assume is a common background here. For example every time a user requests a feature, my first response is also "What problem are they really trying to solve, are these requirements really mandatory, etc.?". However please give me the benefit of the doubt that I thought about these requirements and my problem for a long time and I tried to summarise it in this question as good as possible. I will not downvote an answers, that questions my assumptions and basically answers a different question. But I would like to focus on the requirements that I specifically listed in my remote policy.
  3. 50% remote: I was hesitant to list "about 50% office time" as a requirement. My main goal is not some arbitrary number, but to be able to have meetings, discussions and collaboration in the office. If you have a meeting policy with a little less or more office time, then this is fine. However this "about 50%" should be an anchor for what I am looking for. I currently cannot imagine a remote policy with for example only 10 to 15% office time, that could suit my needs. If you propose such a policy I might still upvote your answer and value your input, but this is probably not what I am looking for.
  4. Remote vs. Flexibility: Some people here believe that Flexibility (such as doing personal errants during typical working hours) is completely independent of remote work. Others seem to link them and believe that a "true" remote policy also gives employees the right to choose when they work. I personally made the experience, that remote work & flexibility are technical different subjects, but in reality they seem to be linked. Since once you allow remote work, your colleagues seem to automatically expect more freedom in their working schedule. Everything else, such as ensuring colleagues really work during their fixed remote shifts, would be considered too controlling. So by default I will assume that any remote policy implies, that employees can work very flexible during their remote times. At the same time I assume, that office times are somewhat "more inflexible" - if someone scheduled to work the office I assume that these fixed hours probably won't change. But feel free to state that your policy requires strict working hours even during remote time, this is a valid opinion as well.
  5. Losing employees to competitors: Several people here painted a very black & white picture of either allowing 100% remote or alternatively not allowing unlimited remote and therefore losing your colleagues to other companies who offer such a thing. I do admit that for a sizeable group a 100% remote option might be a hard requirement. And I also admit that for an even bigger group a very generous remote option is one of several important factors when deciding for or against a job. But I think as a business manager, I have to compare the perceived benefits of being a more attractive employer to the perceived drawback of not being able to effectively schedule in person meetings, when considering a remote policy. This is why I find extreme comments such as "that's irrelevant if your competitors are offering a true remote working policy", "Remember that people will jump ship over this policy if some other employer is willing to offer it" or "if you don't keep your employees happy, you don't keep your employees" counter productive in this discussion.
  6. Rhetorical Questions: It may be a cultural thing, but where I'm coming from rhetorical questions are usually considered to be rude. And it seems that this post attracts very many of these, such as "What sort of work is impossible for employees to do remotely?", "What is your competition doing?", "Is this really what your company wants?". If you for example believe that my opinion of required in person meetings has many drawbacks, then feel free to list your opposing opinion and even list your perceived drawbacks. But please don't ask whether it would be impossible for me to allow remote work. I believe being explicit is more productive in this context.

I hope this is my last update to this question. Again I want to thank everybody so much for their input. It seems that many people here have a very different opinion on what a good remote policy should look like and how (much) remote work should be enabled. But I still value your input a lot. So thanks again.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Jul 27 at 21:52
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    Nothing against people having a lively, engaged conversation about this. But there's a time and a place - and that place is the chat room for this question linked in my other comment.
    – motosubatsu
    Jul 29 at 12:48

24 Answers 24

130

If you are insistent that a large proportion of meetings still need to happen in the office, then you can't have any kind of flexible remote working policy. The two just don't work together, because as soon as you need more than one "50% remote" working person in the office on a specific day, you start creating unavoidable constraints on people. More than one meeting a week which needs 3 people in the office and you may as well give up on any pretence that you are giving your staff flexibility, because it's always going to be the managers determining when people can work remotely and when they can't in order to ensure that

It should be easy to schedule personal meetings & discussions without the need of scheduling multiple days ahead of time

Looking at it from a maths point of view: if you have 2 50% remote workers, there is only a 25% chance1 you can do a meeting on any given day - or (handwaving a bit) once a week. With three 50% workers, it's once every two weeks. 4 people is once a month.

Therefore I think you have two options:

  1. Give up on your goal of being able to schedule in person meetings without multiple days notice. Fix one day a week for everyone in the team to be in the office, do all the essential meetings on that day and allow the team flexibility for the other 4 days.
  2. Acknowledge that you're not really giving your staff choice about when they can work remotely. You can point out that you hired them with a "no remote" policy and this is still an upgrade on that, but honestly that's irrelevant if your competitors are offering a true remote working policy.

Notes

1. 25% assumes people take their days off randomly; that may well not actually be the case as I suspect people will be more than likely to take Mondays and Fridays as remote days. That means you have a better chance to have your multi-person meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

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    I do understand - but this just doesn't work once you have multiple workers. How are you going to resolve things if you need a meeting with A, B and C if A is working remotely Monday/Tuesday, B is working remotely Wednesday/Thursday and C is working remotely on Friday? Someone then has to overrule one of your "flexible" workers - and the situation gets exponentially worse as you have more people in a meeting. Jul 27 at 9:51
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    Looking at it from a maths point of view: if you have 2 50% workers, there is only a 25% chance you can do a meeting on any given day - or (handwaving a bit) once a week. With three 50% workers, it's once every two weeks. 4 people is once a month. (Disclaimer: this assumes a random distribution of remote days which may well not be the case - people tend to be more likely to take Mon/Fri as remote days, which means you're actually a bit better than this if you want meetings on Tue/Wed/Thu). Jul 27 at 10:04
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    The "one day at office" is for me a great idea. As an undisciplined employee, I value my freedom but since I'm free to work, I expect some guideline from my employer. Full remote would be alienating but just one day at the office would be a great idea. Of course, the chosen day may not please everyone.. Plus having an office for one day may be a pain for the employer. You can't please everyone. Also, I agree that you're going to open a larger pool of talents but if you really like your employee, you know what you're losing and don't know what you will gain.
    – PowerCat
    Jul 27 at 10:10
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    @PowerCat Threw some thoughts into a chat room to avoid the bot telling us off for discussing things on an answer :-) Jul 27 at 10:28
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    I routinely have meetings at the workplace while people WFH call into the meeting. If anything the last year has taught us is that Zoom and similar services unifies the workforce
    – Donald
    Jul 27 at 11:29
64

Your issue here is less about time in or out the office, but how people are empowered or not to make the decision that is best for them and their workload but for presenteeism. It appears that the relationship between management and employees is more like parent/child rather than one of collaborative working.

To resolve this, you need to look at your overall culture and ask the hard questions as to why this is the case, but also why some of these conditions are necessary.

What is the basis for the seemingly arbitrary 50/50 split? Why is remote before/after holidays not an option?
Why is 18 hrs notice a must for working remote?
Why do all meeting always need to take place in person in the first place vs phone/video?

All of these conditions and the implication that formal meetings are scheduled and held on the same day instead of scheduled ahead of time would make me think that there is no flexibility in the location and would make me question if this is an organisation I would want to work for.

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    I like how you've questioned all the basic assumptions! 👍
    – Luke
    Jul 27 at 20:48
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    Great answer. The problem does not seem to have a good solution because the constraints are too complex. Rethinking and relaxing constraints should make finding the solution a lot easier.
    – Egor
    Jul 27 at 23:00
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    I hate to admit it, but I appear to be a 'pointy-haired manager' wannabe. (I'm not actually a manager, but if I were....) when I read "Why is remote before/after holidays not an option?" what I really read is that people want to use the days prior to and after a holiday to prep for the holiday, and perhaps they are not giving a true day's work on those days. Now that I've said that, I will admit that during the entire year of COVID, I was deemed "essential" and was the one person in my section working in the office the entire time, with no remote allowed.
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 28 at 10:33
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    @CGCampbell my interpretation from OP is that we don't trust you are working before your holidays, therefore you must be in the office where presenteeism is more important than output. IMHO holiday handovers should be scheduled well before last day, with all tasks completed, delegated or postponed. There should be no need to be in the office to do that as there should be some form of written details to assist. But all of this comes back to trust and empowerment of employees and the leadership of the org that allows everyone to take accountability for themselves and what they deliver Jul 28 at 13:28
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    @Egor I just want to thank you for your "Fair enough" comment, this is nice way of ending our discussion. I appreciate your input and I appreciate the fact, that we can just have different opinions on this important subject. Jul 29 at 8:35
52

"Did anybody here successfully implemented a Remote Policy where colleagues were still expected to be in the office partly? Do you have a list of simple rules that are easy to understand and easy to communicate?"

Yes.

"Every week, you have to be at the office at least two days. You are free to plan which days, try to find a solution that works for you personally and for your team. In situations where you are unable to be two days at the office (such as when you have COVID-19 symptoms), contact your manager."

The only thing you need to add is "please indicate on your outlook calendar when you plan to work remote. "

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    Agree the "50% of time in the office" could use a timeframe. Without qualification, it's in line with the policy to work 6 months in the office followed by 6 months at home, but that's probably not desirable. "Work from home 50% of the time each week" or every 2 weeks or month will prevent long stretches where people are never in the office. Jul 27 at 19:49
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    @RobinBennett: For me the benefit to the worker is obvious: they are empowered to make their own decisions, don't need to ask permission. The benefit to the company is also clear (for me): they can plan face-to-face meetings at least two days per week, every week. And here it's popular (except with some people who prefer to work from home full-time, but for them no policy with 50% at the office can ever be popular). Note: it's not implemented here yet, but it's announced to start later this year. I can't predict if people will still like it when it starts, but now most people are happy.
    – user132647
    Jul 28 at 7:49
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    That's only a benefit when compared to the even less popular policy of 100% office work. When you compare it to the fully remote job offers that are now common, it doesn't look like a benefit at all. It's not an obvious benefit to the company because the last year has proved that it's not necessary. Jul 28 at 7:57
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    @RobinBennett: So you don't object how the 50% remote rule is implemented, you would object to any 50% remote rule, because nothing less than 100% remote is acceptable for you. That is a different discussion. I agree more than you would probably think, but I have accepted that management is afraid to manage from a distance, so (roughly) 50% remote is already a big improvement compared to 2019.
    – user132647
    Jul 28 at 9:18
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    I object to the fixed percentage. It's as pointless as 'write X lines of code per week' or 'fix X bugs per week'. I'm happy to go in when it's useful, and that might result in being in the office 50% of the time - but the target should be efficient work. Picking a number as the target implies it's just haggling - management want 100%, workers want 0%, and 50% is what you think you can impose without too much opposition. See my answer for more on my position. Jul 28 at 9:38
43

"Core hours" is what businesses call this, even before hybrid-remote work these were used in flexible work schedule environments. "Do what you want otherwise but we need you in office T/Th 10-4 for in person meetings."

You can of course vary this by department or workgroup to maximize "hoteling" in your office space, because you if you have 150 employees there's really no good reason to keep 150 people worth of office space in a hybrid environment, and the environment looks different (less focus on cubes/desks and more on meeting space). "Engineering comes in T/Th; Sales on M/W; Marketing on W/F; Product on T/W" might be a core hours schedule to ensure overlap with teams that frequently meet together. Delegate this down to the lowest effective level; if there's a team that seldom meets with anyone, or only with one other team, they can negotiate out what works for them.

No other scheme will work other than giving up on demanding in-person meetings. It's a strict matter of math, as others have explained.

Communication is also critical in these schemes (as it is in full remote); calendars should be kept updated so everyone on a team knows if someone's working at a given time and whether it's home, in office, or some other remote location. It's completely fair to have an expectation of asking for permission before working from somewhere outside the home.

However, you've dug yourself a pretty deep hole with all the waffling. The org has clearly learned they can get out of any rules around your hybrid schedule by complaining as you've gone through 4 different schemes already. You need to think about a solution, get some feedback, and then implement it and make it clear it's the rules; it'll be hard to make something stick after so much thrash.

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    I don't see why you came to the conclusion in the last paragraph. You suggest gathering feedback. But the "complaints" are that feedback. Mgmt can reasonably say "We have trialed 4 options, and listened to your feedback on all options. Based on that feedback, we have decided to choose option X going forward. "
    – MSalters
    Jul 29 at 11:16
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    @MSalters mxyzplk is making the argument that feedback should be gathered and changes be made based on it before the policy is implemented, while complaints are feedback that's received after the policy has been put in place.
    – Dreamer
    Jul 30 at 8:04
  • Exactly. He's coming here to ask for ideas after four failed attempts, maybe do the analysis first. While complaints are technically feedback, the amount of thrash in these rules so far sets a very poor foundation for making anything other than 'do whatever you want to do' stick going forward.
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 30 at 16:00
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If the reason you believe that 50% of people's work time should be spent in the office is because of in person meetings then the only rule that accomplishes that is that everyone have their work from home time at the same time. In my experience having mixed meetings where some people are in a conference room and others are on a teams/zoom/etc are extremely inefficient because you essentially get the worse of both worlds. People in the conference room are too far from a screen for a remote desktop to be helpful. People at home can't see a whiteboard (even if there's a camera on it). I only mention this because you may be "blaming" the off-site people as the reason for the inefficiency but if everyone were remote then the meeting becomes just as, if not more so, efficient than one with everyone in a conference room.

To that end, if you're willing to bend more on the meeting front then it seems you need a work comes first rule. That is to say that during normal work hours, people have to be available and not at the supermarket. Make people schedule their errands around meetings. Another thing you may need to articulate in the 50/50 policy is the period over which it is enforced. From there I'd further suggest that it be a short time frame because if people are thinking they'll go weeks outside of the office then getting back to even will seem pointless because all the time they were out of the office is now a sunk cost of sorts. At this point, you're more or less back to defining certain days as everyone in the office on particular days and everyone out of the office on particular days.

Of course the other proposal is to make the in-office days the exception with no 50/50 ratio at all. Not having a 50/50 rule will make a "Work comes first during business hours" easier to stomach. Remember that people will jump ship over this policy if some other employer is willing to offer it. It doesn't matter what feels fair relative to when they started.

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Digital First

It seems to me that you are implicitly expecting meetings to all be held face to face. Instead, implement your infrastructure and culture such that every meeting accounts for the possibility that one or more attendees is remote.

This simple rule, alongside a standard shared calendar system, accomplishes all four of your goals. Expectations around distribution of time in-office vs at-home become entirely orthogonal, as long as people are forthright about their availability.

If a specific meeting absolutely must have 100% in-person attendance for some reason, then you necessarily must remove employee scheduling flexibility for the duration of that meeting. I think you will find that in practice such "all hands present" meetings are vanishingly unnecessary.

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    Yes this. My company is moving to 60/40 split. We've got meeting rooms set up for mixed mode meetings and a guideline of organising meetings respectfully (so not forcing an entirely in person meeting if its unnecessary etc) Combine this with a culture of keeping your location updated on some sort of calendar system, or as a status on your instant messaging system. And then using tools like an instant messaging system too, and I don't see why you'd be having issues.
    – R Davies
    Jul 28 at 8:06
  • This. My team don't even all live on the same continent, so our meetings have always had a virtual component.
    – shoover
    Jul 28 at 14:36
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    Thanks for your answer. However I explicitly mentioned that I would like to keep in person meetings and I even argued why. You now told me that I should change this requirement and just do all meetings digital. From your point of view it might make sense, that I should change my assumptions and requirements. But from my point of view, I specifically listed requirements (such that in person meetings can easily be scheduled) and thought about these requirements for a long time and now I am looking for a solution with these requirements in mind. Jul 28 at 20:24
  • @PascalKlein I am unable to find arguments as to why meetings are required to happen face to face. It's possible I'm not reading properly. Would you be so kind as to quote one? Jul 30 at 7:41
  • @adambarnes reading body language of introverts is one. Sometimes in person you can tell if someone disagrees or doesn't understand the reasoning but does not want to disturb the meeting. If you got someone capable of reading body language they can pick up such cases and enforce settling it now rather than losing over a week over a mistake. This is especially true when discussing between technical and non technical people. There are other reasons as well but most not directly measurable so hard to point out directly. Also highly cultural dependant I guess.
    – Imus
    Jul 30 at 17:09
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Establish in-office days and, if no mandatory meetings from department heads are called, optional WFH days. Establish rules concerning meeting notices, e.g. require 48-hour notice for in-person meetings, otherwise it's expected to be digital or a phone call.

Your team should be able to access calendar availability blocks and notices of out-of-office and WFH and plan accordingly. If everyone is on similar schedules, technology (digital whiteboards, zoom recordings, screenshare) can fill the gap — otherwise, call that meeting earlier or maintain a weekly cadence!

Three instances from personal experience:

  • A division of Company X required everyone to be in the office on Thursday — unfortunately that day was a complete 9 to 5 of meetings. On all other days, calls were expected to be remote.
  • Company Y established any day as WFH if a meeting wasn't already established 24-hours prior. Not a lot of flexibility, especially if you had a single call with a different person each day, but by 5pm the previous day you knew you were in the clear. Lots of "Can we move this day to ___" and time in the office.
  • Company Z had weekly meetings Monday and Wednesday and monthly calls scheduled to year-end with the expectation to be in the office specifically for those. Tuesday and Thursday we had the expectation to attend any large meetings (CEO, department head, major stakeholder) but WFH otherwise at-will. Friday was a permanent WFH.
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    +1 for backing up your reply with first-hand examples. :-)
    – breversa
    Jul 29 at 7:55
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A number of good answers here already suggest various good tactics for addressing the question of how to set up a remote policy.

Before you can successfully use any of them, however, I think that your organization needs to carefully think about what you are trying to achieve. In particular, I think that leadership needs to discuss:

  • Why do you want to allow remote work?
  • What sort of work should employees be able to do remotely?
  • What sort of work is impossible for employees to do remotely?
  • What would a successful remote-work culture look like?

Right now, reading your question it appears that these questions have not yet been thought through carefully. From what you have written, it seems that right now there is a culture of "hallway meetings" and that video interactions are seen as not being an option.

There might be good reasons for that. You can't train somebody to drive a forklift on a video call. But many other functions can be done effectively and efficiently with remote participants by shifting your culture and communication practices. Until you sit down and analyze your corporate functions with respect to questions like the ones I wrote above, however, you won't know what constraints you're really working with.

Moreover, all policies work best when driven by clear guiding ethical and organizational principles. Effective day-to-day policies never cover all the edge cases, or else they'd be too complex to work with. Principles will empower your good employees to figure out how to deal with edge cases and emergent issues that you never thought of ("What should I do if it's 3 days before vacation, but I need to switch around my remote time because my kid just threw up at breakfast"). Principles also act as a backstop against bad employees trying to get away with things.

Bottom line: right now you cannot produce a coherent policy, because you do not have a coherent understanding of the principles behind your policy.

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    I honestly don't share your summary, that I don't have a coherent understanding of the principles behind my policy. I explicitly admitted, that my policies were not successful so far. But at the same time I wrote a very detailed question that summarised my reasoning and I tried to clarify it several times in comments here. We probably have a different opinion on what a successful remote policy might look like or even a different view on remote work in general. But I think we should give each other the benefit of the doubt, that we have a coherent understanding about our point of view Jul 28 at 20:21
  • @PascalKlein Are you capable of answering the four questions that I proposed?
    – jakebeal
    Jul 28 at 20:31
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    Let me just answer them quickly and I hope that is enough for your: 1. Increase colleague happiness 2. Deep work that can be done solo or requires minimal communication 3. Discussions about complicated and important subjects with stakeholders and managers (however "impossible" is a weird framing, since very few things in this world are physically impossible, instead I would call them "not reasonable applicable in my opinion") 4. Colleagues are happy, but in person meetings, discussions and collaboration can easily be done in the office Jul 28 at 21:05
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    I also chose the word "impossible" deliberately, and think that you would do well to consider it carefully. What you say is "not reasonable" is, in many companies, "reasonable and routine." What are the actual barriers to it being reasonable? Is there something different about your company, or have you just not thought far enough outside of the box to understand how to make it work in your culture?
    – jakebeal
    Jul 28 at 21:25
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    @jakebeal, "What sort of work is impossible for employees to do remotely?" This is a good question to ask, but I'd also ask. "What sort of work would be difficult for employees to do remotely?" For instance, in my mind training new employees would be more difficult to do. I know remote learning is possible, but it's still a very difficult thing for many people (even after a full year of pandemic). Newer employees may not be assertive enough to badger veteran employees with their questions remotely. And veteran employees may not have the desire necessary to reach out to newer remote employees. Jul 29 at 4:47
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Just to touch explicitly on this:

Simple guidelines such as "don't schedule remote shifts right before your vacation" or "inform the team at least 18 hours ahead of time about remote shifts" are questioned and a cause for frustration.

Have you considered the fact that these are frustrating to employees because they point to a complete lack of trust? The only reason to prevent a remote shift before paid leave is that you're assuming the person isn't actually going to work & will just take an extended holiday. Nothing in your 'four goals' of the policy point to the need for that rule.

I think you need to separate these two things in your own mind:

  1. Do I trust staff to work from home? How can I measure their work when not in the office? Should working from home be a privilege (e.g. extended to more senior/trusted staff, removed from badly performing employees, etc.)
  2. When I do trust staff to perform, now how much office time is actually needed to improve meetings, reduce communication overhead, etc. Does everyone need to be in the office on the same days? How does this work for desk space etc.

Reading between the lines, I can't help feeling that staff are frustrated with your policy because it nominally aims to only address #2 but it then also unspokenly also trying to fulfil #1.

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    Honestly, "inform the team at least 18 hours ahead of time about remote shifts" seems reasonable to me as a general rule - it's just courteous to your team for them to know where to find you. Obviously, things can happen and sometimes you need to WFH unexpectedly, but trying to give notice seems like a good thing. But agreed completely on the vacation thing, that's just a straight up lack of trust. Jul 27 at 11:22
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    @anotherdave I just clarified in the question that even the vacation part is not because of lack of trust. For the sake of my question, please assume that we don't care and we don't control what a colleague is doing during the remote shift. We just want to ensure, that personal meetings and discussions can be scheduled easily. And right before a vacation might an important time to schedule such an in person meeting to wrap up certain projects or get important input, without having to wait 2 weeks until the colleague is back from holiday. Jul 27 at 11:29
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    @PascalKlein with all due respect, you've made it very clear you do care what they do while working remotely - the original version of your question included the explicit statement that you thought it inappropriate for people to go to the supermarket while working remotely. Jul 27 at 11:48
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    @PhilipKendall I explicitly stated several times, that this was in fact just an example of a second order effect of high expected flexibility. With all due respect, but if I state multiple times that for the sake of this question it does not matter what colleagues do during the remote shift, then it is not your job to imply that it does. My question stated clearly, that it does not matter and that I trust colleagues. It is really disrespectful if you keep insisting that I do the complete opposite of what I am writing in my question. Jul 27 at 12:13
  • 9
    @PascalKlein Its really disrespectful of you to the community here that you keep arguing against any feedback by claiming its disrespectul. If you don't want to listen to advice, then don't ask questions. But don't complain when people pick apart your arguments, that's the purpose of asking a question like this. Jul 29 at 0:26
10

Core days / Core hours


Core hours:

Your core hours that must be spent in the office are Monday to Friday, 11am to 3pm.

How you structure the rest of your working day is up to you.


Core days:

Everyone is expected to be in the office Monday to Wednesday, 9am to 5pm as per usual, and are free to work either at the office or remotely the other 2 days of the week.


You get to set clear expectations and block out "normal" time, while still giving your people some meaningful flexibility, and avoiding most of the headaches of trying to mix the 2.

3
  • 7
    Core hours feels pointless in the context of a remote/office split. It practically makes each day an office day, because the commute is always there. Or do you routinely take an hour-long break and restart work at home?
    – Chieron
    Jul 27 at 19:48
  • @chieron it’s definitely not as good for employees as a completely flexible day is, but even a little bit of flexibility (IE being able to avoid rush hour) can make a big difference.
    – Kaz
    Jul 27 at 20:21
  • 6
    definitely, but "core hours" to me is more about shifting the start or end of your workday (some people generally start earlier, some later) rather than partly working remotely. Working remotely loses much of its appeal, when you still have to commute on the same day, so "core hours" does not seem a meaningful solution for OP's situation. On the other hand, core day(s) (even combined with core hours to avoid needless congestion, considering that the main issue right now is meetings, which should usually not take 8 hours of your day) would probably help.
    – Chieron
    Jul 28 at 9:17
8

Just to address your "fixed remote slots", you say:

We tried to define fixed remote slots such as the first half of a day has to be spent in the office and the second half can be remote. This caused the issue that many colleagues found it very inflexible. They wanted to be able to have full remote days and to schedule their remote shifts more flexible around and change them from week to week.

That half day in/half day out is likely to be the worst of both worlds for many employees:

  • They incur all the commuting costs and hassles (in fact possibly worse hassles if public transport is less frequent outside rush hour or the express options stop)
  • They can't be home if they need to be so would still need to take time off to let in deliveries etc.
  • If they're making good progress on a problem in the middle of the day, but have to travel to/from work, all that concentration is lost - or it's not worth starting a tricky task when you know you're about to have to stop, which happens more often than it would.

In all jobs I've had it would literally be better to be 100% office-based than expect to split days in half.

Fixed remote days wouldn't be nearly so bad, though even they could be improved by being more pre-planned to a schedule than truly fixed

8

I think you really need to define what "give colleagues as much flexibility as possible" means for your company.

As an example, about 15 years ago I worked for a company that had a very simply policy, with just three rules:

  1. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday were office days.
  2. Everyone was expected to be in the office by 10:30 AM on office days.
  3. It was expected that on average you would produce an amount of work consistent with about 40 hours of work per week.

Each rule corresponded to a company goal:

  • Office days gave an opportunity to schedule meetings / facilitate communication.
  • The 10:30 start was not too onerous for those with bad commutes, but allowed for morning meetings (scrums) to be scheduled.
  • The 40 hours gave a ballpark for how much work is the "right amount".

Given this "take" from the company, it was able to give back that there was no expectation of any availability on Tuesdays and Fridays - employees were free to schedule as they pleased. We didn't find a need for a fixed end time because most people just rolled in at 10:30 and did an 8 hour day and on the occasions there was a conflict a bit of negotiation resolved the issue.

Finally, the choice of Monday, Wednesday and Thursday was intentional, specifically:

  • We didn't want people disappearing for too long between check ins.
  • We didn't want people trying to cram 40 hours per week into 3 days.

Sure these last points are a little "inflexible", but it saved a lot of arguments about specific expectations.

We were clear when we hired new staff that, that was the policy and the staff were free to consider our total package against other offers.

1
  • Upvoted because this sounds like a system that would work very well. And realising that “flexibility” is not really what people want, but “convenience”, in this case two days without travel, and no having to waste time for an inconvenient starting date.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 1 at 11:39
8

Although your staff was hired for office-only positions, the world has since changed. Your employees are now looking at remote work policies the way they previously looked at compensation and benefits. What is your competition doing?

Statistically speaking: If all employees were to choose their 50% at random, and you have 6 or more employees, then at any given time you will have less than 2.5% chance (i.e. less than 1 hour out of 40) of having everyone there at once (not even considering planned leave or sick time).

Conversely, if you wanted a 50% chance of having all those same 6 employees in the office at once, you need them on 89% office/11% home (approximately). That only gives them 2 weeks vacation, 1 week sick, 5 holidays, and 8 remote days.

What this means: If you want everyone there at one time, you must pick an "all-hands-on-deck" day (or half-day, etc.) at some frequency and make it mandatory except for planned leave or sick time. This is what my employer will be doing when the firm returns to the office.

2
  • "The world has changed since" I think this is the part these managers are missing. Face-to-face no longer means in-person and the managers need to adapt to that reality.
    – StephenG
    Jul 30 at 14:22
  • @StephenG You're right. I buried the lede. I will edit to put that first!
    – Theodore
    Jul 30 at 15:46
6

I think employers are going to have to renegotiate most people's contracts and make some significant changes to make their offices more attractive.

Having people in the office has a value to you, and being at home has a value to some employees. You need to find out what those values are and the factors that influence them. Then you can negotiate to find a balance where both sides are happy.

As an simple example, commuting costs money and time. Previously it was just the cost of having a job but everyone has got used to not having this cost over the last year. People with significant commuting costs might be happy to come in if you compensate them for it.

Similarly you find people less valuable when they're not in the office, so you could pay less when they're at home.

Then there are other reasons the office may be unpopular. Maybe it's crowded, or noisy, or hot, or people don't like the open-plan hot-desks. Fixing these things was previously considered too expensive but it's probably cheaper than paying people to accept them.

'Flexibility' is similar. You can negotiate whether people just have to finish their work, or answer messages with 5 minutes. Similarly whether you expect people to read and reply to messages after hours. It sounds like you need everyone in the office on the same 2 or 3 days, and fully available during office hours but don't care about after-hours availability.

It will take a while for new 'normal' to appear, and both sides needs to consider their alternatives if they don't agree. People who want 100% remote need to consider that they're competing against people in cheaper parts of the country (or even other countries) and may have to accept a pay cut. Companies that want people in the office need to consider what they will have to offer to tempt local people away from other employers.


I've re-written my answer entirely in response to an edit of the question, but here's my original answer:


The problem here is that you're not asking "how can I schedule meetings when half the staff are away", you're asking "how can I force my staff to accept a policy they don't like".

Picking a number of hours people should be in the office is similar to measuring productivity by the number of hours people are at their desk. Instead you should focus on their actual productivity.

Some in-person meetings are actually useful, and people want to attend those because it saves time and avoids misunderstandings. Others could just as easily be a phone call or an email.

I suggest you talk to your staff about which meetings they feel are worth holding in the office. Then pick the dates and everyone should be reasonably happy to come in for them.

Remember that the last year has proved that 100% remote can work, and that you are now competing against other companies across the entire country who are offering 100% remote jobs. If you try to force people to do sometime that costs them time and money, with no real benefit to them, the good ones will leave. Those frustrated arguments are the only warning you're going to get.

6
  • The risk: every new meeting will come with a discussion "should this be remote", where management argues that it has to be in person, while most of the staff thinks remote is good enough. Then attempts will be made to make rules for which meetings can be remote. This will fail. Everybody will be unhappy. Maybe I am too pessimistic...
    – user132647
    Jul 28 at 11:49
  • @user132647 - I think that's a legitimate worry, but most people are willing to be reasonable about it, provided the other side is also being reasonable. Put it this way, is the benefit to the company of an in-person meeting worth the company paying for the commute (in time and expenses)? That sounds ridiculous, but it's what you're asking your staff to give up. Jul 28 at 16:02
  • According to many people in management, the answer is: yes, the benefit to the company is worth it. They may be wrong, but that's irrelevant: they think it,and act like it.
    – user132647
    Jul 28 at 17:07
  • @user132647, but are they actually offering to pay that cost, or allow people to commute during office hours? It's easy to decide that something is 'worth it' when someone else is paying the bill. Having said that, the commute is just one of the reasons people want to stay at home, and they can be different for each person. A good manager should be trying to understand all those reasons and find solutions that work for their team. Jul 28 at 17:33
  • They offer to pay for the commute in the same way as they payed in 2019. From their view: it's easy for employees to say that remote working is 'worth it', when management has to pay the bill. (here: have problems with organizing meetings, and not being able to see their employees working). Having said that, that's just one of the reasons managers don't like remote working, and they can be different for each manager. A good employee should be trying to understand that, and don't reject every solution that is not perfect in every way. (Meant as a friendly parody of your reply ;))
    – user132647
    Jul 28 at 18:12
4

You stated in an answer that most in-person meetings are 1 on 1. I get that, body language is a thing after all. We found that most employees don't need unlimited flexibility.

  1. Firstly, it doesn't matter if your employees are remote or in the office, it is reasonable to expect them to be at a place where they are able to work and communicate with their colleagues. So set some core working hours. Remote work does not mean that everyone can just set their own hours, it means that everyone decides on the place they work from. If you don't need them to work at fixed hours because they don't need to communicate with anyone and this is not important for you, make them pick their working hours, but they have to be documented in

  2. a spreadsheet. You need to know which days they are in so you can schedule in-person meetings? Easiest way for us was to just keep a confluence spreadsheet where everyone can enter their days. Rule of thumb is at least two days in the office. 90% of employees can commit to certain days. If they can't for a specific week they can communicate it to their teams. So for us its just a spreadsheet with 5 columns, everyone puts in their row for each day if they are present or in homeoffice and also their working hours. Everyone else can check on that. You might have other means to document stuff like that, but you get the gist.

Or

  1. do above, but make them document their HO in their calendar.

Both 2 and 3 might be adjusted at the start of the week. It's not unreasonable to expect people to plan their week on mondays. Exceptions are the same exceptions you would give in any setting: They can do unplaned HO if they are sickish, have some sick child to tend to etc. Don't write exceptions down, just be reasonable about them. Don't let exceptions become a habit or something people are using to undermine your policy, thats why they are exceptions.

3

My current situation.

My department is officially 40% on-site for the week. This translates to 2 days on-site per week.

Everyone is required to be on site on Wednesday and this is when weekly staff meetings are scheduled.

Roughly half of the staff is scheduled to come in on Tuesday, and the others are scheduled to come in on Thursday. The choice of which of these days to pick was up to the employee, hence split roughly in half. This was partially to aid in separation for Covid safety measures, and without that consideration it may be better to just have everyone on-site for the same two days.

The remainder of the week is remote work. Office hours remain the same as if you are working on-site. We do have some flexibility with this, but exceptions do need to be reported ahead of time.

Higher ups tend to spend more time on-site, being there almost 100% of the time.

1
  • I had never thought of "one fixed day for everyone + 50% the day before + 50% the day after" scheme. That’s definitely an idea I’ll keep in mind in the future. Thank you !
    – breversa
    Jul 29 at 8:02
3

Get out of the way

A problem with "notify about remote work 18 hours in advance" is that you now have to actively maintain your schedule. While this may not feel like much, it does mean that every single day every single employee has to do scheduling work that has zero impact on their output of their actual job, and only exists to make the relatively rare time their manager wants to do something a bit easier.

"Getting out of the way" consists of making policies that, as much as possible, get out of the way of the person doing productive work. Any action you require that doesn't directly relate to the actual work product of the job should be designed that, by default, the worker can ignore it.

Meta-work is cheap to order people to do it, and shockingly expensive to ensure it is done. Unless you spend a significant amount of resources at ensuring it is done as mandated, your meta-work quality won't be very good, and the costs (in terms of employee friction) will be high.

Correct by default

Ask that each employee schedule a repeated 2 week pattern of days in the office, at least 4 in-office days in that period. And if you are scheduled for a meeting on a day you are supposed to be in the office, you are expected to be there.

Changing this schedule is allowed, swapping one day for another, but if you are booked for an in-person meeting on an in-office day before you change it you will have to negotiate with the people involved, or show up.

This will allow someone to schedule a meeting with particular people in advance. The "default" nature of it means that they aren't spending time every week picking their in-office and out-of-office days, and encouraging a regular pattern should make it less of a hassle.

You'll need exceptions

As the goal is about 50% in-office, make it clear being asked to come in 1 day every 2 weeks (or so) for an in-person meeting with warning is to be expected.

"Out of commute range" days can be booked, so managers can try to avoid asking people to come in on those days.

Example

Someone could be in town one week, spending 4/5 days in the office, and spend the next week at the cottage 3 hours away. They are marked as "out of commute range" every 2nd week. The 5th day on the in-town week they are out of office, but "in commute range"; typically they might even spend it in the cottage, but if needed they can come into a meeting easily.

Another person might come into the office every Wednesday and Thursday, and mark every Friday as "out of commute range" as they find they often end up going on long weekend trips with the family and work remotely.

The 3rd employee comes in every Monday and Tuesday.

A manager who wants to have a meeting with all 3 can pick a proper parity Wednesday, and ask the 3rd employee to come in.

The assumption of a regular pattern for each employee "by default" means that employees who want to change their out of office pattern are responsible for doing so.

Booking greater stretches of "out of office" and "out of commute range" -- say, their family is going to a resort on the other side of the country for 3 weeks in the summer, and they want to work from there -- should be done like booking vacation. You submit your request, and it is denied or accepted.

Default pattern, Flexibility on permission

By default you have a pattern. You can even book your remote/not different every day. But if you haven't moved your remote days to a particular day, and someone books you in a meeting, it becomes your problem to solve, not the meeting booking person.

Similarly, if you want more than week "out of commute range", you have to use a vacation-like system to schedule it. Just like vacations, if the time you want to book out of commute range gets in the way of business requirements, you have to rework it. So asking for "out of commute range" for weeks prior to vacation, the manager may deny it, or ask you to solve the business problems (transition of knowledge, etc) prior to approval.

2
  • You make very good points here, but I think this can be simplified even further: Default to WFH allowed, require presence in scheduled meetings and allow "out of commute range" calendar markings. If some person/team wants a predefined rotations of such, they can make the calendar markings recurring.
    – Mitten.O
    Jul 30 at 11:23
  • @Mitten.O The requirement that you have booked days in the office is important to reduce scheduling friction. With it, booking a meeting for 4 people might require asking 1 person to come into the office when they wouldn't usually be there. Without it, often the majority would be coming in just for that meeting. Also, the "you should only expect to be called in 1 day in 2 weeks for an extra meeting" is a defence against meeting creep, which "you come in to scheduled meetings" doesn't defend against. The goal is to reduce default friction; your simplified plan does not.
    – Yakk
    Jul 30 at 14:28
2

Since you asked for examples, I can name two from companies where friends of mine work.

As mentioned by others, your requirements might not apply to these examples, since they are too harsh.

The one company I know (a pretty big one) has full-office weeks and no-office weeks, i.e. you work one full week remote and one full week onsite. My friend and her colleagues are pretty happy with that since it allows them to schedule meetings in the onsite weeks (urgent ones in the remote week are still held online like in Corona times) and to set private appointments in the remote week when you have more time since you don't have to spend time to get to your working place.

The other company only does 40% remote (i.e. 3 days onsite, 2 days remote) and all members of a team take the same days remote. That works really nice since you can schedule team meetings on the onsite days and since each team has 3 onsite days, there is at least one day where you can schedule cross-team meetings (actually, there are two days since all teams decided to work remotely on Mondays).

2

Tuesday and Thursday are Meeting days

Give your employees complete flexibility to work remote as much as they want. But if anyone has a meeting scheduled on one of the meeting-days, he has to be in office for that meeting. In-Office meetings need to be scheduled no later than 4 p.m. on the previous day.

This ways employees have 3 guaranteed full flexible days and 2 days, where they can still work remote if there is no meeting scheduled.

2
  • 1
    Not necessarily a problem, but this leads to a really poor utilization of office space, even with 50% remote you still need 100% of desks.
    – Helena
    Jul 31 at 12:42
  • In theory yes - but in practice one can usually fair safe enough with overbooking. A few people will always be on leave (sick or vacation), a few will work remote. And in once a year there are more people than desks in the office, you can find some arrangement.
    – Falco
    Aug 3 at 11:17
2

Treat remote scheduling the same as in-person scheduling

I'm not sure complicated rules and workarounds are necessary to solving your problem. This is all you need to communicate to your team:

  1. Schedules should be set in stone and clearly communicated with management. For example,

    Tom sets his schedule as in-office on M/W/F and remote on T/Th. Larry, his manager, approves this schedule or asks Tom to adjust based on whatever criteria makes sense for the department (things like making sure there's always someone in the office to answer the phones, syncing up teams to the same schedule so they can collaborate, etc.)

  2. Deviation from their set schedule needs to be requested/communicated with management in advance, preferably in writing. For example,

    Tom wants to work on a project with Susan who is only in the office on T/Th. He emails Larry and asks if it's okay if he works M/T/W next week so he can catch Susan when she's in the office. Larry approves and marks it on the calendar.

This should be roughly what your policy is now - or before the pandemic, I mean. It shouldn't need to be any more complicated than that.

I'd personally give up on doing meetings with everyone in person and allow remote employees to join via Teams or Zoom or whatever but if you feel really strongly about it, just pick 1 day per week as a "blackout" day that can't be scheduled remote so you can guarantee a day where everyone is in the office. No big deal.

2

Frame challenge: I suggest you instead listen to and work with your employees

Your employees clearly want to work remotely. If you force them to work onsite, they'll either leave or check out (not give their best). And you'll have trouble getting and retaining folks who like them want to work remotely (many, many people these days), which means you run a real risk of brain-drain: the staff you wind up with isn't to the same caliber as before due to the fact that the talent pool you're drawing from is smaller. If this isn’t what your company wants, you should listen to your employees and learn how to work in a hybrid fashion. This may mean sending your management to training to learn new management skills and techniques, as there appears to be a disconnect between management and the employees.

But regardless, remember: if you don't keep your employees happy, you don't keep your employees--at least not the good ones, who can and will go elsewhere. And in their place you'll gradually accumulate incompetence.

Edit: I know my answer sounds harsh, but I really think this is the key issue, and unless you address it, you’ll continue to have this problem. I don’t think you can have your cake and eat it too in this situation. Your staff just don’t want to work in a pre-pandemic style workplace. But the management wants to force them to. That’s not going to work.

1

The underlying problem here isn't how to create a remote work policy. Your concerns seem to revolve around your desire that:

personal meetings, personal communication, and collaboration with managers and stakeholders can still easily be done without complicated scheduling

Can elaborate on why you need "complicated scheduling" for an employee who's remote but not for an employee that's in the office?

This seems like an XY Problem. The real issue is that you're having problems meeting with employees as frequently or effectively as you need to. You first need to figure out why you can't meet effectively with employees while they're working remotely. The answer to that question will dictate what your remote work policy should look like.

Some employees tend to treat working remotely as freedom to create their own schedule. If that's the underlying problem, then the simplest policy is to require remote workers to work the same hours as in-office workers. When everyone's working at the same time, you don't have to jump through hoops to make everyone's schedule line up.

When you have a meeting with a remote worker, what does that meeting look like? Is it merely a phone call? A video call? Do you use a full-featured communication platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams? The point is, you need to determine whether your tools are ultimately what's limiting you. What you can do in an in-person meeting that you can't do when meeting with a remote worker? What tools are needed to change that? If your only means of communication with a remote worker is email and telephone, then your policy might be as simple as "our company doesn't have the infrastructure set up to handle remote work, so we're going to transition back to in-office work over the next few months".

Sometimes the underlying problem is a knowledge gap around how to use collaboration tools effectively. Companies implemented these tools on short notice at the beginning of the pandemic but never really had the opportunity to teach people (especially non-technical people) how to use them. They'd schedule everyone to be in the office for a 2-3 day training deep-dive on how to use their collaboration tools effectively, and afterwards working remotely became significantly less of an operational burden. If this is your problem, then your remote work policy might look more like a certification. An employee has to take certain training courses and demonstrate that they can use the collaboration tools effectively before they can work remotely. That certification can be revoked if the employee fails to use them properly and working with them becomes overly difficult.

All of this might also simply be a misunderstanding of expectations. A remote employee should have the same level of availability as an in-office employee. If employees don't return emails for hours, make sure they know you expect timely responses during working hours. My company found that proper collaboration tools made this a lot easier than when we all worked in-office. Our IM client shows when we're in a meeting and if we need to step away, we can set an away message indicating when we'll be back. I can see my entire team's availability at a glace, and start up an impromptu meeting in about 3 clicks. If someone isn't responsive for an unreasonable amount of time, you can escalate it to their manager (just like you would if they weren't at their desk).

You mentioned:

We could start a 100% remote policy. However, in this case, we expect higher communication overhead and higher overhead overall for managers and stakeholders.

This really sounds like the underlying problem is a lack of appropriate tools or the ability to use them effectively. Communication with remote employees should not mean more overhead. If the collaboration tools you're using aren't making it easier to collaborate, then you don't have the right tools. Whatever percentage of in-office time you set will never be enough. You'll always have cases where someone is working remotely when you need them to do something they can only do in the office. You'll either need to put the right tools in place, learn how to use the tools you have, or bring everyone back in full-time.

0

Since you are talking about setting a company policy, you should aim to be as broad as possible and leave the details to lower level managers.

The company doesn't know who I work with day to day, or what projects I will be working on in the future and who else is assigned to those projects. It would be too much to ask a CEO to know every employee's work routine. But my manager knows that. He can implement a working schedule that allows us opportunity to take advantage of in office days and work from home days. Beyond that, my manager also knows the context of my meetings better than corporate would and he would know which of my meetings benefit from being in person and which do not.

So, make your policy broad. Detail the intended reasons for the policy and delegate the specific implementation to your managerial staff.

0

We basically tried four different approaches which all failed:
We tried to just give a reference such as "at least 50% in the office".
Clearly written rules with exceptions
Clearly written rules without exceptions
Fixed remote slots

To me it looks like you started out with fairly reasonable and flexible rules, and then it got increasingly worse when those didn't work: "At least 50% in the office" sounds pretty flexible and should be able to get everyone on board who isn't totally against showing up in the office. "Clearly written rules without exception" sounds like a disaster because you stop treating people as grown ups, who can manage their own interests as well as the companies.

So it is interesting to have a look why the first rule failed:

No clear rules: We tried to just give a reference such as "at least 50% in the office". However, we ran into the issue that colleagues were unavailable in the office for several weeks in a row or several weeks before their holiday. And if a manager wanted to schedule an important meeting in person, then the colleague questioned and discussed the necessity of this meeting, which caused additional friction and overhead to everybody. Some traveled and were completely unavailable for personal meetings.

This actually doesn't sound like the rule was bad, but the company failed to enforce it: If someone stays home for weeks in a row, they are clearly not 50% in the office, by anything except the most extreme interpretation (e.g. "1 Year in the office and 1 year on Ibiza") It appears that you had a handful of people not following the rules and you are punishing everyone for it.

When you had a "100% in the office" rule you were able to enforce, it shouldn't be impossible to do so with a "50% in the office" rule, just have people write down which days they are in and their managers spot check if necessary. If a minority of employees doesn't comply make it clear that you won't allow them to sabotage the pilot project and let the other employees suffer from their unwillingness to cooperate.

It should prevent discussions and arguments between colleagues and managers about this remote policy
It should give colleagues as much flexibility as possible

I don't think you can have both. If you want to introduce a change that makes sense, you will have to give people the chance to give feedback and explain their situation. It is your job to make sure the discussion is focused and constructive. Treat your employees as grown ups and act as an intermediary to management in this discussion rather than a Kindergarten teacher.

E.g. if someone challenges the fact that you have to be 50% in the office there is better ways to respond to it than: "The rule is 50%, there will be no discussion" I would be much more understanding if it was something like: "We know 50% is a very arbitrary rule, but we still haven't addressed all the concerns that might arise from remote work, so we do not have the buy-in to do 100% remote immediately and we will have to start somewhere. If this pilot works well, it will allow us to tune the except time in the office and experiment with more flexibility."

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