March 29, 2023
See this piece as it was originally published here.
TL;DR: With remote work here to stay, it’s time to stop trying to recreate the in-person office culture and focus on maximizing energy levels for a more productive and happier workforce. By redefining work-life around personal rhythms instead of office hours and prioritizing “green” (energizing) tasks, companies can create a new, thriving work culture that optimizes the remote experience.
In 2020, work went remote. For some companies that was smoother than others, but all in all modern technology put most desk workers in a reasonably good position to handle the change. Between Zoom, Slack, and Google Docs, the functional transition was surprisingly smooth.
Now we’re three years in and for many workers, WFH has become basically non-negotiable. It’s the #1 most valued perk for job seekers, and companies trying to bring their teams back in are facing massive pushback. At Waymark, we’ve gone fully remote and would never consider going back.
The loss of in-person culture…and the failed attempts to regain it
For us and many other companies, a critical element has felt missing in this new remote world: “culture”. The most important intangible for any business, culture was often rooted in the physical environment: daily interactions at the office and the collective energy of shared space. It’s been a slow burn, but over the last few years the feeling of loss has only become stronger and clearer.
Attempts to restore culture have largely tried to recreate in-person interaction, either through online tools or by requiring people to come back in. As far as I can tell, both are failing spectacularly. Companies that try to force frequent in-office days look out of touch and unattractive. Products that try to replace the water cooler with video chats can be fun for a few months but quickly become tiresome. While I’m a huge supporter of getting the team together occasionally, the workforce has clearly spoken: in-person should be reserved for big events.
A new theory: Maximizing Energy
So what can we do? At Waymark we’ve begun to develop a new theory of workplace culture that tries to get to the root of the issue.
For companies that had good in-person cultures, we believe the fundamental problem with remote work is Energy. Simply put, working at the office was energizing; working at home (e.g. Zoom all day) is draining. By trying to recreate the literal interactions from the office, organizations are missing the point. In fact, forced social video calls can often be draining and end up doing more harm than good until people just stop showing up. By reframing the challenge in terms of energy rather than social interaction, a new world of possibilities opens up.
At Waymark, we talk about three levels of energy: “on”, “normal”, and “meh”. If you ever have hours where you’re dragging and everything feels hard, those are “meh”. Conversely, everyone I talk to can relate to the feeling where you’re just unstoppable — those are the “on” hours. Everything in between is “normal”.
The goal of this framework is to help everyone at your company spend as many hours “on” and as few “meh” as possible.
Shifting hours up the energy scale has two effects. First, it makes those hours more productive. Our non-scientific estimate is that 1 “on” hour = 4 “normal” hours = 100 “meh” hours. “Meh” hours are basically a complete waste of time (in fact, they probably have negative overall value). We encourage people to literally walk away from the computer immediately if they are in that state. Take a walk, take a nap, have a snack — anything but trying to fight through the malaise. Meanwhile, if you can achieve one “on” hour, that’s worth a full half day of normal work. If sleeping in 2 extra hours will help you get to 1 more “on” hour, that’s a great trade.
Second, it makes people happier. Energy isn’t a perfect proxy for happiness, but they’re highly correlated. When you and your team spend more time feeling unstoppable and less time dragging, it’s almost redundant to say that you’ll feel better. And in fact, it’s a virtuous cycle: feeling good leads to higher energy hours which in turn makes you feel even better.
Possibly the most impactful part of this framework is that these energy levels don’t just apply to work. I feel all three energy levels acutely in my personal / social life, and most strategies for raising energy levels will apply across both the professional and personal realms. So not only does it create more space for your personal life by increasing productivity, it actually raises your level of energy and engagement throughout your whole life. How nice!
Given this framework, there are many big and small things you can do to raise your team’s energy levels. We’ve found two major ones that work well with remote life and have had a really positive impact.
Energy strategy #1: Personal Rhythm
The first thing to let go of in the remote workplace is the 9-to-5. The beauty of WFH is the flexibility. Most people have gotten comfortable with the idea of a quick dog walk or load of laundry, but that’s barely the beginning.
Everyone has a pattern to their energy levels — and it probably doesn’t perfectly align with the “work day” and “lunch break”. Some people thrive in the morning. Others at night. Most have an afternoon lull. Maybe 15 minute breaks every hour lock you in for the other 45. Or a 90-minute nap will turn your day around. Whatever it is for you, following your personal rhythm is probably the most impactful thing you can do to raise your energy level.
Achieving this usually starts with reflection and awareness. The concept is so foreign to most of us that we’re barely in touch with what would really put us at our best. Even people who have their routine down have usually anchored it around the traditional work day without considering what would really be best for them.
For me, I’ve found that my best hours are surprisingly late at night, so I sleep in throughout the week and then put in a couple evenings of work. Try encouraging yourself and your team to think in terms of energy and not stress about the “work day” to understand how they can be at their best.
Energy strategy #2: Red and Green Work
Of course, engagement isn’t just about when the work happens; the next key ingredient is the work itself. At Waymark, we’ve embraced and extended an idea that I’ve seen called an “energy audit”. You classify all your work as either “green” (energizing) or “red” (draining). From there, eliminate as much red work as possible and focus on green work.
There are a lot of strategies to do that — that could easily be a whole other article! — but there are a couple things I’ve found especially powerful when you adopt this at an organization level. First, I’ve been amazed at how often one person’s red work is green for another person. Just introducing the vernacular of red and green work has allowed us to shift and share responsibilities in a way that lets everyone do more energizing work at basically no cost.
Second, introducing the idea of green work into our prioritization helps us do better and faster work. Typically the only input to prioritization is what’s most important for the customer and business, but there are usually a range of options that would be roughly similar in expected impact. Just asking the question “which of these ideas are you most excited about?” lets us do work that is more energizing and therefore gets done with more enthusiasm, leading to better overall output plus happier teammates.
Remote work will never replicate the in-person experience that came before it. Rather than trying to reproduce office culture, companies can work to maximize the happiness and productivity of their employees in a way that fits the new facts of work life.
For us, focusing on Energy has made a huge difference. If you’re in a position to try any of this at a team level, I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot. And if you’re not, the Personal Rhythm and Red/Green Work strategies can also be helpful at an individual level.
The move to remote work has its pros and cons, but it’s time to move on from attempting to recreate the past and figure out how to build energizing culture where we are today.