Enabling the Future of Remote Work
October 13, 2021

Tony Zhao
Agora

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What may have appeared to be a stopgap solution in the spring of 2020 is now clearly our new workplace reality: It's impossible to walk back so many of the developments in workflow we've seen since then. The question is no longer when we'll all get back to the office, but how the companies that are lagging in their technological ability to facilitate remote work can catch up. 
 
The "late bloomer" companies here can learn a lot about fostering employees' productivity and happiness from the earlier adapters — and from people who have been building remote work solutions with agility and efficiency in mind.  

At Agora's recent conference, we brought together some of those solution-builders: Charley Ho, co-founder and CTO of virtual office provider Remotion, Joe da Silva, co-founder and CEO of collaborative platform Camvas, and Matthew Lloyd, CXO of digital workplace provider Wurkr. Agora Startup Advocate, Blaise Thomas, moderated the discussion.  

Our panel agreed remote work is here to stay, and a poll of session attendees made it clearer that the hybrid model is what workers want: 17% said they would prefer to work entirely remotely, about the same share said they preferred being required to come to the office a certain number of days per week, and the majority preferred coming to the office whenever they choose.  

So we asked the panel what companies, teams and employees can do next.  

Remote work needs to mirror face-to-face interactions, and businesses can do better than the clunky tools so many of them are using today.

Part of the promise of remote work is that it provides flexibility — which is what the modern workforce demands. Charley Ho of Remotion points out that so much of in-person office life is spontaneous, and workplace tools need to build in spontaneity. Remote work platforms need to do better than "in-person." Ho says the "giant face" video call phenomenon is unnatural and can feel exhausting — and you start solving that by assessing how participants are shown on the screen, asking whether "the full-screen video experience"  is really necessary for everyone, especially when you are trying to emulate an "always on" presence like in the physical office. We can't underestimate how flexible in-person interactions truly are. 

"When one person works remote, everyone works remote." 

That, said Joe da Silva, is Camvas's "core philosophy," and it's a smart guideline. "Unless we work in such a way that we give everyone the context to be productive, you really need to create communication capabilities that allow for that to happen," he elaborated. Lloyd added that if you want everyone on a team to be in "the same situation," you need to lead with remote. Eschewing the office meeting room and having everyone dial into a meeting from their desk gives everyone on the team an equal say, and removes the fear that anyone out of the office is being left behind. 

"Always on" doesn't mean "panopticon."  

The problem with leaving your webcam on all the time, pointed out Matthew Lloyd, is that people feel like it violates their privacy. And the in-person office, he added, can really be a "distraction farm." Wurkr aimed to improve on that, by allowing workers to move between virtual offices and to "replicate the knock on the door" anywhere around the world, but also offering do-not-disturb options. Some clients, he said, don't even want to "switch on" — but they enjoy, psychologically, just feeling "proximity" to their colleagues.  

Remote work can be more distracting than the office, and companies need to solve that. 

Ho said Remotion learned some things about what distraction means while considering what "always-on" meant. "A video call feels so much more intense of an interaction," he said. "But what happens when you tab into Slack, someone asks a question to you 20 seconds later, just as you've tabbed back to your work? If I could just be tapped on the shoulder, that would save time." Ho added that his team found it's helpful to workers to see who's having those conversations and where, and to allow them to join those conversations and collaborate meaningfully.  

A synchronous workflow for remote work and tools that enable it are good for productivity — and inclusion.  

All panelists agreed that remote work can have a democratizing effect. It allows companies to hire wherever in the world they find the right talent, which provides opportunities for people who don't have similar local opportunities. Lloyd pointed out it's extremely helpful for people with mobility issues — even people who don't cope well in large groups. Opening up the team this way brings diversity of thought, experience, perspective — which is good for the business's overall vision and competitiveness. 

These takeaways carry a lot of meaning and value for industry stakeholders as they consider how they operate in the remote work ecosystem. It'll be intriguing to see how the conversation progresses in person and on every remote platform.

Tony Zhao is Co-Founder and CEO at Agora
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