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Why I Wrote Remote Not Distant – A Roadmap to Design a Robust Hybrid Culture

I want to encourage more meaningful conversations about why and how we work.

By Gustavo Razzetti

July 19, 2022

My journey to challenge what I used to believe about culture and remote work

This post is more personal than the ones I usually publish. It's not about my book Remote, Not Distant but the writing journey itself. I want to share how it challenged my beliefs about workplace culture as well as address questions from awesome readers about what it takes to write a book.

In this post, I will focus on why I wrote the book and the lessons I learned both as a writer and a culture design consultant. I will post a follow-up on Medium detailing the publishing process – from idea and design to editing and distribution – in case you're thinking of writing one yourself.

I started writing my book out of curiosity and a passion for learning. This quote by Shane Parrish was the ultimate trigger: "Writing is often the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about." While reading helps you learn, writing helps you think.

Why I Wrote a Book about Hybrid Work Culture

Some authors are driven by an idea, others by the pursuit of fame. In my case, I wrote with a more mundane goal: to spark meaningful conversations about culture in a hybrid/ remote environment.

This is a unique opportunity to rethink why and how we work.

Unfortunately, the conversation around the hybrid workplace is flawed. Often, it gets stuck in execution aspects such as how many days in the office versus remote. Most importantly, it fails to challenge our thinking.

As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman said about the ultimate outcome of an education, "Well, I think that's quite obvious. It's to change what you believe." He didn't say to change what you know. For Kahneman, learning is about challenging our beliefs – what we feel sure to be true.

Writing this book started as a challenge to revisit my assumptions about culture and remote work. I spent much of my career in office-centric organizations, believing that strong collaboration requires being in the same place in real-time.

When the pandemic hit, I was about to start a global roadshow to facilitate my Culture Design Masterclass in Toronto, New York, London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Sydney, and many other cities. I had to cancel my plans and convert my consulting and workshops to virtual formats. All in one weekend.

Long story short, I had to consider how to design and facilitate sessions. I couldn't simply replicate the in-person experience in the remote world; I had to think differently.

In addition to helping thousands of people design better workplace cultures, I had to help them learn how to work remotely.

I've spent countless hours researching and creating tools for remote collaboration, talking to leaders and employees, and listening and learning from workshop participants. I met leaders who are still lost and people who would rather lose their jobs than the flexibility they gained during the pandemic. I met remote work advocates who think having an office is pointless. And, of course, skeptics.

My primary goal was to provide a framework to spark meaningful conversations and build better workplaces. If that happens, then mission accomplished.

The Five Steps – First manuscript of Remote Not Distant

Why Me?

I'm grateful for the opportunity to talk about Remote, Not Distant at dozens of podcasts. The interviews have helped me reflect on the journey and see my book from a distance.

The most frequent question I got was why I wrote a book about hybrid workplaces. My usual response is, "Why not?"

Whenever you decide to write your own book – or start any project, for that matter – people will seek an explanation. Some will expect a deep, life-changing reason. Others will want you to demonstrate you have the right qualifications. I always assume positive intent when you get asked that question. Don't fall into the trap of having to prove anything. You don't need to find a profound reason – just be yourself.

Also, you don't need to prove that you are an expert.

I hate the word "expert" or "guru" – every time someone uses it to describe me, I immediately respond, "I'm no expert." It's not a lack of self-confidence, but I don’t want to be put in a box (that’s what labels do). Being an expert feels like we have all the knowledge – the opposite of keeping our mind open to continuous learning.

Most importantly, we gain expertise by doing. So, it's okay to start a new project even if you know nothing about it; you'll learn as you go. Don't ask for permission, follow your instincts instead. No one knows what you are capable of.

Sometimes we do things because it feels right in that moment. So, why not?

Remote Not Distant book cover finalists

Is Hybrid the Best or Worst of Both Worlds?

I started the research for Remote Not Distant with a question: what will the future of work look like after the pandemic? My initial hypothesis was that hybrid could provide the best of both worlds: In-person and Remote.

Most leaders thought work-from-home was a temporary phase – soon things would go back to normal. Many remote-first experts predicted that hybrid would turn into a failed experiment: the worst of both worlds. It's not that I got it right first – we all changed our minds as more evidence and research was available.

A hybrid workplace can bring together the best of both worlds—the convenience of working from home and the social interactions of the office.

Unfortunately, many companies are slipping back into old, unhealthy habits rather than building on what they learned during the pandemic. Seeing how they miss a golden opportunity to embrace the future is frustrating.

Forcing people to return to the office and pretending the pandemic never happened is a mistake. Trying to take in-office cultures and practices and copy-paste them into a half-remote/half-in-office experience will backfire.

Hybrid could quickly become the worst of both worlds if we take sides. To avoid that, we need to stop thinking in binary terms – the office OR remote. Leaders must be more intentional about making structural changes and treating every employee as remote-first (regardless of location).

Uncovering better ways of working requires we stop seeing the office as the center of work and culture.

Don't Waste this Unique Opportunity

People are lost and leaders don't clearly understand how to lead in a hybrid workplace. Most companies have jumped too quickly into fixing mode. They want to land on an answer and move on – often because they want to avoid difficult conversations.

I worry that many could waste this unique opportunity to redesign how we work.

My book captures the framework I use with my clients to provoke meaningful, actionable conversations. I hope it sparks the same curiosity among the readers – leaders, people and culture executives, team members, and consultants.

It's essential to spend time defining what the real problem is. Issues such as "the culture is eroding" (because of remote work) or that "I want people at the office more often" are not real problems but symptoms of a more complex reality. Jumping too quickly into the solution could lead to solving the wrong problem.

Many opportunists are trying to sell quick fixes or magic potions. This has been something that has kept me on my toes. When writing my book, I had a sign that read, "Don't BS your reader." I hope I have succeeded. That's for you to judge.

Do You Want the Book to Be Yours or to Be Good?

Writing a book puts our ego to the test. All the love, energy, and time we put into the process – the emotional connection – makes it harder for us to stay objective. Just like our children, if we want them to grow in the right direction, the best thing we can do is let go.

I know – it's easier said than done. For me, it wasn't easy at first to involve people in the process. Once I crossed the line, it became natural to continue that dialogue with the readers. People enjoyed the chance to peek behind the scenes. Some wanted to see how it's done, maybe considering writing their own book. Others found joy in sharing and participating – they wanted to be part of the journey.

When I first announced I was writing a book, many people asked me to keep them posted. That sparked the idea of inviting people into the process. I asked for feedback to choose the book title, the cover design, and more.

One tip about feedback: be clear about what you're looking for. I used feedback as input, not to delegate the final decision to others. For example, I selected the cover design that was the second, not first, most voted. Similarly, the first book title poll results were confusing; some suggested new names instead of voting. I ran a second round clarifying that I wasn't looking for "new" titles.

Don't just focus on the numbers; comments provide better insights. I encouraged people to explain why they chose one title over another, as well as made it okay to say "none" and explain why. This was particularly critical for the book cover selection. By reading ALL the comments, I could move from what people liked to the impression the design created on them.

Feedback also helped me understand what people needed: a book with real-life stories and research plus an actionable framework with practical tools. Most Amazon book reviews celebrate that approach.

Dealing with Feedback Is Not Easy

Unsolicited feedback can backfire, even if it comes from a good place. Recently, one person told me on LinkedIn that I should highlight the quotes with a box "just like Brené Brown does." Unsolicited feedback can quickly derail you. Especially if it comes once your book was published – not only can I no longer the design, but why would I copy another author?

As a writer, listen to feedback but make the choices that work for you – it's your voice, your book.

Marcus Aurelius wrote: "It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own."

Setting clear expectations will save you a lot of headaches. That's precisely what I did with beta readers. I encouraged them to focus on the big picture, not the details. A few years ago, I was a beta reader for Nir Eyal's Indistractable. It was a chaotic experience. Many were trying to write a different book instead of helping the author improve his.  

That's also why I didn't want to use Google Docs – to avoid readers being influenced by what others would think. I was happy to discover the Betareader App which provided a friendly experience for both myself and my readers. People could only read the comments everyone left at the end of each chapter. It still created a community feeling and promoted conversations but without groupthink.

Once I collected feedback, I categorized it into three groups: Confirmation, Quick Fixes, and Challenges. The first group included feedback in which people expressed what they liked or provided input to reinforce the ideas I wrote. Quick Fixes included typos, grammar issues, or suggestions to improve readability. The Challenges group was the toughest one: it included ideas that readers questioned or recommendations related to structure, flow, or whether to include something.

The first two groups were easy to digest and implement.

For the last one, I had to put my ego aside and pay attention. It helped me to copy all the comments on a single document I called "Areas for Improvement" – a title that intentionally framed feedback as growth, not criticism.

I let it simmer for a couple of days before going back to all the notes. Time provided a fresh perspective and the comments felt less personal. The process didn't remove the pain; it just helped me take candid feedback.

Pro tip: choose your beta readers mindfully. I asked people to volunteer and design a diverse cohort based on location, gender, and background. I also set up a limit – there's so much feedback you can digest – and ensured the majority were strangers to guarantee unbiased feedback.  

Beta readers discussing their experience during the book launch party

Stop Talking about Return to the Office

The way the media portrays the conversation doesn't help. Centering the debate into a return to what used to be instead of inviting people to imagine a better future: what could be?

I wanted to challenge the idea of pushing people back into the office.

The notion is flawed: it assumes an office-centric rather than a digital-centric approach.

Also, it feels like going back to normal – climbing back into the hamster wheel – means missing all the lessons learned during the past two years.

Words matter. They help explore possibilities or get us stuck in rigid constructs.

For starters, it's like going back to how things used to be rather than rethinking work. Also, it's based on the assumption that a positive employee experience should be office-centric.

"Remote" doesn't exclusively mean working from home.

Working from home is not the best solution for everyone, either.

Some people don't want to work from home but prefer a more convenient coworking space than the office. New employees prefer to go to the office more often, but once they feel they belong, they are more comfortable working remotely.

Most importantly, hybrid is not about location.

Rigid models that define three days at the office and two from home are bad attempts to replicate the 9 to 5 work schedule. They miss the real opportunity.

"Hybrid" is a spectrum—from office-centric/ top-down to digital-centric/ flexible models. Defining the right approach is critical to succeeding in a hybrid workplace.

There are many ways to do hybrid – five at least, according to my research. Some are office-centric, while others are digital-centric. Some models are top-down; others provide more freedom and flexibility. I strongly recommend the latter.

Review the different models and ask yourself: How can we create an environment and approach that helps people do their best work?

The Secret to Succeed in a Hybrid Workplace

The secret to thriving in the hybrid workplace is that there's no magic formula.

Most business books are a quick fix; they provide answers rather than help people ask better questions. When I started pitching my book, people asked me to explain my approach in one sentence: What solution should people follow? This didn't feel good to me.

I made it clear that there are no silver bullets right from the start. If leaders are unwilling to do the hard work, they can skip reading it.

As a whole, hybrid is difficult to do right.

There are two principles to succeed in a hybrid workplace: flexibility and discipline – the paradox that captures the need for intentionality.  

Research shows that people expect flexibility not only in terms of where they work but also in their schedule. With freedom comes accountability. Giving people the freedom to choose when, how, and where they want to work creates a stronger sense of ownership and responsibility.

A successful hybrid workplace requires obsessive coordination and collaboration – integrating both what's good for the individual and what's good for the team.

Discipline is the glue that holds flexible employees together. When team members have different arrangements, this inherently requires better coordination, communication, and documentation. That's where discipline comes in handy.

Flexibility doesn't mean permission to do whatever people want. Instead, it's encouraging them to make personal choices in the team's best interests. Rather than dictating a one-size-fits-all standard, let people choose what's more effective for them. It's an invitation to rethink how they can do their best work.

Successful remote companies are obsessively intentional about their workplace culture. They have a handbook-first approach, default to asynchronous communication, and design experiences to create belonging, but don't force people to participate in social events. Most importantly, they involve people in the culture design process.

The companies struggling in a hybrid environment opted for a top-down approach – a bunch of executives defined a one-size-fits-all hybrid model. They have an office-centric mindset, viewing remote and in-person work as opposing forces. Most importantly, they can't let go of the past (and control), failing to build a culture of trust, flexibility, and ownership.

Their biggest mistake is focusing on finding the perfect solution instead of adopting an experimental mindset.

The Hardest Part

The most difficult part for me was asking for help. Not that I have a problem recognizing I needed it. But in the past few years, I leaned too much into being a giver that I lost the practice of taking (see Adam Grant's take on the topic).

Seriously, your energy and passion alone won't take you too far. I realized that if I wanted my book to succeed, I would need a lot of help – asking people over and over for favors. Pitching potential interviewees, requesting blurbs and endorsements, asking for Amazon reviews, getting people to introduce you to 'influencers,' or supporting your marketing efforts – it requires a lot of love, time, and passion.

I had to overcome the fear of rejection (Why would they help ME?) and reach out to people with respect and persistence. Doubt is full of unknowns – if you don't try, you'll never know.

Thankfully, I met a lot of givers along my journey.

Pitching interviews was definitely the most challenging part. I'm not comfortable reaching out to strangers and asking for their time. I was in awe when one of my favorite authors, Dr. Tasha Eurich, accepted to be interviewed and then provided a blurb for the cover. She even introduced me to another author I could talk to without me even asking for a favor.

The book launch party was the best way to wrap up the experience (the publishing phase, as marketing your book never ends). People showed up to celebrate the book – and me. I'm super grateful for all the generous help from colleagues, contacts, and strangers – if it wasn't for everyone who showed up.

For me, it was about celebrating the end of a journey and everyone who joined along the way. We made it so far because we all walked together. We were remote, but never distant.

Get your copy of Remote, Not Distant at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Depository, IndieBound, Books-A-Million, and more (It's already an Amazon bestseller!).

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