Distributed Work in 2021 - What to Expect

Ari Newman
Jan 7, 2021

2021 has arrived. Happy New Year?!? COVID is still rampant, and while there is light at the end of the tunnel thanks to vaccine progress, we anticipate that the first six months of 2021 are going to look a lot like the last six of 2020 for knowledge workers and office-based professionals.

We recently had a great conversation with Nick Branholm of Russell Tobin about emerging trends, how things have changed, and what to expect in 2021 in the tech work world. Nick works with a number of successful fast-growing tech companies nationwide and has some great perspective. He’s truly got his fingers on the pulse given his work across the industry, so we felt like the obvious thing to do was grill him with our burning questions!


Massive:  Everyone talks about the "new normal" - what do you think 2021 will look like in terms of office vs remote work?

Nick: I think remote work is here to stay. Q1 and Q2 are going to look a lot like 2020 with most companies sticking to a fully remote model with an option to allow those who want to return to offices the chance to do so as the vaccines are rolled out. This past year gave a lot of teams the opportunity to prove that they can be productive (or more productive) remotely, which overall seemed to be the case. I also think that you will start to see various departments across organizations have different rules.

For example, the engineering team may be greenlighted to continue remote indefinitely but some sales, creative, and marketing teams may take a harder stance on requiring some sort of in-person model.

Massive: Do you believe companies like Twitter who went 100% remote will stick to it once we are all vaccinated?

Nick: Yes. Some have already made the decision to offer permanent remote options for employees post-COVID (Twitter, Facebook, Square, Dropbox, Coinbase, Atlassian, Shopify, and Slack). Companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have continued to push their reopening dates into the fall of 2021 and in some cases as late as Q1 of 2022. In my opinion, these companies will be forced through competition for talent to allow flexibility for permanent remote work as we enter the “new normal”.

For example, Microsoft is already giving some employees the chance to work 50% of each week remote upon their return to the office with an option for some managers to approve indefinite remote work on a case by case basis. I think you will start to see that this trend will stick and trickle down into venture-backed startups competing for talent with the bigger players.

Massive: We keep hearing about hybrid offices and hot seats. What is this all about?

Nick: We are going to see a lot of tech companies start to pivot toward hybrid offices and small satellite spaces across the globe to cater to those in their existing hubs who want to go into a physical space and collaborate with coworkers. For example, Dropbox recently announced that they are going “Virtual First” and opening up collaborative spaces called “Dropbox Studios” in all locations in which they have physical offices. Keep an eye on this trend… I’m a big fan and think a lot of others will follow suit if they haven’t already. Article here.

Massive: How has the past year changed tech company hiring practices? What do you think will happen next year (2021)?

Nick: Companies have been forced to restructure their interview processes and make them remote-friendly. Zoom “whiteboarding” sessions and an increase in take-home or collaborative technical assessments on platforms like HackerRank, CoderPad, or Karat have all become popular options.  

Diversity and Inclusion have skyrocketed to the forefront of the hiring agenda (it’s about time). Personally, I think the push away from in-person style interviewing has actually helped eliminate major biases unintentionally embedded into most processes. They allow candidates to skip the small talk and get right into demonstrating their skills and whether they can do the job.

Employer branding will prove to be more critical than ever. How do we highlight our culture virtually? Increase community involvement virtually? Attract top tier talent through our digital footprint and brand? For some, they may be dealing with the fact that their impressive office spaces or in-office dining perks can no longer win them talent.

Massive: What's your prediction about hiring overall for 2021?

Nick: Empathy and flexibility will win. Companies that get it right will have a HUGE advantage over those slower to embrace the new state of work. The combination of fully remote employees outside of existing hubs and hybrid / flexible office spaces for collaboration is a winning formula.

Massive: We've heard salaries have stayed at "coastal" levels even when hiring talent in remote locations. Do you think this trend will continue or course correct? Can someone make SV comp hanging out in Denver?

Nick: I definitely agree that a lot of salaries have remained “coastal” when hiring remote talent over the past nine months.

Going forward, I think it will be a mixed bag. Some will course correct to eliminate accruing management debt over time (likely the safer move). You’re already starting to see this with Facebook as they announced that if you move to a lower-cost location… your compensation is subject to being reduced.

Others will see this as a huge opportunity to land talent over competitors by offering Silicon Valley or NYC level compensation to remote hires in other geographies. Some of the best people I have represented this year have noted that they were contemplating moving out of West and East coast hotbeds to places like Boulder/Denver 😊, Jackson Hole, and Bozeman. (no joke!)

To answer your last question, yes I think people can make SV comp in places like Denver because the competition is going to force companies to make those types of offers. We will see how that pans out over time.

Massive: What will stick, and what will fade away in 2021 in terms of remote work?

Nick: I think a lot of companies will rethink perks and benefits. Instead of cafeterias, nap stations, on-campus bikes/scooters, and commuter benefits…. you will start to see a lot of remote work stipends given to set up home offices. I also think you’ll start to see more investment in benefits aiding continuous learning, education, wellbeing, virtual exercise, meditation, childcare, etc. Who will be the first to start offering free Pelotons!?

Massive: What will be the breakout remote/distributed workforce tool of 2021?

Nick: Collaboration software is obviously having its day (Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc). CyberSecurity and remote workforce infrastructure products will continue to be at the top of every company’s purchase list. I am excited to see some innovative remote interviewing and employee engagement product offerings come out.

Candidate Experience and Employee Engagement products catering to a distributed workforce will be interesting to follow.

Massive: What is the best way to recruit world-class talent in 2021?

Nick: Recruiting with empathy is my number one recommendation. Referrals are your friend while building internal teams, so spend time, energy, and money maximizing your internal referral pipeline!

Hire engineering leaders or leaders in general who have some experience leading and building distributed teams (I often get asked questions like “how long has the company and team been remote?” Or “Will my upward mobility be limited as a remote employee compared to those in existing hubs and physical offices?”) Make sure you have a plan to answer those questions.

Massive: Any overall advice?

Nick: Being there for people during this difficult time is critical. Reach out and be present. If you are in a position to help someone.... do so. It will mean more than you’ll ever know.

About Nick:

Nick runs Russell Tobin’s tech recruiting team focused on helping venture-backed startups hire software engineering talent. After spending five years working in the New York City tech community, he relocated to Denver in June of 2019 to launch Russell Tobin’s presence in the Denver/Boulder tech ecosystem. In addition to helping start-ups hire great humans, Nick enjoys exploring new restaurants, skiing, and hiking with his dog Arpo.

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