Everything about the nature of work is evolving. Increasingly, work is being done remotely, either from the comforts of home or along a dotted-line zig-zagging the globe. According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a quarter of working Americans do some of their work remotely. Telecommuting went up 115 percent between the years 2005 and 2015. As remote work further matures into the mainstream, more people will pick not only where and how they work, but with whom.
Busting free of the cubicle has a strong allure. You set the schedule. You decide what an office is. But there are downsides, too. The lack of repeated face-to-face interaction with one’s colleagues can foster feelings of isolation, rootlessness, and uncertainty. While the world’s most innovative companies are redesigning their offices to maximize social interaction, remote workers are left adrift. They need to build their own framework.
Remote work tribes could be the answer. Human evolution occurred primarily through small groups, which are more adept at change and cohesion than larger societies. In the evolving nature of work, remote work tribes can be seen as a necessary disruption: a loose collectivization of workers who are connected by the context in which they perform their duties, as opposed to by what duties they perform.
Compared to the corporate office system, the concept of remote work is remarkably young, with the first usage of the word ‘telecommuting’ dating back to 1972. Major opportunities for change, disruption, and optimization still exist. Soon, the image of an individual alone with a computer in a dark room may morph into something entirely different: a decentralized group of harmonized workers, the more evolved Homo remotus.
The strength of a remote work tribe lies in its differentiation from the groupings that occur in the modern office. While the corporate system tends to divide people into focused departments (accounting, marketing, HR), the remote work tribe removes these distinctions as a prerequisite for collaboration. In a remote tribe, your colleagues can be currency traders, bloggers, software engineers, graphic designers, marketing gurus, translators, and entrepreneurs. What bonds you together is your shared experience of remote work, and what those bonds yield is what Fortune 100 companies spend millions of dollars to try and achieve: diversity, collaboration, and outside-the-box thinking.
Finding other remote workers has never been easier. Major coworking spaces like Selina and Impact Hub have franchises across the globe. With that growth, they’ve come to learn what remote workers need: not just a place to accomplish one’s tasks, but a place that supports an atmosphere of connection.
In the digital world, sites like NomadList maintain chat servers for every popular city for remote workers, giving people a venue to arrange in-person meetups. Larger gatherings, like the annual Nomad Summit, are the equivalent of a major industry convention. The nature of remote work means that geography isn’t a factor in recruiting other members. By building your network to include more diverse lifestyles and viewpoints, you can begin cultivating your ideal remote work tribe.
But what is a remote work tribe? What’s its purpose, its structure, its guiding ethos? It’s entirely up to you. Defined goals are what distinguish a remote work tribe from a simple list of one’s acquaintances. But unlike corporate goals, which place the success of one’s bosses at the top of the hierarchy, a remote work tribe places the needs of the individuals first. Furthermore, it’s easier to fulfill those needs due to the small size of a tribe, which makes it nimbler and more personalized than a larger company.
Learning what your goals are for a remote work tribe will take a little bit of soul-searching and a whole lot of honesty—honesty both with yourself and with your new colleagues. Some groups, such as Wi-Fi Tribe, are built around an adventurous spirit that prioritizes new experiences. Groups facilitated by Remote Year follow bespoke itineraries that keep the focus on business as usual, despite the changes in setting. Other tribes may unite around a different context, such as parents who work from home but wish to stay in their local community.
The theme here is the same for much of remote work: customization and flexibility.
The strength of remote work tribes is in the ways they’re liberated from corporate structure. New tribes would be wise to play to their strengths. Rotating responsibilities among members will expose the tribe to new ideas, habits, and processes. Revising a tribe’s goals and experimenting with new structures will keep the group feeling like a voluntary, enjoyable experience, and not a cult. By their very nature, remote work tribes will naturally morph, disband, and reform as the needs of individual members change.
This is a cause for celebration: no one is chained to a tribe in the way an officer worker is chained to their employer, and each tribe member is in charge of their own destiny.
While a remote work tribe shouldn’t attempt to emulate the rigidity of a corporate structure, it should encourage intentionality, communication, and collaboration between its members. And while you definitely don’t always need an agenda when interacting with your fellow tribe members, once in a while you definitely do.
Face-to-face communication, whether online or in-person, remains a critical aspect of human interaction and group cohesion. Steve Jobs, for all his technological glory, said email and online chat could never replicate the creativity that comes out of random face-to-face discussions and spontaneous meetings. A tribe where people don’t stay involved in each other’s lives isn’t a tribe at all.
On one hand, rules that require people to stay in touch with each other go against the loose and voluntary nature of remote work tribes. On the other, the connection between remote workers is the entire point of forming a tribe. Smooth and frequent communication between tribe members allows for the tribe to update the goals and responsibilities of both individuals and the group as a whole. It also encourages the trading of skills, where members are no longer siloed off, but exposed to different ways of thinking.
The only rules for a remote work tribe are the ones to which you agree. This is the liberalization of the worker, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be everything you want it to be. Counteracting the possible loneliness of remote work doesn’t have to amount to removing its freedoms, too. So even if your tribe is rooted in a particular environment, don’t fail to utilize those freedoms. Plan a retreat, take a working vacation, or get together to hang out in the middle of the day.
As the old concepts of work dissolve into the past, remote workers will be the ones carving out new definitions. Your remote work tribe can be the future of work, however you wish to see it.