Death knell for remote work? Not so fast
Remote work has had its detractors from the very start. Even before the pandemic hit there were those who didn’t see the value in allowing their employees to work outside of the office. Now that remote work is the new normal the naysayers question its viability and value, complaining that workers aren’t as productive at home as they were in the office. They say working from home creates problems, especially with training, and worry that remote work will fray company culture.
But before organizations require their workforce to march back to the office and pick up exactly where they were prior to the pandemic, let’s be careful we are solving the right problem. It isn’t hard to understand why motivation and productivity may be lagging. Millions of people have been sitting in front of a screen for most of the day for four months. Burnout, fatigue, lack of collaboration, and slower results may be the consequence of moving from business crisis to business renewal all along dodging COVID-19.
When workers are steering clear of a global killer amidst an economic meltdown, they of course collaborate, plan and interact differently. But the fatigue felt today is not a good predictor of how remote work’s tempo will ultimately play out.
We can’t disregard the fear that took place over these four months, but the new work environment sparked heightened collaboration and camaraderie. Many people figured out great ways to do what we used to do face to face, over a digital network. That behavior might have been motivated by people worried they would lose their jobs. It also might be because they found real value in working from home. The why’s aren’t the point. Now, there are processes taking shape that suggest how to work better as a team even when physically apart.
Prior to the pandemic, working remotely may have been offered as an incentive. With everyone at home, that lever has disappeared. That’s okay because most incentives only work for a limited amount of time, which is why you have to work constantly on longer-term initiatives to engage employees. It is a mistake to only use annual cycles to address workforce needs, despite the wide utilization of these 12-month rotating programs.
I agree that transferring culture and skills to coworkers and new hires are issues that must be addressed. Without an actual hallway, the opportunity to absorb cultural nuances or access new information won’t happen the same way. You will need a plan to get culture and skills transferred to coworkers and new hires keeping in mind that the workforce is remote. The trade off is that you can access talented people around the world. This, too, will shift how your company approaches digital exchanges, transfers of knowledge, and yes, even your culture.
When we sent our team home in March, I stepped up organization-wide communications, and have been deliberate about encouraging connection. For example, we start our monthly hands-on meeting with something fun. Last week we shared our birth order. I have been greeting all new hires in 30-minute Zoom chats and then they’re taken on a virtual tour of our office.
Instead of racing back to working together in the same way in the same space, let’s use this time to figure out how to mentor, coach, listen, observe, absorb, be highly productive and collaborate in new ways that are also way more inclusive than what we had before. When you have actual office space, everyone assumes you can take care of the informal chats and bonding in the hallways, cafes, lunch meetings, or even in the parking lot before hopping into your cars to commute home.
Now that work exchanges are virtual, we’ve gotten into the habit of holding meetings being just for business. If that continues, of course you will have productivity concerns and more burnout. But instead of pushing for everyone to return to the office as the only way to bond, infuse your meetings with more hallway conversations which includes time for ice breakers, small group chats, culture stories, and other topics that would normally never get on an agenda because meetings, after all, are serious stuff and we all have real work to do.
When COVID-19 is under control and we are able to resume other life activities, remote work will still have the same premium it has now because it gives employees more choices and freedom versus having to commute into an office and do work, the same work mind you, they could have likely done at home for years.