Remote work and hybrid work are the future of work. To make your transformation successful, you need to be strategic.
In mid-March, I wrote that the barrage of articles written about making remote work a success painted an unrealistic picture and that it was important for people who were working remotely for the first time to temper expectations.
A transition to remote work typically includes preparation and planning. It includes time to carve out and set-up a home office space, time to acquire and set-up the necessary technology and supplies, and for those with children – time to line up childcare. Throughout this transition period, there is also time to be planful by becoming familiar with the organization’s remote work guidelines and policies and learning the systems in place to support remote work.
COVID-19 not only eliminated the preparation and planning stage, but it also changed the game. Helpful technology such as external monitors, webcams, and headphones, were backordered, and children were home as many schools and daycare centers were closed. The basic infrastructure typically in place to support remote work was being developed on the fly – or not at all.
What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic forced distance and isolation. In a normal environment, people can meet for coffee, for a drink, or dinner. Organizations can bring their remote teams together for an event or training. The pandemic eliminated these important social touchpoints.
In March, I shared that although I had worked remotely and led remote teams for 15 years, I was struggling. I advised that we needed to give ourselves permission to stop and breathe and to extend this permission to others. And that we needed to be empathetic, have flexibility, and be clear that we are not just adjusting to a new way of working, we are adjusting to a new way of life – one that is rapidly changing.
Remote work is here to stay
Seven months into the pandemic, companies including Microsoft, Zillow, REI, Facebook, Nationwide, Square, Mastercard, and Nielsen have announced that they will allow their employees to work remotely indefinitely. These companies are not alone. One recent survey found that 67% of companies that implemented remote work policies in response to the pandemic expect these policies to remain in place either permanently or for the long-term. Another survey found that 82% of company leaders plan to let employees work remotely, at least some of the time.
The remote work experiment forced by the COVID-19 pandemic has shown organizations that remote work not only works but also benefits the organization and employees. Research finds that remote work can increase productivity (15%-40%), reduce absenteeism (40%), decrease turnover (10%-15%), and reduce real estate and resource usage expenditures (+20%). Further, remote work can increase engagement and performance.
As leaders and organizations look to make remote work models permanent, they must be strategic. The planning and preparation stage needs to happen at the organizational level, and the infrastructure to support remote work needs to be put in place.
Work from Home v. Remote Work
Work from home and remote work are different. Understanding this difference is critical for both organizations and individuals.
“Working from home” is a temporary situation – a change from the day-to-day routine. In a normal environment, working from home is something one might choose to do for a change of scenery or to be able to dive into work without distractions, for example.
Remote work is an entirely different approach to working. Because remote work is not temporary, individuals and organizations need to establish guidelines, policies, and systems to be successful.
For many organizations, the future of work is hybrid. Hybrid models include a combination of remote and in-office employees and/or a remote workforce with designated in-office days. Here the distinction between working from home and remote remains crucial.
For organizations to successfully transition to remote work or to a hybrid model, infrastructure must be put in place. This means ensuring employees have the technology and supplies needed to be productive.
It also means setting up policies, guidelines, and procedures and communicating these across the organization.
Shelly Spiegel, CEO of Fire Engine RED and the author of Fully Remote, shared that documenting processes and policies and making them easily accessible is crucial. Fire Engine RED has a friendly intranet named alfRED. alfRED is not only easily accessible but it is also easy to navigate.
For organizations new to remote or hybrid work, creating the infrastructure will be a significant undertaking, but one that must be done.
A longitudinal survey of remote workers that began in mid-April of this year echoes past research that finds that when there is no direct line of sight to direct reports, leaders and managers sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are indeed working.
In the absence of trust, leaders and managers can lead to micromanaging and an unreasonable expectation that people be available at all times. This approach leads to stress, anxiety, and can decrease engagement and productivity.
As Shelly Spiegel puts it, “Trust is paramount; build a culture around trust.”
Future of Work
The future of work will not be a return to the status quo. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced radical changes in how we work and where we work. Almost twice as many people are working from home as in the office. E-commerce has experienced 10 years’ growth in three months. Digital transformation has accelerated to the point of whiplash. Organizations have pivoted, innovated, and adopted a start-up mentality. Emerging leaders have been identified through their work to bring teams together, get the job done, and move organizations forward.
Organizations making remote work or hybrid work permanent need to be strategic. Ad hoc and reactionary policies and guidelines that have been pieced together over the past seven months are not enough to make a transformation successful. Organizations that have not already begun the planning and preparation for their transformation need to start now.
Leaders at the highest level need to trust their teams and model the behavior. Trust is paramount.