REMOTE WORK Every employer is wrestling with how to manage remote work. Some are resisting and dusting off the old all hands on deck mantra, and ordering employees back to the office full time. Most are promoting some version of the “Hybrid” workplace, a term with a thousand different interpretations.
Precious few are replacing the decades-long resistance to remote work borne of the industrial mindset that most leaders were reared in. Today’s more educated white collar workforce, empowered by extraordinary technology and committed to greater self-management in all facets of their lives, is making clear that it wants to continue this unexpected silver lining of the pandemic.
Embracing full remote work At the end of 2020 ROD conducted a comprehensive review of the remote work experience of employees and managers at a major global insurance firm, including multiple business lines in countries in Europe, North American and Asia. Tens of thousands of this company’s employees were thrust suddenly into working full time from home with technology platforms and largely online training provided on the fly.
Overall the perception was that performance and customer service standards were met through this new way of working. There was a predictable range of enthusiasm for the business and personal benefits of remote work and thus desire for continuing to work this way. And there emerged a common set of concerns about challenges and ways that they might be overcome.
Our conclusion from this study was that remote work could be made a more powerful way of building employee contribution and satisfaction if employers could move from a grudging acceptance of this temporary salvation and invest in creating a new normal. Among the practices we recommend to continue harvesting the value to date are:
Switch investment from central offices to home offices For decades companies have built large, expensive skyscrapers or campuses with centralized technology and services. During emergency remote work, employees found themselves making do with basic equipment, kitchen table “offices” and limited training. Far-sighted employers will consider serious re-allocation of resources, shrinking their central offices to accommodate fewer well-designed collaboration spaces and help home-based employees create ideal home offices. This means excellent equipment, intensive training on collaboration tools and potential subsidies for larger or upgraded spaces.
A standard home office package should include:
- A five-point (5-legged), fully adjustable quality office chair
- A dedicated desk that is stable, adjustable and appropriate for the home office
- WiFi services capable of handling maximum data flow and multiple users
- A dedicated computer (laptop or desktop) with one or two quality screens
- A quality printer adequate for typical document production
- A company-owned and supported cellular phone
Shift default decisions from “no” to “yes” Pre-pandemic, employees could request a flexible option such as remote work or a reduced schedule with the understanding that the manager typically made a final decision. The recent wave of remote work obliterated that model – at least temporarily. Given its considerable success, experience suggests that wise employers will turn to a model of approving employee proposals and then continue, modify or terminate them based on actual performance. This approach can be applied to teams as well as individuals, and will encourage creative new options.
Build toolkits to address common complaints Among the frequent irritations in this new way of working were so-called Zoom or Teams fatigue, excessive and lengthy meetings, inadequate training, insufficient breaks and loss of socialization. Participants also flagged a range of what could be called protocol issues, including excessive copying on emails, off-hour requests for responses, inability to do one-on-one follow-up after virtual calls, etc. Some of these can be addressed by setting company-wide standards and others on a team basis. Letting them linger without resolution is not acceptable.
Invest in abundant online, live and group training on technology platforms While companies were quick to invest in platforms with powerful collaboration and communication capabilities, adoption of these was often highly uneven and random within work groups. Some employees took the lead in mastering highly valuable tools but broader diffusion of these skills was not an organizational priority. Greater support of formal training combined with encouragement of informal sharing among employees both addresses complaints and offers the ability to accomplish in a remote setting gains not typical in in-office settings.
Make development pathways more intentional and consistent A near-universal claim for the superiority of in-office over remote work is the informal opportunities for growth and development that occur when existing and especially new employees work side-by-side. The classic example is cited in the sales realm, where new hires get to hear a more seasoned employee pitch a difficult client or problem-solve on the fly.
While there may be an argument for well-planned co-location time to train and develop, the fact is that for decades virtually every employee survey finds a very high level of dissatisfaction with companies’ development processes. Expecting random approaches to resolve this problem seems unreasonable. Embracing remote work offers an opportunity to design and implement a more sustained and intentional solution to this age-old challenge.
Be open to change beyond where people work to when they do Many participants reported significant changes in when and how they worked in a remote setting. Greater efficiencies in how they worked allowed some participants to accomplish what was formerly a full time week’s work in less time. If not bound by over-scheduled virtual calls, this allowed taking periods of time during the work day for exercise, family time or healthier cooking and eating. Some imagined accomplishing their full time role in four days.
Employers who are committed to raising the levels of performance and employee satisfaction might want to consider encouraging such novel scheduling and staffing options. Remote work was until recently seen as less than optimal. Other modest innovations could prove highly valuable as we reimagine superior ways to get work done.