When companies began sending their employees home to work in March, or states began to mandate them to, there was a substantial amount of resistance and hesitation from employees. Dealing with kids, losing structure, not being able to go into the office for things, and the general stress of the COVID-19 pandemic made the sudden situation one that was not met with much excitement on either the company or employee end. Yet as most states begin to enter the second month of stay-at-home orders and remote working, there seems to be a shift in attitudes toward remote work. While survey data has been yet to be conducted on employee attitudes toward working from home specifically during the Coronavirus pandemic, data has shown that employees generally do enjoy working from home for a variety of reasons that have been well-documented including schedule flexibility, general convenience, and the ability for some to do deep, uninterrupted work.
Yet also well documented are the pitfalls of working from home. The loss of the “water cooler” effect — where employees don’t get to share spontaneous ideas, lack of workplace relationships, and of course, dealing with the kids. There’s also a variety of reasons why home is not the best place for people to work — some view coming to the office as an escape from poor family situations, distractions become unavoidable for some, and structure is needed for some workers to stay productive.
Yet my feeling, and the increasing general sentiment, is that as with several norms that existed before this pandemic, we will never go back to work the way we knew it. If companies can have a large amount of their workforce working remotely, they can avoid having to take all the sanitary precautions, and the costs associated with them, that many states are requiring for businesses to open. Eventually, they can save on office costs, and even get more productivity out of their employees. And yet there are culture concerns, especially among companies that place a high emphasis on employee interaction, and while some employees will be more productive, not all will be.
So instead of trying to go all in or all out with remote working in a post-Coronavirus world, why can’t companies adapt to meet the needs of their employees while still being true to their missions and cultures? There are several ways that companies can do a work from home balancing act to minimize costs and maximize benefit when the country reopens.
The Importance of Choice
Any new remote working policy has to acknowledge different employee needs. While many employees will be more productive at home, others will not be. For all the reasons listed above, home may be either the best place or the worst place for an employee to work. Furthermore, a recent article in Harvard Business Review pointed out a study that suggested motivation levels did not depend as much on whether employees were working in the office or remotely, but rather if they were offered the choice on where to work. Organizations can survey their employee preferences and set aside space for those who prefer to be in the office, but allow those who don’t to work remotely. My guess is, especially after adjusting to the work from home setup over the past couple of months, many employees will elect to continue working from home…or maybe venture out to a coffee shop to do work once they are open.
The Employee-Supervisor Relationship
The loss of direct employee supervisor interaction that comes from remote work is an issue that organizations will need to address. While the nature of the employee-supervisor relationship is best addressed between the employee and the supervisor, these parties should attempt to work out plans for regular communication, including regular meetings in the office. This will help prevent the employee from being completely removed from the office, while allowing a supervisor or manager to better review progress and discuss areas of growth.
Supervisors and managers must also create a clear plan as to how they will conduct performance appraisals in a fair manner, given that it will be more difficult to monitor day to day work remotely. Setting clear, consistent, and objective metrics by which to judge for performance reviews is always a good idea but becomes even more important when much of the work is being done remotely.
What About Teams?
While there is research that suggests that while individual productivity can indeed increase through remote work, new concerns regarding productivity arise when working on a team. Lagging video conferences can’t replace actual engaged team meetings, and worse, the problems become harder if you never have the opportunity to meet and form relationships with your team in person. There is also likely to be a greater presence of free riders and plenty of communication issues. All that said, some of the best work for the team is done when tasks are split up and deep work is able to be done individually.
So how do we accommodate for that? Have teams come into the office for meetings. We still want to see employees in the office occasionally, so create more team meeting spaces that allow them to come in to meet in person, certainly at the beginning of the project and then once a week. Or have allow more remote employees have “office hours,” where they are able to rent a team meeting room and let their teammates know they will be in the office working on tasks for the team project; and other team members can come in and ask questions or work with teammates directly.
The Increased Importance of Culture
One of the real concerns about having a largely remote workforce is the loss of company culture, that some companies have spent years developing and are ever present in their workplaces.
Holding more company events is going to be crucial in maintain that culture in a world of increased remote work. Companywide meetings that go over strategic priorities and goals are still important and should still occur in person. Office happy hours, other social events, and designated networking days that offer an opportunity to get coffee with someone in the organization who works in a different department or is in a role that you may one day yourself want, are all the more important when remote work is the norm.
Organizations then navigate the challenge of incentivizing participation in such events. Including contribution to culture in a performance review could be useful, as long as the judgment criteria are clearly defined and accommodating to remote workers with different needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have very well ushered in a Work from Home Revolution. And if organizations handle it correctly — realizing the potential pitfalls and addressing them, we could come out of it more productive, more motivated, and more satisfied in our careers than ever before. Not to mention the cost savings from our employers. If you’ve settled into your home office, gotten comfortable over these past several weeks, and maybe even found yourself thinking this whole working from home thing isn’t that bad after all, you’re in luck. You may be doing it for a whole lot longer.