Working from anywhere is not likely to end when the COVID-19 pandemic does. Unlike the situation in March 2020, when there was limited time to plan, we can now benefit from our experience to choose the most beneficial arrangements for our companies and employees. The Advanced Practices Council’s (APC) recent report “Leading in a Remote Working Culture” highlights the benefits reported by companies and employees as well as the challenges of working remotely. After noting how companies are mitigating challenges, it suggests additional actions for leveraging opportunities that remote work creates as well as the values that leaders should promulgate to fully leverage future remote or hybrid working cultures.
Although some companies have already taken decisions regarding the future work location of their knowledge workers, many have not. I propose considering the following questions to build on the findings from the APC report as well as subsequent research and conversations among APC members.
What has worked well during this remote working phase and what hasn’t?
No doubt you already have a sense of the benefits that the company and employees have gained from remote work. Despite added stressors of working from outside the office (home in most cases), multiple surveys indicate that workers enjoy not having to spend the time and money to commute, appreciate the flexibility of working from home or anywhere else, and value the extra time to devote to virtual learning. Many companies have experienced increased worker productivity and recognize additional benefits, such as reduced real estate costs and ability to attract talent globally while mitigating immigration issues.
No doubt you also have a sense of the challenges faced with remote work. Challenges companies have identified include: having to work harder to ensure satisfactory communication among colleagues; spending more time searching for knowledge needed for work; experiencing a diminished sense of community among colleagues and across the company; fear of losing out to colleagues who work in the office; worrying that remote work will not be valued and compensated fairly; and feeling that the work pace is not sustainable.
A well-designed staff survey can uncover benefits and challenges that have not yet been articulated by your employees.
What are the implications of continuing to work fully virtually?
During times of crisis, people accept inconveniences and create work-arounds that are acceptable in the short-run, but might not be on a sustained basis. Some of the challenges reported by some companies, such as experiencing a diminished sense of community, might not yet have been experienced in your company, but could become a significant challenge if a significant amount of remote work were to continue. At the same time, some of the benefits, such as not having to commute, might not outweigh the desire to “get out of the house” at least from time to time.
What is likely to happen if we give people a choice of where they work?
If your company is like most of those surveyed (such as a recent survey of 3,500 remote workers), a large percentage (98% in the survey cited) of remote workers want to work remotely at least for some of the time for the rest of their careers. Surely some will opt for going back to the office – at least for part of the time. Another promising option to consider is a hybrid one: either some workers continuing to work remotely and others coming back to the office or a design in which teams agree to work part of the week remotely and part of the week in the office.
There are benefits and challenges with any of these arrangements that can be addressed with planning. For example, if teams agree to work part of the week remotely and part of the week in the office, office time and space could be modified. The time in the office could be dedicated to gaining benefits from in-person information and knowledge sharing, collaboration, and community building. Space could be used for groups working together rather than for individual offices or pods. Instead of designated offices or pods, people could have dedicated lockers or drawers for personal items and mobile workstations to hold their laptops. Office days could be dedicated to team or group activities. For example, McKinsey, a firm in which consultants spend much of their time outside the office with clients, has designated “Super Friday,” a day where everyone is expected to be physically present in the office. Events such as special lunches, town halls, practice meetings, and happy hours are planned for these Fridays.
An additional factor to consider is that giving people choices – in how work is conducted and where – tends to lead to better outcomes in multiple ways. Choice can enhance creativity and productivity. One recent study found that when remote workers were given a choice between remaining at home or returning to their offices, those who chose the former experienced productivity increases of 22%. Moreover, research has shown that when people have choice, they manifest fewer adverse symptoms in stressful situations. The pandemic might go away, but stressful aspects of workplaces will not.
If we move to a hybrid working arrangement, how can we best sustain a supportive culture?
Values, which are at the very heart of culture, express what is important to your company and what it stands for. Based upon success stories during the pandemic, I believe that essential values in a remote working culture are: experimentation and learning; addressing the whole person; flexibility and autonomy; collaboration; results; and transparency. Leaders can articulate these values and integrate them into processes and systems such as hiring, onboarding, performance evaluation, and reward systems. They can communicate the values through multiple messages across different media more times than they think necessary (the more times the better). They can tell stories of employees living the values. Even more important, they can be role models of the values in practice.