As employers continue to navigate critical decisions about if and how to safely return to pre-Covid-19 working conditions, it’s worth beginning to ask the question: how can companies support those employees who want to continue working remotely?
While the disruption brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for many, others have welcomed the forced transition to remote work. Those who formerly faced long commutes, were tied to offices in high cost-of-living areas, or who are differently-abled and are more easily accommodated at home have all benefited substantially from this newfound openness to working remotely.
The extent to which companies continue to embrace remote work after the outbreak subsides and economies open remains to be seen. However, a growing number of signals suggest that some employees will be interested in the work from home option.
Increasing Desire for Remote Work
Data from a recent IBM Institute for Business Value survey of more than 25,000 U.S. adults finds that “the forced shift to operating as a largely remote workforce has led to nearly 40 percent of respondents indicating they feel strongly that their employer should provide employee opt-in remote work options when returning to normal operations. And remote work appears to be growing on employees, as more than 75 percent indicate they would like to continue to work remotely at least occasionally, while more than half – 54 percent – would like this to be their primary way of working.”
Leading tech companies already appear to be embracing this shift. Twitter has announced that it will allow workers to remain at home indefinitely, while other tech giants are extending work from home until 2021. But it’s one thing for Twitter’s tech-centric workforce to remain remote. Can other companies that have relied more heavily on in-person collaboration in the past make a similar shift?
What Companies Need to Know About Remote Work
To determine whether long-term remote work is feasible and appropriate, companies should begin by asking the following questions.
What is the company’s remote work maturity level?
Any decisions about long-term remote work must take an organization’s process and technology maturity into consideration. To quantify readiness for long-term work, companies must establish internal benchmarking systems that take the emotion out of the decision-making process. To start, make a list of the different elements needed to feel confident in the ability to navigate long-term remote work. Then gauge the company’s readiness on a scale of 1-5 and establish a minimum baseline score for offering permanent remote work arrangements.
As a starting point, rate your preparedness on the following elements to determine whether or not you’re ready for remote work:
- Our organization has tools such as video conferencing software that can replace the in-office collaboration experience
- Team members understand how and when to use these tools
- There has been no major lapse in communications or service delivery failure in the past 30 days
- Team members are happy with the level of engagement they receive from management
- Team members are happy with the level of engagement they receive from their peers
Adapt these statements to your needs and add to your list as new situations arise. Regularly repeating your evaluation will both identify gaps that need to be filled and show you whether or not you’ve attained sufficiently high remote work maturity to consider long-term distributed work.
Which critical functions cannot be done remotely?
As businesses have gone remote for COVID-19, many have already determined that certain functions simply can’t be performed remotely. Even tech-heavy companies, for example, may need to have IT staff on-site to maintain servers and other infrastructure. Contending with whether or not long-term remote work is possible for your organization requires several things. You must:
- Know what these critical functions are
- Have identified any possible alternatives for performing them remotely
- Determine how you’ll develop a remote work policy that appropriately compensates those whose critical functions must be performed on-site
You may find, in conducting this analysis, that more creative solutions exist than you initially realized when planning how to handle critical functions. However, if you encounter those that truly must be performed on-site, think about the impact that allowing some employees more flexibility in terms of remote work arrangements may have on overall morale. You don’t need to offer every employee the exact same arrangements or privileges. It may be wise to offer additional incentives or opportunities to those who aren’t able to access the benefits of remote work.
Is a balanced approach to work possible?
Finally, consider IBM’s finding that 75% of survey respondents would like the opportunity to work remotely at least occasionally. The future of remote work doesn’t have to be the “all or nothing” we’re seeing today. If anything, the ability of organizations to remain operational while fully locked down should be taken as evidence that a new, more flexible way of working is possible for the future.
Take the approach described by JT McCormick, president and CEO of Scribe Media. In an article for Inc., McCormick calls his approach the “dynamic work environment” in which “companies maintain a physical workspace with the option to work from home a few days a week.” According to McCormick, such an arrangement means that employees get the flexibility they want, while also maintaining the stability and social connections they need.
Implementing Long-term Remote Strategies
Whether you plan to continue offering long-term remote work full-time or part-time for the foreseeable future, there are several steps you can take now to make these arrangements as sustainable as possible for all workers.
Adopt a Company-Wide Video Conferencing Solution
Video conferencing offers the best replacement for face-to-face communications, yet many organizations allow departments to select their own video conferencing tools. The result is a patchwork adoption of different programs that can make it difficult for individual departments to come together as needed.
Instead, select a single company-wide solution, then build defined processes around how and when it should be used. Doing so eliminates the confusion employees feel when they have to juggle multiple apps and keep up to date on various systems.
Streamline Company Tech Usage
On a related note, make sure you’re not leaning on technology to solve what could more accurately be considered process, documentation, or social expectation challenges.
- If your remote workers aren’t clear what they’re supposed to do next or who they should reach out to with questions, a new project management system won’t solve your issues if they actually stem from a lack of clarity around the team hierarchies or work processes.
- If your remote workers are struggling to find and access the information they need, a different online storage solution might be an expensive way to solve what’s actually an internal documentation issue.
- If tasks or projects are falling through the cracks, don’t assume your chosen technology is to blame. It could be that you haven’t created communication processes that reflect your former in-person office environment, resulting in a breakdown of social expectations.
There’s a time and place for technology. But don’t pin all your hopes on new tools if the challenges your remote workers face are coming from deeper needs.
Build a Culture of Trust
Finally, although many companies that have had to rapidly transition to remote work over the past few months have taken a “Big Brother” approach that uses surveillance technology to monitor at-home productivity, building a culture of trust achieves the same outcomes without directly pitting employees against their managers.
Buffer, which has managed a remote team for years, offers four key principles for creating a trust-driven company culture.
- Intentionally get to know one another
- Be radically transparent about what’s happening in the company
- Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability (and don’t penalize others for showing it)
- Embrace a focus on self-improvement
Buffer’s Head of Public Relations Hailley Griffis is quick to note that Buffer’s hiring practices play a substantial role in allowing such a culture to flourish, as they proactively weed out those who aren’t suited to remote work. Although your culture may look different if you’re transitioning formerly on-site workers to remote roles, these principals still provide a solid base for establishing a remote environment that’ll work long-term.
A Remote Work Future
As COVID-19 restrictions begin to relax, many employees will happily return to the office, as their employers resume in-person operations. But plenty of others will resist this return to normalcy, preferring the new arrangements they discovered under lockdown conditions.
As a result, it’s possible that offering remote work arrangements may become more than a fringe benefit in the future. It may become an expectation for the top talent you’re trying to recruit or something that sows discord and disrupts engagement among workers if it isn’t made available.
Be prepared for any of these and other outcomes – and for everything in between. COVID-19 has given organizations the opportunity to re-evaluate what productivity and successful work looks like. The companies that come out ahead will be those that understand exactly how they can leverage their newly developed remote work skills to the benefit of both employees and organizational outcomes.