The workforce has been growing more distributed for years. Work-from-home policies have become widely accepted, offices are globally dispersed, and technology has allowed freelance and gig work to boom. But when COVID-19 forced companies to go fully remote, one office of 100 employees suddenly turned into 100 offices of one employee overnight.
Despite the rapid shift, productivity has remained strong, leading many businesses to rethink the in-office dynamic altogether. According to a new study from IBM, employees are on board: Three-quarters of Americans would like to continue working from home occasionally, and over half (54%) prefer to work primarily from home. Some companies, like Square and Twitter, have announced permanent work-from-home options, while others are at least opting for staggered schedules, a shorter in-office workweek or more flexible policies.
One thing is certain: Long-term operational changes from COVID-19 are inevitable, and listening to your employees, engaging with them, and empowering them to be more independent is the key to making a remote-first culture work.
1. Be a better listener to your employees and let their voices guide your decisions.
In a time of crisis when so much is outside of our control, leaders have to be intentional about listening to employees' needs. This is an opportunity to give people at all levels of your business a platform. The different perspectives and the empowerment employees feel to voice them will strengthen your company as a whole, help you retain top talent, and better inform your choices as to if, when and how to eventually reopen your office.
At Teampay, this is our core priority. We've been regularly collecting information and opinions from our employees and incorporating their viewpoints into a forward-looking plan. Here are a few ways this is playing out:
Returning to the office: I've been hearing about a number of factors that are making remote work a challenge for Teampay employees. For example, in a dense city like New York, living situations are already cramped, and many people have to negotiate space in their small apartments with multiple roommates. Meanwhile, working parents are struggling to strike a healthy work-life balance as they juggle child care and work tasks. Based on the conversations we've been having with employees, our intention is to return to the office when it's safe to do so.
Keeping our culture alive: Until it's safe to return, we're listening to our employees' ideas on how to keep morale up from a distance. Whether they're interested in weekly virtual lunch-and-learns with company-paid meals or subscriptions to meditation apps to encourage mental breaks throughout the day, routinely collected feedback from employees helps our leadership team provide the best possible support from afar.
Preventing burnout: Maintaining a direct line of communication with employees can also help business leaders understand when their teams are feeling burned out. With so many factors outside of work adding stress to employees' plates, another aspect we're focusing on is providing more paid time off for people to recharge – and that means encouraging those people to fully sign off when they do decide to take a day (i.e., no responding to Slack notifications!).
2. Equip employees with the resources they need while maintaining financial control.
It's one thing to talk about giving employees autonomy, but it's another to actually facilitate that autonomy. An agile, employee-first mindset is an urgent need for businesses that want to keep moving efficiently right now. One way my company is putting this into practice is by giving employees greater independence to buy the tools they need to perform their jobs, without going through layers of bureaucracy and lengthy approvals.
This may seem like a huge operational challenge for businesses that have been hurt by the recession. On one hand, they have to equip their teams with new tech to support remote work – whether it's virtual onboarding and training resources for the HR team, second monitors for the engineering team, or high-quality headsets for the sales team. On the other, they also need to keep a tight handle on cash flow.
Tracking employee spending was hard enough before the pandemic, but now, with folks scattered outside of the office, maintaining financial visibility and control is even more of a nightmare. Physical corporate cards, which are difficult to access remotely, are no longer a viable option across geographically dispersed teams. Further, expense reports require slow, manual work that no longer reflects the pace of business in our digitally driven environment. This can create problems on both the employee and finance sides, wasting time and hindering productivity.
Solving this issue will be central to long-term remote work support. Companies must allow employees the freedom they need to be successful in their roles, while also providing leaders with better transparency in order to keep big-picture operations moving smoothly and keep the business financially healthy. Companies might, for instance, consider shifting away from expense reports and corporate cards, toward more proactive methods of managing spend and the use of virtual cards. Some businesses are beginning to turn to this approach: There's been an 8% increase in virtual card use since the pandemic began.
3. Continuously look for new ways to engage and energize your team.
It's more important than ever for leaders to proactively check on and support their teams, helping employees feel connected, trusted and empowered to do great work amid difficult circumstances. This remote structure will be our reality for quite some time, and the forward-looking challenge now lies in keeping everyone's energy high and communication consistent for the long haul.
Invest in employee development. One major way we encourage continuous engagement and growth at Teampay is by providing all team members a professional development stipend, which they can use for books, virtual events and online courses. In the absence of in-person conferences, training and meetings, we want to arm people with everything they need to continue developing their skills, even if it is in a new, somewhat unusual format.
Look for the little things. For businesses that aren't necessarily in a position to provide a stipend, small acts can go a long way. For instance, you could initiate Slack-based games and quizzes, and encourage employees to connect over their personal hobbies, what they've been up to during quarantine, and their experiences living in close quarters with family, friends and roommates. Another idea to consider, which we recently implemented at Teampay, is distributing an employee-facing newsletter across the organization that celebrates the accomplishments, milestones and contributions of team members.
Get smart about re-allocating resources. While the current economic realities will be with us for quite some time, the year's end may present new opportunities to invest in your employees' professional growth and wellbeing. For example, you could redistribute funds that otherwise would have been spent on holiday parties.
Empowering employees with greater autonomy fosters a stronger culture and ensures greater efficiency across those 100 separate offices that now comprise your organization. To make a distributed structure truly work, business leaders should keep empowerment at the heart of every decision, thinking outside the box for how to continually listen to and support employees – both personally and professionally – as we navigate a remote-first future.