COVID-19 has forced many companies to dive into remote work without any strategy in place. As companies look to an increasingly remote future, they must make changes to prepare their teams.
- COVID-19 has increased the relevance on and utilization of remote work.
- With many industries now being forced to embrace flexible work environments, it's essential to adjust processes to keep producing at a high rate.
- By embracing new strategies, the transition to remote work won't be as jarring or disruptive to the companies making the shift.
In May, a Clutch survey reported that 43% of employees were primarily working from home, a trend that has only continued as the effects of the pandemic continue. In a shockingly short amount of time, remote work has gone from the exception to the norm for a wide range of companies across virtually every industry. Many organizations have had to shift their business models quickly to support online products, programs or services while also adapting to a fully remote team.
The effects of remote work aren't just operational; they also affect company culture. Not only are teams struggling with an uncertain financial future, but they are also dealing with feelings of disconnectedness, disengagement, or, worse, invisibility. Instability mixed with disillusionment can adversely affect both productivity and employee morale.
While it might have been tempting earlier in the year to treat the rise of remote work as a blip before things returned to normal, it's now clear for many companies that the future of work will be largely remote. Now is the time to address the challenges of remote working so businesses can reap the benefits of this new norm, such as cutting costs by downsizing office space.
To do that, it's critical to understand how the future of remote work is changing employees' day-to-day experiences as well as what leaders can do to answer these changes.
The unique effects of remote work
Almost 4 in 5 workers believe COVID-19 has negatively impacted their workplace. Much of this has to do with the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, but working from home has also contributed to the worry and stress of employees.
Management has feared the theoretical effects of remote work for a long time. This year is the first time we've had a chance to see the effects of broader application. For years, the same concerns were espoused: Workers will be distracted. Workloads will suffer. Leaders will lose control of their teams. Remote work isn't plausible for every department.
Some have decided that statistics like the one above lend validity to those concerns about the effects of remote work. In truth, much of the friction comes from managers who are unwilling or unable to adjust to the realities of shifting workers to a remote environment. Trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in abnormal times only makes transitioning to remote work and adjusting to its changes more difficult.
The future of remote work will require managers to find new ways to connect with their teams. Leaders have to identify new avenues of communication and new methods to hold important meetings and offer training. Recruiters and HR departments will have to modify hiring practices to accommodate remote productivity. To succeed in a remote world, change will have to happen from the ground up and from the top down. With the right approach, remote work can boost employee morale and productivity.
How to address the challenges of remote working directly
Recent research by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 71% of companies are struggling with transitioning to remote work. The newness of it for some companies could mean struggling to embrace remote work, but the onset of COVID-19 is forcing many companies to jump all the way in – and to do it quickly.
Once your company accepts that remote work is the new normal and that things will have to change, there is one lingering question: how? If you're used to managing on-site teams, it can be challenging to figure out where to go next. Luckily, there are some clear places you can start to help you and your team navigate remote work.
1. Focus on communication that improves morale.
Even during a pandemic, one thing remains constant: Intentional communication is fundamental to successful company change. According to Limeade's 2020 "Employee Care Report," one-third of workers left jobs because they didn't think their organizations cared about them. Communication can make a huge difference in how your employees perceive their company and maximize the effects of remote work.
Be honest and open in your communications, keeping the focus on positive steps that will move the company forward. Host virtual happy hours, encourage team members to set up online coffee chats, and send out companywide emails to recognize employee birthdays and work anniversaries. Send your employees a thank-you note in the mail accompanied by a small gift such as a company-branded face mask, a Hydro Flask or a gift card to Starbucks. Look for ways to simulate the in-office culture via collaboration tools. These dialogues can have a significant long-term effect on how engaged and productive your team is.
Morale suffers when talks are focused on what's not working or how much a company is struggling instead of what the business is doing to make things better. Encourage communication (or over-communication) to help guide your employees through the bumpier part of transitioning to remote work.
2. Acclimate your staff members to remote work.
Before any remote overhaul occurs, take the time to see how a team responds to a shift to remote work. Get these team members acclimated and used to working remotely each day to gain some big-picture insights on how a larger move might look.
If necessary, start with a small trial run – perhaps with your contingent workforce – to see the effects of remote work. These workers already assume a certain level of flexibility, and probably have remote work solutions and experience. Identify contingent workers or departments that leverage them, and set up a remote project or sprint for them to complete. Track successes and failures while keeping a close eye on overall progress, and then determine how those findings might translate on a larger scale.
Transitioning to remote work won't look the same at every company, so looking at how it will develop with the resources you already have on hand can help your team embrace this shift sooner.
3. Collect and analyze remote work data.
Collect your company's data around remote work right away. This includes information on productivity, internal and external communication, response time to clients and peers, and project metrics. Also, gain feedback from your employees. Send a poll or a survey to figure out what they like and dislike about remote work, and how they would rate their productivity levels.
But don't overdo it on metrics. Stick to fewer than 10 performance parameters per team, and make sure they count. Focus on aspects such as website sessions, returns on investment and customer acquisition costs. These figures can shed light on how productive someone is at home versus in the office and help the company begin to create companywide remote work processes.
Once you've aggregated the data and formulated insights, share these findings with your senior leadership team to gain buy-in. Data can be easily taken out of context, especially during a time like this. Examine everything through the lens of a COVID-19 world instead of through your company's typical metrics. Spend as much time as you need to paint a clearer picture of how things are truly functioning.
4. Consider operational changes or upskilling.
When a workforce suddenly becomes fully remote, chances are a rebalancing is needed. Everyone will handle this change differently: Some employees may survive, and some may thrive. To stabilize your workforce, you may first need to access and then disrupt it a little more. Look into operational changes you might need to make to ensure transitioning to remote work is as effective as it can be.
Maybe some team members are showing promise in areas outside their typical duties. Or perhaps some people are struggling to keep up their positions now that work is remote. Present these employees with opportunities to learn and upskill, or explore options to reassign workers who might feel like they are not in the right place within your organization.
5. Keep HR in the loop.
While most of the changes will revolve around operations or internal processes, HR should still be seen as a critical resource in navigating the effects of remote work. Make sure your HR team is involved in every conversation so they can properly identify where they can help support the company and workers. Most importantly, HR can help you navigate through remote work laws and mitigate liability risks.
Collaborate with HR to discuss the effects of remote work on organizational processes and existing business. Look into what flexibility has done to company policies such as internal communications, safety, use of company electronics, mandatory breaks, ergonomics from home, and other elements. Once you've gathered every last bit of important information, work with HR to help share those insights with your team to keep everyone updated.
When properly kept in the loop, HR will be able to help you effectively communicate the changes you're making and develop the necessary work-from-home policies and protocols.
The future of work is now primarily virtual. For organizations navigating all of this for the first time, the challenges of remote work might seem insurmountable. With the right tools, leadership, and the willingness to learn and make real change, the future of remote work doesn't have to be intimidating. Instead, it can be liberating.