The Price of Remote Work

Is WFH Really the Wave of the Future?

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Charles Abramo

remote work future

The pandemic has certainly changed how, when, and where we interact with work and has accelerated the notion of remote work.  In recent months, several large organizations have announced that remote work will be a permanent way of life for their employees, even after COVID has departed from our lives. 

The move to a permanent work from home state fundamentally changes not only how work is done but the entire ecosystem for how people live, balance life, move about the country, and interact with their employer. Certain employers have made the proclamation that the move to remote work is the wave of the future and will increase employee engagement.

But….will it?

I have to say that I’m somewhat skeptical about the 100% remote work craze as a permanent fixture in our lives. Does anyone remember the ‘open office’ craze of the early 2000’s?  Executives quickly junked high-barriered cubicles, demolished walls, and purchased long tables for everyone to spend their workday at… together. 

All. Day. Long. Togetherness. 

It was the wave of the future and having an open office concept promised to increase collaboration, build relationships, and drive innovation.

In June 2018, published an article that used two studies by Harvard University showing that the impact of an open office concept actually hurt the very things it was created to enhance. Many other studies found the same.  But how can that be?  If you were to have asked executives a decade ago, they were sure that the open office craze was going to be a silver bullet in driving collaboration.  How did we get it so wrong? 

More importantly, are we getting this whole ‘remote work’ thing wrong too?

This Isn’t Normal

One thing that needs to be remembered with remote work: for the most part, it’s relatively new as an organization-wide concept. While yes- some companies have had it as an option 1-2 days per week, very few companies established 100% remote work policies pre-COVID. The studies that have been conducted this year are using false data. It’s measuring the effectiveness of the employee who already has established relationships with their peers from years/months of in-office working. 

Additionally, it’s measuring the effectiveness of the employee who already has an established relationship with their organization; again- from years/months of being on-campus, attending events, etc. 

While working from home may be easier and effective for employees who have some tenure under their belt, what happens to employees who are new to an organization and don’t have years of in-person relationships to draw from? Does their engagement suffer? Do they feel as connected to the company as if they were on site?

The water-cooler chats (that’s a thing, right?) and quick catch ups before and after a meeting tend to be where more informal relationships are formed. In the Gallup 12, the famous 12 engagement questions to drive employee experience, Gallup asks, “Do you have a best friend at work?” Relationships are an incredibly important piece of how we interact with our work.  These bonds are born out of those informal drive by conversations, the kitchen chats, or when catching up over coffee.

READ: COVID-19: The Great HR Divide

So, do we scrap remote working all together?

Of course not.

In his book and TedTalk, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Steve Johnson talks about the environments that spawn good ideas and innovation.  One of these environmental necessities for good ideas stems from workplaces needing to be somewhat chaotic in their structure. The best environments are in the goldilocks’ zone of structure; the environment can’t be too rigid but not overly fluid either. 

Johnson crushes the idea that an idea of innovation is a single thing that happens to a single person in a moment of time (i.e. individuals working alone at home). Rather, “an idea is a network on the most elemental level.” If we use this research to inform our thoughts on remote workplaces, networks are pivotal to the success of innovation and new ideas and the best environments for innovation happen when there is a balance of structure and fluidity.

Post pandemic, a hybrid model seems to be the solution that satisfies TM engagement, productivity, and a new age of work/life balance. The flexibility of working at home part time and at the office part time still allows for the best of both worlds and helps create more of an environment that allows for innovation.

5 Tips for Remote Innovation

You may be asking yourself, “But my team is currently remote.  How do I keep them engaged and new ideas flowing if going back to the office isn’t possible right now?” While remote work is part of our everyday lives, here are a few suggestions to keep relationships developing, innovation occurring, teams engaged, and your company aligned:

  1. Interact face to face (virtually) whenever possible.

While Zoom fatigue is a very real thing, the act of being on video while having a discussion forces more engagement and more participation.  Nonverbals are a critical part to how we communicate and being on camera minimizes other distractions.  Plus- one day we are going to answer the million-dollar question- do you stare into the camera or look at the person on the screen?

  1. Engage digital differently

In an age where you may not have seen your coworkers for over 8 months, it’s critical to make virtual outlets that act as the “water cooler”; the place where individuals can informally chat, catch up, and talk about their work without an agenda. This may translate into virtual happy hours, round tables, or - calling it what it is- and hosting think tank sessions with the intent for people to get together and just chat.

  1. Social Media- connection on different platforms

LinkedIn has become to go-to social platform for all things work related. It can be a great tool to further connections and workplace networking. Having coworkers connect, share, post, praise, and recognize one another on a platform is another way to get relationships rolling. Not to mention, it may help in connecting colleagues who don’t normally cross paths.  If you have a company-run platform similar to LinkedIn- even better! Increasing the frequency and ways employees interact with one another helps drive relationship building and innovation.

  1. It’s time to pull out the old fashioned, hand-written cards.

Yup!  I mean it. Snail mail and all. An e-mail or a note on Teams doesn’t quite send the same charm as an old-fashioned card someone gets in the mail. If your company has a practice of spending money on your team, send something extra like a book, a favorite treat, or something fun. It will be a special part of their day and help them feel valued.

  1. Over-communicate

Now more than ever is the time to overcommunicate with your employees.  Not so much on the trivial day-to-day but the important, big stuff: how does the work your employees do align to the success, mission, and purpose of the organization.

The future is uncertain for us as 2020 continues to surprise the masses. Regardless of what the future of work looks like, it’s important for organizations to look at the long-term implications of all aspects of work. 

Additionally, as the ‘remote work’ conversation grows in 2020, a lot of the literature and content created puts a blanket approach on how companies respond to remote work.  Remember that not all industries are the same, not all companies are the same, and every organization operates differently.  Not all content related to remote work can be applied to all companies.

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