Can your team do remote work forever?
Employers continue to struggle with this question – and HR professionals continue to figure out if it’s possible.
Truth is, many employees don’t want to come back to the physical workplace. About 60% would like to work remotely all the time, according to research from FlexJobs. Another third prefer a hybrid model – on-site a few days, at home other days.
And why shouldn’t they?
“The historical arguments and concerns around, ‘Can you have a productive workforce without having everyone in same space?’ … have been eradicated,” says Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley on the Harvard Business Review Ideacast.”We have full evidence that you can have an organization with people (who are) not co-located (and they can) be quite effective.”
Employees remained productive while they worked from home in the throes of the pandemic, a study from The Conference Board found. So now nearly 45% of them question the sensibility of returning to the workplace where they’re often distracted and overly stressed.
“While there are many difficulties surrounding a move to a hybrid work arrangement, most workers want the flexibility to choose what’s right for them,” says Amy Lui Abel, PhD, Vice President, Human Capital Research at The Conference Board. “For companies, the challenge in getting this right will entail policies that are inclusive, technologies that can support the movement of workers, and leaders that can guide and manage a different workforce model.”
So you may not be building a workplace from the ground up, but you are rebuilding how you work.
Eight critical keys to continue to make remote work work:
Put it in perspective
Recognize – and help employees who might be inclined to expect everything accommodates their new realities – that this probably isn’t a conversation you even considered two years ago.
The pandemic changed how we work and how we think about work and where we work. But it likely didn’t change the actual work that needs to be done. So a remote work plan still needs to be built around the “work,” not the location.
As company, department and individual goals evolve, keep them at the center of any remote work plan.
Start and end at the top
Bottom line is the top line: A remote (or hybrid) work plan won’t succeed if the leadership team doesn’t initiate, support and follow it. Employees will be compelled – perhaps out of guilt, concern for their career advancement or straight-up guidance – to adhere to the 9-to-5 regimen if the bosses do.
Leaders will want to set and adhere to guidelines for asynchronous communication. For instance, you might draw expectations across channels and time zones. While everyone may work at different hours, they can all expect the same response times – say eight hours for a Slack response and 24 hours for an email.
Employees and leaders can also post their “open” hours on your communication channels so others know when they can get an immediate chat or phone answer.
Equip the team
Most people made due with the technology they had or could get their hands on when lockdowns prevailed. But you likely can’t go forward with any team members who are technology-challenged.
“The key thing that we need to do is make sure we’re matching our digital tools for the work in front of us. We’re over indexing on certain technologies – video conferencing, for example – and experiencing things like tech exhaustion.” says Neeley. “Tech exhaustion shouldn’t exist if we match our intentions with the right digital tools in a balanced way, including asynchronous way.”
That comes down to ensuring everyone who works remotely has the same technology, software, and apps – plus the IT support – as they had access to on-site.
One caveat: Do an analysis of what employees actually used on-site. You might find they didn’t use some things they had, but used co-worker’s systems to access other things they needed!
Create a support system
Managing from a distance is difficult. Three linked studies found front-line managers who lead remote teams throughout the pandemic worked harder to accomplish tasks and control what they could. They had less time to enable and motivate employees – which pushed work back at them.
Going forward, a remote work plan needs to include a support system that allows front-line managers time and resources to coach employees individually, pursue personal growth and engage the entire team.
That might be creating an HR role such as Manager Liaison or Management Support Specialist who works with front-line leaders to systematically balance time, monitor mental well-being and ensure they have the resources to help their team.
Focus on output
When you create a remote work plan, focus on goals, expectations and outcomes more than the clock.
“Don’t check on hours put in,” says Loomly CEO Thibaud Clement. “We look at output. Now, if you have a project and miss a deadline, then there’s a conversation that we need to have.”
At Loomly, employees have always worked remotely. What’s worked for them: They established response time expectations for their most commonly used communication channels. Employees set clear boundaries on the hours they’re available to collaborate and when they work independently.
That allows for enough collaboration and deep work time so the output is where it needs to be.
Similarly, establish or clarify what must be done synchronously – perhaps project kickoffs and team meetings – so teams can schedule accordingly for those.
Integrate legacy with reality
Many organizations had practices and traditions that worked when they were on-site, and they picked up other greats when they moved off-site.
The best remote work plans update traditions for the current work reality and integrate them with new best practices.
For instance, prior to COVID-19, Lever recruiters called successful candidates to offer them the job. During remote work, they made a Zoom call.
“Candidates loved it. We loved it,” says Annie Lin, VP of People at Lever. “They had somebody to celebrate the good news with right away.”
So they kept the practice, offering positions via Zoom. “Really think about the things you love about the process,” Lin suggests.
Maintain trust, relationships
“Trust and connection … are crucial for performance, particularly in hybrid or virtual environments when we’re not in the same space all the time,” says Neeley.
How can you help employees stay connected when they’re physically disconnected?
Stick with the things you did when remote was the only option. Virtual happy hours. Outdoor meetups, if possible. Meeting time to talk about life, challenges and joys of remote work.
Know when you need to be together
Even in a remote workplace, there may be times when the group needs to come together. Or you just want them to be together to deepen relationships and focus on company goals.
- Is the meeting goal relationship-based or task-based? Tasks can be handled remotely.
- How complex are the objectives? The more complex, the more likely you should meet.
- Could we do this differently? Zoom or room aren’t the only options. Can you record a video for people to watch at their convenience? Set up a call? Do a podcast?
- What’s most inclusive? You want the meeting to be a level field for everyone. If they all can’t participate in the same way, don’t do it.