Recently, I was visiting with a friend who has been working at home since the pandemic started, and I asked how he liked it and whether he planned to continue.
To my surprise, he said he could not wait to get back to the office. He had the typical Zoom fatigue, but he was also tired of being home with the kids not in school and struggled with all the distractions of domestic responsibilities. As a result, he was working late into the night just to stay caught up.
At first, he thought it was great. There was no more commuting, he could hang out in his shorts and t-shirt, and have a leisurely start to the day. What he ended up finding was he missed his colleagues and the social interaction, not to mention the occasional happy hours after work.
The thought of remote work initially seemed like a panacea for many people, although working from home is not a new concept. If we go back in time, our country was made up primarily of individuals working as hunters and farmers, and they sold their products from their homes or within their local communities. Often for these craftsmen, the workspace was combined with their living space.
It was during the Industrial Revolution when factories started sprouting up across the country that laborers, including women, were required to travel to a location to exercise their trade craft. Skilled workers relocated out of the home and community to factories where they worked scheduled hours. This became the norm.
In 1979, IBM did a trial run with five employees, allowing them to work from home, and by 1983 they had 2,000 remote employees. Twitter was the first company to allow its employees to work from home permanently.
It seems that due to the pandemic, business has made a drastic swing to the remote workforce. The pendulum has swung quite far from being in your seat at the office. In my experience, extreme swings one way or the other rarely sustain themselves; eventually an equilibrium is reached somewhere in the middle. We will see a hybrid work experience for many employees going forward.
There is a buzz in the air that working from home will become the new norm, but it comes with its own set of issues.
The sudden change that the pandemic brought created a challenge for leaders and managers who were used to determining productivity by seeing employees in seats at the office. How do you maintain your company culture and work ethic when you can’t see your employees in their offices or cubicles working?
For many leaders, this new work environment has proven difficult to get used to. It’s not easy to manage what you can’t see.
The logistics of leading and managing a remote workforce, and the question of whether the same workforce will be returning to the office is on the minds of most owners and leaders. James Dimon, with JP Morgan Chase, was quoted in the May 24, 2021, edition of the Wall Street Journal saying, “Remote work doesn’t work well for those who want to hustle.” Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon called remote work an “…aberration that they are going to correct soon.”
In many companies there appears to be a stigma associated with those who choose to work from home. Even ambitious and productive employees may be negatively affected if they are not seen in the office; they may be overlooked for recognition and even for promotions.
Many employees are anxious to get back to the office and interact with their colleagues on a more personal basis. They miss the creativity and spontaneous collaboration that comes with physical proximity. But many others no longer want to go to the office.
Some businesses are offering cash rewards and incentives for employees who return to the office. The CoStar Group in Washington D.C. has enticed their employees by randomly awarding $10,000 in cash prizes to an employee every workday. They are also offering all- expense paid trips to Barbados. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (May 3, 2021), other employers are offering office slippers, gift cards, and free food and drinks.
Whether your employees return to the office full-time, work from home full-time, or opt for a hybrid situation, there are some underlying principles that are necessary to lead and manage this new work environment. Putting these principles into practice will help you ensure that employees continue to be engaged and productive.
Vision and Purpose
To keep employees focused, they need to understand the vision and purpose of the company. Where is the company going and why is it in business? This was necessary when all your employees were coming into the office daily, but it’s even more critical now. They need a clearly articulated vision of what the future looks like, how the company is making a difference, and what part they play in achieving that vision and purpose.
Mission and vision are often posted on the walls of the office for all to see. With a remote workforce a deliberate effort to make communication a priority is necessary – to not lose sight of where the company is headed. It helps remote employees remain clear about the purpose of their efforts.
Roles and Responsibilities
Employees need to know what is expected of them no matter what location they are working from. A recent Gallup poll found that only six in ten workers know what their employer wants from them, meaning 40 percent of our workforce has no idea what is expected of them. This is an enormous leadership and management issue that needs to be resolved wherever your employees are located. Without daily face-to-face interactions, it’s easy to lose sight of what is expected of you. Clear roles, responsibilities, and expectations must be communicated on an ongoing basis.
To achieve the company’s vision and mission, employees need clear goals. With remote teams, collaborative goal setting is critical to getting everyone involved. This increases accountability, especially when employees know and understand their colleagues’ goals as well.
With remote or hybrid work systems in place, it is imperative that leaders and managers challenge and hold their employees to a high standard of success, not unlike what they did when everyone was working in the office. This may require more frequent check-in than was required when all employees were on site.
Working in teams to create engagement, collaboration, and accountability has been, and will always be, a key factor in an organization’s success. With the amount of social isolation that comes for many with a work-from- home environment, being part of a team is essential to not only business success but also mental and emotional well-being.
Zoom is helpful for keeping teams connected, but onsite meetings with follow-up in-person collaboration likely offers more.
It is far too easy for a remote employee to become disconnected from the office and their colleagues.
Nothing of any great significance ever happens alone – it always takes people working together toward a common vision and purpose.
Bringing people together beyond the regularly scheduled Zoom call will be important for a company’s continued success.
How do leaders and managers measure productivity with a workforce that they can no longer see? Leaders and managers have often equated productivity with employees in their seats. They used drop-in visits to gauge output and engagement.
Some companies have started using software tools to track workers’ behavior, such as log-in time and number of keystrokes. But many employees find this intrusive, and it raises the issue of trust. For that reason, tracking the number of hours an employee is logged on to their remote access computer is no longer a good measure of productivity.
Beginning with the end in mind, a Steven Covey principle, may be the best approach. An employer needs to decide what outcomes they are seeking and then determine what the best path is to achieve those outcomes, keeping productivity in mind.
If the culture of the organization prior to remote work was one of high trust and high productivity, there is no reason to think that would change based on where the employee is located. If the culture was not operating in a high-trust, high-productivity mode prior to the onset of remote work, then that has probably not changed either.
Whether in the office or remotely, leaders and managers still have a responsibility for creating the conditions and culture that support productivity.
This often involves giving employees the tools they need to perform their work, removing the barriers to success, and providing feedback, guidance, and support. This is no different than before. The main difference is not the performance measurement tools utilized, but simply the location where employees are performing their work.
Getting employees back to the office may continue to be difficult. This is where another culture shift may need to take place. With employers such as JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs trying to get their employees back to the office, we may start seeing pushback that will require companies to rethink their positions and consider hybrid options for the returning workforce.
According to Gallup Research (April 27, 2021), “The preference for working remotely accelerated the concept of hybrid teams to an extreme during 2020.” Clearly a one-size-fits-all approach will not work with the desire of so many employees to have the option to work remotely. Companies trying to hire new staff may run into difficulty if they do not offer some type of remote work option.
When we work with staff and employees directly, we establish a level of trust that they will perform to our expectations, and we can see that on a day-to-day basis.
But remote work changes the equation. How do we trust that our employees are working when we can’t see them?
Creating a culture where employees are trusted to do what they have been asked to do has to be an ongoing responsibility of leaders and managers, and it starts with having a clear vision and direction, establishing clear roles, defining responsibilities and expectations, presenting transparent goals, and building great teamwork.
After that discussion with my friend, I have had discussions with many others working from home since the pandemic started. Most say they love not having to commute, but everyone admitted that it has been difficult to establish a routine that is productive.
They are too easily distracted with domestic responsibilities at home, and they miss the social interactions with their colleagues. All of those who I spoke with said they would prefer a hybrid system, rather than having to go back to the office full-time.
For leaders and managers, the remote work environment creates some challenges that require advanced leadership skills. By focusing on the fundamentals discussed here, leaders can meet this challenge if they are flexible and sincerely interested in their employees’ success. After all, employee success creates business success.
For more on this topic: The book, The Future of Work, is a collection of advice from a group of six business advisors and consultants across three continents and four countries who specialize in working with small and medium enterprises. Get your copy on Amazon.
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