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The Pandemic’s Impact on the Future of Remote Work

Article #1 in a series

Since mid-March, a revolution has unfolded in the workplace. Millions of jobs in customer service, back-office operations, analysis, product management, marketing and technology, to name just a few, have moved from teams in busy, bustling offices and collaborative co-working spaces to individuals in their bedrooms, basements and home-offices. This has enormous implications for employers. Each article in this series explores a different aspect of this phenomenon, from productivity and engagement to new hire onboarding and globalization, offering practical tips for managers and HR professionals.

This first article discusses the shift in mindset that has occurred, explores the most common challenges of working remotely, offers tips for addressing those challenges, and explains why it is more vital than ever for employers to measure productivity.

In this series, the term remote work refers to employees working full-time from their homes.

Remote work is here to stay

Pre-COVID, many employers expected their employees to be in the office 4 or 5 days a week. The pandemic has caused a paradigm shift in thinking, resulting in less resistance to remote work. While we can expect a slow return to the office over time, it is unlikely to match prior levels.

For employees, there have always been perks, conveniences and savings tied to working out of the home. They now have less fear that working remote will hold back their careers, alongside the continued fear of contracting the virus if they do return to the office. While we don’t know for certain how long COVID-19 will be with us, we have indications it will be some time before it is completely eradicated. Some employees will want to work remotely as long as the virus is still a threat, and some will want to continue to work remotely simply because they prefer it.

For employers, meanwhile, offering a remote work option is a way to attract and retain talent, it expands the hiring pool beyond office commuting distance, it can help contain costs, and it helps keep the office less crowded, so that those returning can more easily social distance.

For all these reasons, more employees will request – and be granted – the option of working from home permanently. Remote work is here to stay as a fixture of the modern workplace.

The pandemic has amplified the challenges of remote work

Pre-COVID, many employers did not give a lot of thought to their remote workers. These tended to be either contractors, or long-tenured, high-performing individual contributors who were able to figure out on their own how to stay productive, engaged and fulfilled in their jobs and how to maintain an active network with their work colleagues. Managers could count on them for reliable output, and didn’t have to worry about how they were handling remote work, since this was usually granted based on their desire and demonstrated ability to work from home.

How quickly things have changed. Today, many offices are near-empty with close to 100% of employees working remotely. While we can expect many to return to the office, we can also expect that return to be very gradual, and never reaching pre-COVID levels. Remote workers will make up a significant portion of the service workforce for the foreseeable future, and they no longer limited to highly independent employees who easily adapt to working out of their homes. The implication for employers is that all the messiness that comes with working remotely is now front and center.

Many employees who have shifted to a home office will need support. Employees who would otherwise elect to be in the office are now electing to work from home for health safety reasons, even if their personal situations make working from home less than ideal. The challenges of working remotely are amplified during a pandemic, as noted in the table below.

Common Challenges of Working Remotely

Steps Employers Can Take

With these challenges spread over a much larger portion of the workforce, the consequences can be devastating, from lower productivity, innovation and engagement, to increased absenteeism, sick time, behavioral health issues and attrition. Fortunately, there are several steps employers can take to address these challenges.

1. Create a Tools & Rules document for remote employees. Employers should provide their remote workers with specific tools, tips, best practices, guidelines, and policies for combatting the challenges noted above. This includes being very clear on the investment the employer is willing to make on behalf of their remote employees.

2. Train managers. Managers do not abrogate their people management and performance management responsibilities just because their employees are working remotely. HR professionals should provide managers with the necessary tools and training for managing remote workers, from how to conduct effective 1:1’s and team meetings, to how to find the balance between absent management and micro management. For example, managers need to decide if they expect remote employees to be logged in and available during specific hours of the day.

3. Be smart about using technology. Technology can be both a blessing and a curse for remote workers. One size does not fit all. Different technology solutions need to be applied in different ways depending on the situation. Identify technology best practices and tips for avoiding technology pitfalls, such as ‘zoom fatigue’.

4. Assist struggling employees. Employee surveys, 1:1’s, check-ins from an HR professional and individual performance data can help identify which employees are struggling with remote work. These employees may need individualized assistance, using the Tools & Rules document, and targeted training, such as time management.

5. Assist struggling managers. Employee surveys, 1:1’s, skip-level meetings, check-ins from an HR professional and team performance data can help identify which managers are struggling with managing a remote workforce. These managers may need individualized assistance and coaching.

6. Consider hybrid schedules. Some challenges are easier to solve in a hybrid model, e.g. a project team decides they will all be in the office together one or two days a week; employees split their time between home and office so that there is social distancing in the office; employees come into the office for team meetings, manager 1x1’s, certain training classes and special events.

7. Rescind the remote work option when all else fails. Employers need to put the health and safety of their workers above all else. However, over time, as the risk of COVID recedes, remote work should be viewed as a privilege, not a right, especially if an employee is unable to overcome the challenges of remote work, even with the employer’s help. Some employees are less anxious or distracted, and are more engaged and productive, when they are in the office every day.

Measuring productivity has never been more important

The challenges described above are not always easy to pinpoint. Acute cases will eventually show up in productivity data, however many organizations and functions outside of manufacturing don’t have a consistent, well-defined method for measuring labor productivity. Tasks can be highly variable even within a single function, and this makes it difficult to measure accurately. There can also be cultural resistance to measuring productivity, based on a concern that quality will suffer, or that other aspects of an employee’s value will be overlooked. Historically, employers have relied on front-line managers to keep tabs on productivity, and for this reason often co-locate teams with their direct managers in office hubs. Beyond the unreliability of this approach, it is clearly ineffective when many or all employees are working remotely.

While in theory one can measure the productivity of any role, the need for a productivity KPI is most pressing for roles where multiple employees perform similar tasks, following a prescribed workflow that includes handoffs and culminates in output to an internal or external customer. The employers that effectively measure the productivity of these roles can expect to maintain high levels of productivity even with a large remote workforce. The next article in the series examines best practices in measuring productivity, and how to make it a net win for everyone.

Greg Lipper is the Founder of Lipper Solutions, a consultancy that specializes in improving the productivity and quality of global delivery teams. Greg@Lippersolutions.com or www.lippersolutions.com.

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