Those who have worked from home for years would likely consider the current “COVID-19 work-from-home” routine as quite different from their previous version. Working from home pre-COVID still allowed the flexibility of going to the office for some face-to-face meetings, or, if nothing else, allowed workers to turn off their computer at the end of the day and shut down.
Fast forward to the present day and things are quite different — at least when you look below the surface. In fact, though the effect the COVID-19 virus has had on some businesses going remote has varied, many companies (including those with a pre-COVID-19 no-remote working policy) are finding remote working has brought much better results than they could ever have predicted.
Some of the benefits may seem obvious yet the downsides are more subtle. Before organizations make the big jump to a post-COVID-19 fully remote workforce, there are lessons to be learned from those that have tried this before — including the subtle effects that may impact workplace culture and the well-being of your employees.
Remote Work Can Work, but …
Early on during the COVID-19 lockdown, it became evident to many business leaders that productivity had taken a big jump that aligned to working from home. As this continued, calendars started filling up and workdays started expanding. While productivity was on the rise, innovation was becoming less of a focus.
There are some distinct positives about remote work that have driven the discussions about post-COVID-19 remote work, but there are also some notable negatives that need to be considered prior to making any lasting decisions. Let’s look at these pros and cons:
Productivity is up. COVID-19 has proved to many doubters that remote workers can still be productive. Workers are getting more done, leading to increased productivity. People are working longer hours, are less distracted and more focused than when they are in the office. Studies abound on the fact that multi-tasking is a myth. If an employee is working alone at home, the office distractions have been eliminated.
No more wasted travel time. Commuting time has been, essentially, eliminated. This allows workers to improve on productivity because the time that was spent commuting is typically funneled back into their workday. Less commute, more work.
Anytime, anywhere. Remote work brings the pipe dreams to reality. Since employees are able to work from home, this work can be accomplished pretty much anywhere as long as you adapt your current work hours. Some people are using this as a way to move to locations they had assumed might have not been possible until they retired, while still retaining their job.
Work-life acceptance. Workers are able to absorb some of their other life responsibilities into their workday. Managing their children’s schedules and schooling are more tolerated than prior to COVID-19.
Lower costs. Some companies have begun to cut back on their office footprint and save on office space leases, utilities and other administrative costs.
Productivity up — innovation down. The best ideas often are driven by collaboration with other team members. Ideation and innovation require more than what a daily web conference can provide. In the early 1980s, IBM began installing “remote terminals” in employees’ homes. By 2009, more than 40% of its employees were working remotely. Yet in 2016, IBM decided to co-locate its employees. While productivity was strong, ideation and innovation — critical to its success — was diminished. The thought was that innovating quickly was the only way IBM could continue to compete. Yahoo, Best Buy and some other companies went through similar revelations.
Work-life balance. Work and life have become literally intertwined. What used to be a consideration for how employees could “turn off” work and spend more time with family or hobbies, “turning off” has now become much more difficult. Family may all be home 24/7 and school-age kids may need additional supervision and help for school. Employees may find it harder to say they don’t have time for one more deliverable or meeting in the evening given that blurring between work and home life.
Employee retention. Corporate cultures are at risk. If everyone is working remotely, then culture can become irrelevant. Studies show that people don’t always stay at companies just for the money. They stay because of culture, their boss and/or the people they like working with. Once you remove access to that culture, loyalty becomes more untenable and companies risk good, trained staff jumping from one company to another for more money.
Mental health issues. New reports continue to emerge showing an increase in depression and mental health issues among employees. Many managers are not trained in or experienced with supporting or even recognizing mental health issues within their team. People are social beings and working from home can be quite isolating. Web conferencing platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams may help productivity, but they can’t replace the need for human interaction.
Misuse of meeting times — Zoom/MS Teams, etc. In the vein of being inclusive and trying to ensure that people are in the know, meeting distribution lists have grown larger. People who needed only to learn the outcome of a meeting are now included in the process. This has created larger numbers of meetings on most employees’ calendars. This, in fact, creates more work hours for employees since there is little time left during the workday to accomplish required tasks. Add on to that is discussion of “Zoom fatigue.” Video meetings are not the same as in-person meetings and can cause great stress when you are constantly on a screen.
Time management. The “water cooler effect” is gone. Even though productivity is up, work is still moving slower. Five-minute conversations have changed into half- to full-hour appointments to accomplish the same work. This is not a sustainable way to work long term. According to a Harvard Business Review article on the “water cooler effect,” people working in close proximity creates more impactful reports, while another HBR article argued that more employee interaction through unplanned encounters and interactions creates better performing employees.
Just Say “No” … to Extremes
There are some companies that had a strict “no remote” work policy before COVID-19 that are now saying they may never return to on-site work since they see how much money they may save. Yet, one extreme versus the other usually doesn’t provide better results. John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University offered this insight: “It turns out the value of innovation is so strong that it trumps any productivity gain.”
How to Plan Next Steps
Before declaring you are all in or all out when it comes to remote work, start by examining your desired future outcomes. Your work policy should be strategic — based on your organization’s goals.
- Are you in a position to continue business as usual?
- Are you trying to stay ahead of the game through innovation?
Let those decisions drive what your post-COVID-19 work policy looks like. A hybrid solution may be a better solution for your company. Start to examine functional responsibilities in your business. If a role requires problem solving or strategy, those resources most likely will flourish more as a team.
So, this isn’t about keeping your workforce remote or not. It is about developing your remote work policy thoroughly and thoughtfully. A hybrid approach may be more appropriate in the end — but look at all angles. Just because you can see your peers on a Zoom meeting call doesn’t mean that you can accomplish the same work or brainstorming outcomes as if you were in-person.
Examine where productivity can be more important than innovation and make your decisions accordingly. COVID-19 will eventually go away, so pros and cons as well as your strategic vision need to be the starting point for any work-from-home policy.
Laura Dribin is founder and president of Peritius Consulting, an independent firm with a client base comprised of Fortune 1000 companies. Dribin founded the company more than 30 years ago in Chicagoland, and since then she has mentored many entrepreneurs to create companies they are proud of. Work-life balance is not a myth and requires a pragmatic approach, she says. The firm takes the lead in successfully executing large-scale, transformational initiatives for clients. Not surprisingly, Peritius Consulting has its fingers on the pulse of management trends. For instance, the firm can comment on what is falling through the cracks in today’s work-from-home landscape and what we need to move forward during and after the pandemic.