Across industries COVID-19 safety measures have brought upon a mass (and temporary?) shift towards working from home. As we ponder the future, it’s fair to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of a remote office. Recent years have seen increased attention on the role of company culture in overall effectiveness and a physically decentralized workforce only intensifies the challenge of creating and maintaining cohesiveness.
Current remote work measures are in response to a very specific situation, but, if we are to see more of this arrangement in the future, it makes sense to identify the challenges and consider best practices. With this in mind, I contacted a variety of connections in various industries to find out how their experiences are unfolding and I received a great deal of fantastic feedback.
A Hybrid Model
While support for remote working is not universal, many of those I contacted admitted to enjoying it. A recurring theme was support for a more flexible model in the future, with a mixture of office and home time. The current situation has proven the feasibility of such an arrangement.
“Companies will build a new trust level with their employees that work can and does get done when working remotely,” says an HR Consultant.
“It was new for our organization and as a firm we were concerned about how to manage a fully remote workforce,” said a Controller, “but we have done remarkably well. Our business wasn’t impacted significantly and the teams are performing great. Aside from the initial remote access setup issues for a day or two we didn’t experience any major challenges.”
“I’m also thinking of going to the office only 2 days of week after the pandemic,” added another Controller. “My team is rocking and everyone is happy working from home.”
Preparation and Technology
A recurring theme in the feedback I received was that those who have dabbled in working remotely in the past were grateful to have done so. Not surprisingly, technology is playing a major role in the success of their current efforts.
“My team already had the opportunity to work from home at different times, so it was a very easy transition for us,” noted a Director of Financial Operations.
“Working from home is more challenging to some while more productive to others,” notes a Controller. “It all depends how familiar they are with how to use the cloud tools.”
A CFO credits an excellent integrated web-based ERP system for his team’s success, while another senior manager uses technology to assure productivity.
“We are also connected through Sametime which is a messenger program,” she says. “The team can see when someone is away from their desk or in a meeting.”
Working from home is also attractive to a company’s bottom line.
“We are working from home and have been encouraged to do so even before this pandemic,” explained a Sr. Manager. “In fact, our seats in the office keep disappearing the more we work from home, as it cuts down on their overhead and the staff enjoy the flexibility.”
Productivity and Boundaries
Working from home can be a double-edged sword as far as productivity is concerned. Family interruptions or the simple lack of an appropriate workspace can hinder efforts for some, while others find a quiet place and see an increase in productivity.
“I had to let my A/R person go as they didn’t have child care and could not fulfill her requirements with three children at home,” noted a Controller.
“I would like to work from home one or two days a week moving forward,” explained a Sr. Payroll professional. “This allows me to work with much more concentration, especially when I am working on payroll.”
One well known challenge of working remotely is the blurring between home and work life. It’s important for management and staff to create and communicate boundaries in order to prevent stress and burnout.
“The main changes for us is that the work day seems to drag on longer than 8 hours because work and home are one in the same,” said an HR Manager. “The lines are becoming blurred.”
“I personally find myself putting in more hours now than when I went into the office,” said a CFO, admitting that “part of that is probably due to the lack of anything better to do. Forced isolation doesn’t leave that many options so I just continue working.” For this individual the effort has paid off. “The extra hours I put in recently certainly helped complete our annual audit on time.”
The Emotional Component
Our work lives are a key part of our day to day social activity. Face to face meetings are not only effective in generating ideas and fostering work relationships, but in fulfilling us on a personal level as well. For this reason, not everybody loves working from home.
“When we closed our (physical) office, I was ready to go but many of my team were not, so it was a pretty difficult transition for some people,” explains an HR Manager. “We were able to deal with the technical matters pretty quickly but the emotional matters, not so much. As an introvert at heart, this isn’t a difficult time for me, but many of my (sales) colleagues thrive on social interaction, so I’ve coached many during this time on how to handle this.”
A VP CFO offered a similar sentiment. “I think that once the pandemic is over, things will return to the way they were. I think that people still like the human touch and associating with people, which you don’t get working from home. Add that to not being able to go to restaurants or other events and I think that people will be longing to get back to the office!”
Managing Remote Teams
With the lack of physical presence, managers have had to reflect on methods for keeping their staff focussed and engaged. Doing so involves a mixture of process and psychology.
According to an HR Business Partner, the human approach is key. “We have put a lot of creative solutions in place to make it work, but it really comes down to just rallying around each other and being patient, compassionate and supportive of the need for flexibility,” she says. “I would say I’m extremely busy but the bigger challenge is mentally with the demand of video versus in-person and the skewed engagement of being present in each other’s absence. Some days are good, some days aren’t, and that’s OK.”
“What we are struggling with is keeping people connected and engaged,” admits a VP. “ The group is getting their work done and keeping it together, but are not really sharing their thoughts and experiences. In our meetings people won’t ask questions, won’t give their opinions etc. So we’re focused on engagement right now.”
If this paradigm shift is to be permanent, or at least partially so, then new technologies, new processes, even new home layouts are likely to result. Like most large scale movements, some of the implications will be immediately apparent, while others are unforeseeable. The impact upon our best friends, notes an HR Manager, is profound.
“I will say that the dogs are going to miss having me here, but will likely get better naps once I am back in the office.”