The COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive shift in workplaces across all sectors. 88% of organizations worldwide have transitioned to having a remote workforce and people everywhere found themselves scrambling to adjust to the change as home became the new office with very little time to prepare.
While it was an abrupt change under less than ideal circumstances, there have been advantages to the big shift to remote work. About 51% of the US workforce transitioned to working from home, 65% saying they’re more productive now. It saves on business expenses, lessens carbon footprints, cancels lengthy stress-inducing commutes, gives employees more freedom and flexibility in their workday - and of course, is a safer option for avoiding COVID.
The transition hasn’t always gone smoothly however, and while some people are doing fine others may find themselves struggling or becoming fatigued as the pandemic drags on and on.
When you work from home your home becomes your office, which isn’t always as nice as it sounds. To start, everyone has a different home environment. Those who have home offices, or even a room with a comfortable table and chair and a door that shuts, have an advantage over those living in more cramped quarters and sharing work space with children and housemates. Then there’s equipment to consider as well. Not everyone has their own laptop or headset or whatever it is they need to get their work done. Some businesses scrambled to get employees the equipment they needed in the early months of the pandemic. Those with one home computer shared among an entire family certainly got the short end of the stick, to say nothing of dealing with spotty wifi.
It’s harder than ever to separate work from home when the two share the same space. Being unable to disconnect from work has negative impacts, like higher rates of burnout, lower productivity, and more turnover. It’s important to have time when you’re not ‘on’ or expected to be available, and when you’re working from home you can’t put physical distance between your work and where you relax. It’s more difficult to set boundaries and give yourself a meaningful break from work.
Working as a team is also trickier when you’re not in the same space as your teammates. While teams can communicate with all kinds of technologies it’s not quite the same as face-to-face communication. There’s no social component found in an office, no quick casual conversations or spontaneous collaboration of working in a shared workspace, and it’s harder to build trust when team members only meet in scheduled calls. With less small gestures and interactions throughout the day, it lessens the strength of the team and the feeling of belonging to something.
The pandemic affects everyone differently as we all have unique situations and needs. Performances may drop. 40% of employees felt ignored and isolated at work before the pandemic. It’s difficult to feel engaged and connected to the company mission when you’re alone all day in front of your screen. How do you know you’re making an impact when you can’t see any of the good your work is doing?
Creating an inclusive workplace is also more difficult when everything is remote. Without a shared environment company culture can suffer and shift without anything to reinforce it. Collaborating with your workmates exclusively online doesn’t foster the same feeling of inclusivity as being in an office with a diverse workforce. It’s harder to meet people, harder to strike up impromptu conversations and it’s easier to cut someone out of communications without them ever knowing. There may need to be more of an effort to make diverse talent feel they are welcomed and appreciated in the new remote environment.
Every remote worker has had to sit through an awkward or uncomfortable virtual meeting. Video calls can suffer from lag, background noises, technical difficulties, and the odd housemate or pet making a surprise guest appearance. Remote conferences don’t command the same level of attention as being in a room with other people and bring with them the additional temptation of multitasking during meetings. It’s harder to get feedback on a presentation when you share your screen and everyone is muted, it’s more difficult to communicate feedback when most body language is lost, and it’s overall much more of a challenge to stay engaged when your coworkers are in square boxes on your screen.
In some cases not going into the office can threaten the overall value of work. Many people don’t necessarily enjoy their jobs, but what they do like is the social aspect of coming into work and being part of a team. Many workplaces are social environments where people work together - or at least commiserate together - and make an unenjoyable job tolerable. With remote work that aspect is gone. Strip away the social benefits, and some people are finding the only value their jobs bring to their lives is paying the bills.
Taking all of that into consideration, here’s some tips on how to avoid or improve any downsides and how to keep team morale high - or at least make the pandemic a little more tolerable for your team.
It’s difficult to manage a team when everyone is working at a distance and you can’t just walk over and see what they’re doing. For some managers the lack of control can be a bit daunting. More employers are investing in monitoring technologies to track computer activity, take random screenshots of employee’s monitors, and even mirror everything on a laptop to the employer’s screen. One of the benefits of remote work is that you can schedule your day as you see fit to make the best use of your time and productivity. Take that away with virtual monitoring and not only will your employees think you don’t trust them (because you must not if you want to track their every move), but productivity will go down and they’ll end up resenting you and the company. Presiding over your team with Orwellian fear tactics is no way to build a healthy company culture. Or to foster much loyalty.
Instead, focus less on actions and more on outcomes. Your team will feel empowered when trusted to get things done in the way that works for them - so long as the outcome is what it should be, don’t pressure your team into keeping a strict schedule. Respect their individual processes. It will enhance their creativity, productivity, and sense of ownership over their work, and make for a much healthier company culture.
Some structure is necessary to keep everything together, so establish guidelines on when and how certain tasks should be done. Redefine what everyone is doing and how it will help in the mission. When people are emotionally connected to their projects it leads to better performances, better outcomes, and helps them feel part of something useful. Establish expectations and rough hours when employees will be active and able to communicate. When given the chance, early birds can be happily working at 6 AM while night owls might do best working well past midnight.
It can be surprisingly easy to forget in the day-to-day of things that we are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. We’re all dealing with a disruption to the way of life we’re used to. Performances may not be optimal. Some will be depressed or struggling and just doing whatever they can to get through the day. It’s important to open up a line of communication with your team. Show empathy and vulnerability and a willingness to figure out solutions. Ask what has been working so far and what should be changed. Employees have less access to information and can accidentally be cut out of the loop through simple errors. It’s better to over communicate than under communicate in these circumstances. We’re all going through something right now and the mental health and wellness of your team should be something of a priority if you want to maintain a healthy team.
While communication is important, make sure not to go overboard with it. It’s not great for productivity when a team spends the majority of their time responding to messages and sitting through meetings instead of getting work done. Try quick daily check-ins, do standups and scrums just to touch base and get an idea of what everyone is working on. This also has the advantage of combating feelings of isolation and disconnect from the team when you see your team on a regular basis - even if only virtually.
Having virtual socials can also lift morale and strengthen a team by helping everyone connect in a more informal setting. Some teams are having virtual happy hours and pizza parties, some are playing games and doing lunch and learns. Be careful not to overload your team with social events or make them additional obligations that extend the workday. Make sure your team gets a say in which activities are chosen. If social meetings are optional, make sure they are optional, and that there are no negative repercussions for not joining in or for ducking out early. Even spending the first five minutes of regular meetings checking in with the team is a big help in letting everyone feel seen and connected.
Remote work isn’t a good fit for everyone. In the future we can expect to see more of it, but we may also see more creative solutions and flexible work schedules emerging.
The vast majority of workers do not want things to go back to the 9-to-5 standard. Most want some kind of remote/office hybrid situation where they have more flexibility and freedom in when and where they get work done. Allowing employees to set their own hours will be the expected new norm. Expect less rigid schedules, staggered shifts, and possible four-day work weeks.
48% of employees across all sectors plan to work remotely at least part-time, while 74% of employers are looking to make remote work permanent for some or most of their workforce. Employers are rethinking workspaces. Some businesses are closing their offices permanently, and others are looking to reduce their real estate footprint. We may be seeing more shared workplaces where people from different companies can come and go as they please. These communal areas allow collaboration between employees from different companies, provide a more relaxed environment than a traditional office, and offer somewhere else to go that isn’t home. In many cases geography is no longer a barrier to employment and in the future we can expect to see more freedom in where work happens.
Businesses are using this time to reorganize, rethink and reevaluate what they need to get the job done. Employers everywhere are going over what jobs will be cut, reinvented, merged, or created to better adapt to a remote environment. Many are looking into automation and new tech to implement into the system, a process that’s been sped up due to the extraordinary circumstances we’ve all been going through.
Perhaps one of the positives of the pandemic is that it’s given people everywhere a chance to reimagine what work could be like and break away from rigid standards that have been in place for decades.