Or, in some cases, remote work may have been a barely adequate solution to an intractable problem.
We need to start implementing hybrid working policies that are sustainable in the longer-term, and in doing this we also need to acknowledge the problems and limitations of a 100%-remote working environment.
There are benefits to remote working, but those benefits are not shared equally among everyone. It’s time to design hybrid working strategies that can survive beyond work-from-home mandates.
Here is what we have learned:
1: Personality factors influence remote work capacity and affinity
Salespeople are hired for a specific set of skills and traits; the classic profile of a field sales role is someone extraverted, confident and highly social.
Face-to-face discussions and meetings are essential for people in these roles, and the teams build up energy and momentum from fast-paced and high-energy social interactions while sharing the same physical space.
Database engineers are not hired based on the same profile and tend not to be motivated in the same way, nor do they need the same level of social interaction to get their work done.
Lesson: Hybrid working must consider different personality profiles, the demands of different roles and the nature of work in different positions. Have company guidelines, but line managers and department heads should have the discretion to adapt policy to fit the needs of the team.
2: Perceptions of fairness change
Remote and hybrid working have changed the calculations about fairness, in rewards, compensation and working conditions.
Older norms about location-based perks are being renegotiated. Opaque decision-making, inconsistent policies and lack of information about the performance management process leads to disengagement, burnout and problems with retention.
Take an organisation where most employees were allowed to work remotely, but office managers were not. The office managers were unhappy and some left. Although nothing had changed ostensibly about their role, the context of attitudes to working conditions changed fundamentally.
Lesson: Fairness doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is treated the same – software engineers, office managers and sales people do fundamentally different jobs. But fairness does mean that organisations need to have clear and transparent communication about why people are being treated differently. Employees adapt to the new norms that are being created, so it is necessary to understand that even if you don’t change a role, other people’s perceptions might be changing around you.
3: It’s not only crises that cause burnout
Minor difficulties, friction and small annoyances add up and remote working can create friction in the communication process. Casual conversations are not available in the same way. Communication software does not always work seamlessly and not everyone has ideal home-working environments.
Here’s an example that happens all the time: one employee is promoted, while a peer must wait a little longer for their promotion. Both are great performers.
The employee who was promoted less quickly feels unappreciated, but their line manager doesn’t pick up on the disappointment from brief, remote communication. The employee is too polite to raise the issue, but they do start responding to recruiters on LinkedIn. It takes a bigger pay rise along with the already-planned promotion to keep them at the company.
Lesson: Small issues add up over time. These are not the reasons someone will give in an exit interview, but they are the reasons someone will respond to a recruiter or start browsing job listings. Think about how you will catch these in a remote environment.
4: Sharing culture and norms informally in shared spaces
People are so effective at sharing information about culture, shared values and workplace norms that they often don’t even realise they are doing it.
Don’t underestimate how much information new employees absorb – or fail to absorb remotely.
It’s not always appropriate for a manager to give an unvarnished view of the social dynamics in a team – but it is critical for new hires to understand the context so they can do their roles properly.
Think about the company strategy for sharing this information; in-person meetings do provide a lot of non-verbal information from everyone present about the relative importance of a message, the status and authority of the speaker.
Being a passive meeting observer at home with various other distractions and screens doesn’t provide the same social cues and context, nor the same level of demand for attention.
Lesson: Identify the events, situations and functions that provide important social information and context to everyone involved. Developing relationships, understanding cues and context sometimes requires in-person attendance. Those who are new to work, to a role, or to an organisation can benefit from more time in-person.
By Ian MacRae, workplace psychologist and author and Antonia McElvenney, HR Leader at MongoDB