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What six months of remote work has taught us

Six months ago would you have imagined yourself sharing a workspace with your partner? Your kids? Your pets?

Would you have imagined all those great clothes (and shoes) worn as a sort of office uniform not seeing life outside the closet for months?

As a seasoned remote worker, would you have imagined a scenario where the majority of people would be joining the ranks of your familiar virtual workspace, while being stretched beyond measure to adapt and adopt tools to enable their communication and productivity as their customary, co-located office space sits empty?

This is not ‘normal’

If we knew then what we know now, how might we have talked differently about remote work? No one has escaped the impact of what many are calling our ‘new normal’.

Those already accustomed to working remotely were thrown into a home-based co-working space where their home office, routines and environments have been hijacked by those with whom they cohabitate.

Others who had embraced the discipline of a shared community by spending some of their work day in cafes or co-working spaces were suddenly imprisoned, being forced to work through the challenges of isolation.

And there were finally the workers who were accustomed to spending their days rubbing shoulders with colleagues over coffee, perhaps enjoying an impromptu brainstorming session, or simply hearing the office buzz as they focused on the task at hand. They are now experiencing geographical distance while trying to maintain some semblance of community with those same colleagues.

What’s changed?

One of the key aspects we pointed out about remote working in February, is that many remote workers pre-pandemic thought that people didn’t take them seriously if they were not in the office. With the huge shift to remote work throughout 2020, there is far more familiarity with, and understanding of, remote work.

A HubbleHQ survey showed that 61% of employees’ views of working remotely had changed, with 91% of those changing in a positive way.

While some companies are already pushing people to get back into offices, many companies have already realised that the coming years will continue to be dominated by remote and hybrid working.

Google employees will be able to work fully from home until 2021 and Twitter employees will have announced remote working options ‘forever’.

It is not just large tech companies either. Many smaller companies have also gone completely remote and are unlikely to go back. Others are looking at hybrid models which have offices open just one or two days per week. The companies that listen to their employees realise that many do not want to go back into working in a traditional office environment 100% of the time.

What hasn’t changed?

Remote workers still need effective communication, good performance management and a range of supports for mental and physical health.

In our article in February we said there were four key components for increasing productivity of remote workers: clear performance metrics, increased autonomy, good selection and sufficient resources.

This has not changed, and we have seen how critical each of these elements are for new remote workers. Sufficient resources to enable a good work from home (WFH) setup including a good internet connection, appropriate software, and some companies even providing funds for employees to customise their own WFH setup.

Clear performance goals and metrics are important for people to clearly identify their objectives, with a new sense of autonomy helping to improve wellbeing and productivity.

Selection will be an interesting issue over the coming months. As offices slowly reopen, there are going to be challenging decisions regarding how many and which employees to bring back and how frequently they are expected to come into the office. Some will want to return full time, but HR should expect a majority of employees to prefer either more flexibility to work from home all of the time or a hybrid approach.

Most employees will have demonstrated whether they have the capability to work from home. Employers should therefore respect and facilitate their employees’ preferences for remote working where they have demonstrated they can be equally or more effective.

From an HR, business and employee wellbeing perspective, employees should be allowed to choose a fully WFH or hybrid model for as long as they want. As economies start to open up there is going to be more room for personal decisions and discretion, so give employees that autonomy to decide for themselves.

Key learnings

Remote work has now become a pressing conversation on all three levels of organisational behaviour: individual, team and the broader organisation level.

Many companies were already considering flexible schedules before the pandemic took hold. However, many believed that while remote work was fine for others, it certainly would not work in their environment. And for some roles, this remains the case.

Yet the pandemic has meant the freedom to decide has been taken out of their hands. For the most part, these same organisations, and their employees, have managed to pivot and adapt to a new way of working.

Here’s the top 10 lessons HR has learnt throughout the pandemic.

1. Productivity is not impaired by virtual work. In fact, research shows that it increases.

2. The importance of effective communication cannot be understated, both synchronous and asynchronous.

3. Trust must be experienced among team members and managers if success is to be realised.

4. Collaboration is crucial for work to be accomplished: team effort vs individual effort is necessary.

5. For organisations engaging hybrid teams, to be successful, they must adapt a ‘remote first’ mindset.

6. Ensuring mental health and life balance must be front of mind for all involved in such a working context.

7. Managers need to take more of a support role in leading their teams. (i.e. removing barriers to success, building collaboration among team members, modeling best practices and preserving and building organisational culture).

8. Effective performance measures need to be focused on results.

9. Competencies for success as a remote worker have been further supported and realised as people experience this new working reality.

10. Personality has an effect on employee effectiveness working remotely. As offices begin to reopen, we need to think strategically about who would work best in a traditional office environment versus full WFH or hybrid models.

Ian MacRae is a work psychologist and author. Roberta Sawatzky is a professor at the Okanagan School of Business and consultant.