Has remote work really benefited businesses?
As we drifted through the tumultuous events of 2020, I spoke with one of my former bosses, a level-headed thinker with a gift for clarity under pressure. Like many business owners, she was struggling to find her place in a rapidly changing landscape. In the end, she took precautionary measures that will now feel familiar: she closed the office and sent her employees home to work remotely, possibly permanently.
While the change was drastic for many, there were others who were already working long-distance. In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst for a business shift that was already going to happen, but on an otherwise much longer time scale.
Many companies had already incorporated work-life balance policies and flexible hours, moving closer to remote or hybrid working. However, given how quickly remote and hybrid working have taken place, business leaders are wondering if these changes were a good thing or if there should be a return to more traditional work environments.
The convenience of flexibility
Driving an hour for a monthly meeting with a client has never seemed more inefficient than it does today. Even if the whole journey takes three or four hours, that’s half the day, with probably a reduced willingness to engage in new tasks during the second half of the working day.
The simple routine of commuting to and from the office could take more than an hour a day for the average American in the pre-pandemic world. Remote work has saved employees time, but how these gains translate into increased productivity is still up for debate.
Managers are still divided on whether remote work has improved or diminished employee performance, although they see the transition to remote work as a success which will likely stick around in one form or another for some time. Employees, on the other hand, find themselves more productive or about the same when working from home, according to a FlexJobs 2020-2021 survey.
More than half of the employees in this survey expressed a preference for remote working, finding satisfaction in no longer having to travel and realizing cost savings and professional development opportunities.
Today, remote or hybrid work has become a new bargaining chip for talented potential employees, with 58% of FlexJob survey respondents saying they would look for work elsewhere if they couldn’t continue to work. work abroad. Even employers who want a full return to the office recognize this reality in the competitive hiring landscape.
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The price of flexibility
While many employees function better independently, some do better in the office than at home, where they are surrounded by distractions. For example, project managers or team leaders working to deadlines may be frustrated by team members who neglect to respond to emails about important deliverables, without having the option to go in person to their office for a status update.
In the remote work paradigm, expecting a quick response to a text or email has become a point of contentionone that organizations will have to delicately renegotiate in the years to come.
Additionally, remote work has created some ambiguity as to when an employee may feel comfortable “switching off” in the evenings or on weekends. Those lines blur when an employee is already expected to be tethered to their phone or email, and suddenly the value of “work/life balance” loses its meaning.
Social capital is also sacrificed when teams are highly distributed. A synergistic, well-organized team is a beautiful thing, but it takes time to build, and most of that time requires face-to-face interaction.
Zoom may be an upgraded version of the conference call, but it often reveals what we’ve always known: People seated on conference calls have divided attention, and even engaged speakers struggle with millisecond lags. and imperfect audio qualities. Meeting a client or colleague in person provides a sense of connection and often invigorates creative energies that simply don’t arise on the other side of a computer screen.
Finally, the home-based employee may be very talented and productive, but their efforts may escape management recognition; they are simply out of sight and out of mind. Companies that are driven to internally promote and develop employee skills will need to reinvent their approach to these goals, as they are simply incompatible with remote working.
Find the right balance
Very few employers envision a future where the office is a relic, and some expect the five-day work week in the office to make a comeback. Humans are too wired for face-to-face social interactions, but we value our independence and free time.
For most employers, the model moving forward will be a hybrid between office and home, hoping to get the best of both worlds. Polls show a plurality in favor of keeping employees in the office three days a week, but there is no consensus yet on the best way forward.
What seems clear is that managers need to spend time with new and inexperienced workers, and the same is true in reverse if those employees want to stand out as the company’s newest talent. Whatever the pros or cons of remote working, it will take time as business leaders and employees continue to find their place in a landscape that has been constantly shifting.
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