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COVID Learning #1: Remote Work Is Here To Stay

In hindsight, 2020 was a turning point in history. With regard to employment, it broke many rules we thought were golden and forged new paths for many of us. We learned a multitude of lessons that, if heeded, will sustain and accelerate us into the future.

This blog is part of a series reviewing the five classic “rules that 2020 broke.” Here, we delve into our past conceptions of remote work.

Instead of a crazy pipe dream promoted by a fringe minority of the workforce, we all learned that remote is possible. Our last article explained the circumstances surrounding the broken rule:

  1. Majority remote/flexible workforce is not possible. What seemed ill-advised, and essentially impossible, was accomplished over and over again in 2020. Many employers decided to send 90% (or more) of their workforce remote with no notice. Can you think of a bigger lift and disruption to employee’s work lives? That kind of transformation (or even a fraction of this) would traditionally have needed 18 months or more of extreme change management. Employers eventually learned they needed to keep many employees remote… indefinitely. On top of that, employers couldn’t afford to skip a beat. They needed to keep people connected and engaged, manage productivity during a pandemic, and see the future.

What made this possible?

  • Unified adoption and advocating by senior leadership. Leaders agreed about the major moves needed to adapt to the new circumstances.
  • Visibility from senior leadership through clear messaging and transparent policy-setting that gave confidence to employees even in uncertain, evolving times. Employees knew nobody could predict the future, but they could at least understand how decisions were being made and felt cared for and considered in the process (not an afterthought).
  • Many organizations achieved new highs on cross-team communication, coordination, and collaboration to lift mammoth projects off the ground. After decades of silos and enduring challenges, organizations achieved new levels of synergy and community as they united to help the organization sustain as much as possible through the pandemic.

New rule: We can be flexible at a moment’s notice. Remote work is here to stay, and nothing is impossible if we work on it together and commit.

7 Important Remote Work Considerations

Following are some key considerations for adopting remote and flexible work arrangements permanently:

1. There are bigger talent pipelines.

No more warring fiefdoms. The battle for talent is now a world war.

Potential opportunities: Talent can come from anywhere, which means employers can search the world for the right person for the job.

Potential pitfalls: Talent can be attracted to employers anywhere, which means employers aren’t just competing with local “knowns” in their local talent market. It's more important than ever to know what appeals to the talent you want to attract in order to remain competitive. And once they’re in, it's critical to have solid onboarding processes and a culture that embraces diversity of thought, working styles, time zones, etc.

2. Asynchronous productivity will become the norm.

Teleworking styles can add more levels of diversity in how and when work gets done.

Potential opportunities: You can be more flexible in how you choose to empower and enable employees. Employees can decide how and when they work in a way that suits their style and generates the highest personal productivity. Help employees identify how they work best and enable them with the tools they need, then prepare to reap the rewards.

Potential pitfalls: Depending on how many time zones your team spans, working toward deadlines and collaborating in real-time can be a challenge unless you plan well and stay flexible. Staggering tasks, taking advantage of time differences, finding ways to streamline asynchronous communication and remote work, and aligning collaborative vs. individual projects can amplify productivity. If employees don’t know how they work best or how to work well with each other, it can be disastrous.

3. Inclusion needs to be intentional.

Employers have a new opportunity to level the playing field and open more doors.

Potential opportunities: Invite new employees to important meetings. Provide exposure to decision-makers and provide planned experiences for employees focused on growth. It’s easier than ever to get the right people together when needed.

Potential pitfalls: Lack of planning is planning to fail. Without hallway conversation and healthy norms on virtual communication (being respectful in virtual chat tools, etc.), some might be left out entirely if they are not brought in intentionally. Literally leaving people out in the cold can be damaging to career development, connection, productivity, employee engagement, and retention.

4. Manager competencies have shifted.

Employees can bring their whole selves to work now versus pre-COVID, where managers could more easily cultivate an environment encouraging everyone to “leave home at the door.”

Potential opportunities: Manager competencies must be reevaluated from what we thought we needed in 2019. Managers with a strong presence in person may be less responsive or effective in virtual leadership positions. We need managers who can motivate, unite, develop, and lead in a virtual world for employees sitting in their homes surrounded by competing priorities.

Potential pitfalls: Managers who are not ready to transition to remote work teams may be biding their time until a “return to normal,” but we know remote or flexible work arrangements are here to stay. Agile leadership skills and managers who can lead this evolution are imperative.

5. Demographics can be expected to shift.

When you can work anywhere, will preferences reshape who works together…or not?

Potential opportunities: As the rules of work change, personal preferences will play a bigger role in helping employees select desirable opportunities. Recent research from Perceptyx reveals women are more likely than men, for example, to want to work remotely more of the time.

Potential pitfalls: With this in mind, we may see women self-selecting into teams, roles, organizations, and projects that lend themselves to more flexible arrangements, leaving brick and mortar work locations with fewer women overall. This visibility gap can have negative impacts on rewards and promotions for women, and setback hard-fought gains for corporate diversity. Leaders need to be careful that out of sight does not mean out of mind.

6. The onboarding experience will need to change.

What's it like to come and go in a virtual environment?

Potential opportunities: “Showing up” on your first day will be a completely different experience in a virtual environment. New hires can now take more control of their time to meet new colleagues and join video calls to build rapport more directly.

Potential pitfalls: New hires in the last year or so may not have met anyone in person, had the chance to go to the company café, enjoy lunch with colleagues, or participate in a range of other culture experiences to help them assimilate. This means they may not feel connected. There are other ways to engage and build rapport, visibility, and psychological safety, but it may take more work and intentionality than onboarding has in the past.

Here are some critical onboarding techniques for virtual workers:

  • Reach out and make them feel included.
  • Take extra care to let people know where to get what they need.
  • Create plenty of opportunities to get to know coworkers as people.

7. People may be exiting for different reasons.

Do you know why people are leaving now that the way we work has fundamentally changed?

Potential opportunities: With rapid enhancements to employee listening, we can learn exactly why employees may be leaving for emerging reasons and get ahead of a major problem. With a more virtual, and therefore more fluid workforce, the ability to be “sticky” as an employer doesn’t end with an exit. It may just be “goodbye for now.”

Potential pitfalls: Often when employees depart, they gather to celebrate their time with the team, or at least have some physical interaction to acknowledge the relationship and transition. Now, there may be a virtual meeting to say goodbye, but people are multi-tasking. Alternatively, employees may now depart without any acknowledgement and remaining employees are left to piece together who is gone and why. It’s certainly not an empowering or confidence-building experience, and may jeopardize a cohesive, people-first culture.

Pro Tip: Be as intentional about employee departures as arrivals. In this case, regrettable losses or pivotal roles may benefit from exit interviews, especially to ensure the reasons employees are leaving are not due to remote-based issues such as poor culture, lack of connection, or barriers to work-from-home productivity. Remember, the departure process can be pivotal in the new talent world-war where boomerang employees may become more common. (Remember that great employee who left 18 months ago to be closer to family or for a spouse’s job relocation? Have you reached out to them about a remote position? We’ll wait here while you do…)

In short, a lot is about to change, but we are really just maturing and growing. By shaking off the dust of brick and mortar workspaces, we can embrace more fully what we were always chasing, what seemed too elusive—we can be more ourselves, and engage in our work and company cultures in more authentic ways. Productivity isn’t in the back seat, it’s in the driver’s seat for the first time. Buckle up.

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