Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies were resistant to implementing remote work for a variety of reasons such as concerns about technology and infrastructure, a lack of trust that employees would get their jobs done, the longstanding (and understandable) bias in favor of face-to-face interactions, or some combination of these factors. However, not only has the COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to switch to remote work despite their reservations, it's clear at this point that it's going to be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Remote work is here to stay, at least partially. By analyzing the pros and cons of remote work we've witnessed over the past few months, we can apply various insights towards maximizing its benefits while minimizing the downsides.
Remote Work Can Be Productive But Also Challenging
Ever since companies implemented remote work en masse, we have witnessed several general tendencies. One is that despite early concerns about remote work leading to less productivity, what many have seen firsthand is that a lot of work can indeed get done via remote work — in many cases even more than before when people were physically going into offices. There is a wide range of possible reasons for this, from having a quieter environment to work in (which is obviously not always the case for everyone, especially parents) to having more time freed up due to less commuting to no obvious start and end time to the work day.
Alas, the results have not been uniformly positive. One problem many of us have experienced is that remote meetings can be more difficult. The actual platforms used to run meetings online like Zoom or Google Meet are in themselves relatively simple and straightforward to use. The challenge is that online meetings come with some intrinsic limitations such as the inability to incorporate the same level of non-verbal communication that we use interacting in-person. Non-verbal communication plays an influential role in conveying meaning, and when it is absent, we lose important nuance. Perhaps the most annoying obstacle is that online people tend to talk over each other, albeit unintentionally. Part of this is because we cannot use those non-verbal signals to signal we want the floor, and part of it is technical issues of buffering, delays, and audio/video synching.
This is the time for employers to be analyzing, strategizing, and planning, to find out what employees need.
Making Up for Lost Planning Time
Companies have had to grapple with the lack of time to plan and prepare for a complete switch to remote work. COVID-19 forced them to go from 0 to 60 mph in what felt like a nanosecond, resulting in many hiccups along the way. Looking ahead, now that much of the initial craziness has ebbed, many companies will have the opportunity to make up for that lost planning time. They should make this a deliberative process and include to identify what worked and what didn't in the remote work process. Good, clear communication will be key. What limitations did employees run up against over the past several months, and what are their ideas for getting around those? What kinds of hardware and software do they need to acquire or upgrade? This is the time for employers to be analyzing, strategizing, and planning, to find out what employees need. They should also prepare thoughtful responses if and when they cannot make the changes employees request.
Avoiding the Pitfalls of Overwork and Burnout
Of course, a flexible workplace culture of this sort requires a great deal of trust, and good communication is the foundation of this trust.
As mentioned, remote work has not led to people being unproductive or doing less work. If anything, people are working more, and therein lies a potential problem. For many, COVID-19 has caused work-life balance and healthy boundaries between the two domains to effectively disintegrate. This is why communication is so important, particularly for companies preparing to offer a permanent remote work environment to staff. Companies need to encourage employees — remote or in the office — to take work-life balance seriously. In a tough employment environment, with so many layoffs and furloughs, many people feel lucky just to have their jobs. They are anxious about keeping them, and so succumb to the temptation to be available 24/7 as a way of demonstrating their value to their companies. This isn't good for the company, and it is definitely not good for the employee.
Overwork, stress, and burnout have detrimental effects on employees' functioning and job engagement as well as their performance and productivity. To help avoid this, companies will need to set clear expectations, clearly communicate what those expectations are, and, if necessary, actively encourage employees to take enough time away from work. They may also benefit by changing their workplace culture to focus more on results and final products and less on strictly defined work schedules. For example, as long as your employees get what you need back to you by the time you need it, perhaps the actual hours or days that they work should not matter so much. Of course, a flexible workplace culture of this sort requires a great deal of trust, and good communication is the foundation of this trust.
The Importance of Informal Communication at Work
One dimension that was largely lost because of the widespread transition to remote work was informal communication in the workplace. This is the casual socializing and interaction that naturally occur among employees in the workplace — the proverbial water cooler talk. It just seems odd to schedule Zoom calls for engaging in small talk or socializing with our work colleagues.
Good, clear, and frequent communication, once again, will be the key to maximizing the benefits of remote work and minimizing its potential pitfalls in the post-COVID era.
However, workplace informal communication is important and serves multiple beneficial functions. Conversations build interpersonal relationships and have positive effects on work whether or not the topic relates specifically to the job at hand. It is likely that going forward, companies will move to a modality that incorporates both remote and in-person work, although some may find staying remote works for them. If the company has all or many or some employees working remote, it will be worth considering how to create space and opportunities for informal communication. This could be through hosting virtual happy hours, recreating morning coffee breaks, or hosting brown bag lunches or whatever else fits companies' needs and situations. No reason these events could not include the employees in the office as well as those working remotely. A company wanting to celebrate could host a luncheon on campus and send takeout to those working from home — a truly virtual brown bag lunch!
WRITTEN BYDr. Rebecca Weintraub