The Successes and Failures of the Remote Workplace (So Far)
2020 was the year that the remote, digital workplace took center stage. For some companies, that meant rapidly accelerating their investment in technology and overhauling their processes to manage a remote workforce. Others had to start from scratch and quickly learn how to be efficient, effective, productive and engaging as they adapted to a newly remote workplace.
After a year of immense changes in business operations, what have been the successes and failures of this newly mobile, remote and digital workplace?
Remote Workplace Successes
Success No. 1: Enhanced Productivity
High on the list in favor of remote work are less interruptions and distractions, which resulted in increased focus and greater productivity, said Kate Christie, CEO of Time Stylers, a time management and productivity consultancy. The average office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes and it can take up to 23 minutes to get back on task, she said.
Additionally, employees saved time and emotional stress from avoiding the daily commute to work. More time with family, regular exercise and additional time to rest made working from home highly compelling, Christie said. The average American spends 54 minutes a day commuting, and those workers who travel two or more hours a day for their work have lower levels of job satisfaction and are less satisfied with work-life balance and pay.
“The business case for remote working is hard to challenge when it comes to productivity with various studies finding employees are up to 65% more productive when working from home than in traditional workplaces,” Christie said. Other benefits included a 50% reduction in resignations, a reduction in sick days, and a 10% increase in participant wages due to higher bonus payments.
COVID-19 accelerated the remote work movement exponentially, transitioning millions of workers overnight to a home-based working environment, she added. “If nothing else, COVID-19 has offered us up the opportunity to work differently and to think differently about how and where we want to work in the future.”
Most people simply don’t need to come to work in order to do their job, said Dr. Ted Sun, president and chief innovations officer at Transcontinental University, a Dublin, Ohio-based graduate business school established in 2020. “The workforce have more time to spend on work when it’s a few steps away in their home," he said. "The time saved in travel to work is astronomical and many employers have capitalized on it. While it places a burden on the employee to create their own work-life balance, it’s very efficient to have everything you need a few steps away."
Managing people by time spent on the job is a relic of the industrial revolution, Dr. Sun said, and is finally getting rooted out of management thinking in favor of a focus on productivity.
“As long as they have solid systems to monitor productivity, which some are struggling with, managers can focus and develop productivity of the workforce — getting them closer to end results instead of the blind assumption that time equates to results,” he said.
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Success No. 2: The Flexible and Hybrid Workplace
A more flexible workplace proved to be invaluable over the last year as employees juggled child care, conference calls, grocery deliveries and the numerous other situations brought on by the pandemic. At PAN Communications, a Boston-based integrated marketing and PR agency, one of the biggest successes was the creation of a hybrid-flexible model of work, said Phil Nardone, president and CEO.
“Come September when our return-to-office plan kicks off, PAN is offering all employees the option to choose how many days, if any, they want to work in-person or remote," he said. "PAN allows for flexible work hours tailored as everyone’s situation is different. Some staff have children to watch over, appointments to get to, and other family obligations that are important.”
Nardone said his company was also able to onboard new staff using methods that previously would have limited them. “The virtual workplace gave us the ability to broaden our geographic reach to find the most incredible talent anywhere in the country and beyond and allows us to focus on DEI by exploring historically diverse markets," he said. The agency hired 37 new staffers in the past year, five of whom will remain remote and 10 who are people of color.
Some of the largest companies in the world have also embraced the hybrid and flexible workplace, including automaker Ford which recently announced that employees can work from home indefinitely with its newly redesigned hybrid in-office and remote model. Google extended its work from home policy until September 2021, and plans to accommodate remote workers indefinitely. Microsoft, Uber, Zillow, Twitter and others have followed suit.
Success No. 3: Better Collaboration and Communication
As the pandemic forced companies to move to a remote workforce, many already had a virtual meeting tool in place. For those that didn’t, they quickly chose their platform of choice, said Michael Wacey, director of digital architecture and future of technology at Capgemini Invent, a digital innovation unit of French consulting services firm Capgemini.
“Collaboration tools have delivered on their promise," he said. "Prior to March 2020, much collaboration was done through email. There is still a lot done this way. However, it is now an accepted practice to work together on a document through a shared drive. Beyond this, there are numerous virtual white boards in use and online collaboration is alive and well.”
For others, the mobile workplace increased the level of cross-office collaboration between dispersed office locations. Since everyone was working remotely, it brought employees and coworkers together, said Nardone.
“Being 100% remote has actually increased our face time across all offices," he said. "It’s been great to spend so much more time with our colleagues across the pond in the UK or just to say hello in New York, San Francisco, Orlando, etc. We’re able to all come together every other month as a whole for our all-staff meeting which has been a great way to stay connected.”
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Success No. 4: Empathy Is Recognized as a Required Trait
As much as everyone was in the pandemic together, it has been and continues to be impossible to know what any individual is going through at any given moment. That made it challenging to empathize but is exactly why empathy was exactly what was needed, especially from business leaders.
Even before the pandemic, empathy was an important value for both employees and customers. A Businesssolver report from 2019 indicated that 82% of employees would consider quitting their jobs for an employer that was more empathetic. More than three-quarters (78%) said they would be willing to work longer hours for a more empathetic employer. An Ipsos report on behalf of PepsiCo Beverages North America revealed that 9 out of 10 U.S. consumers feel it is critical that companies show empathy and take measurable action if they want consumers to be loyal.
People have had to deal with grief and loss, worry, anxiety, stress, isolation, depression and loneliness along with physical health issues while doing their jobs and oftentimes taking care of family members. This is why it became vital for companies to have empathy and understanding for one another.
“Living in a global pandemic has proven to be one of the most stressful times in all of our lives — the unknown, feeling scared, life altering daily living, isolation, etc. and we’ve seen how it can take a toll both physically and mentally," Nardone said. "Acknowledging that we all have personal and professional stressors right now is the first step, and making sure to take mental health days is important to prevent burnout.”
Remote Workplace Failures
Failure No. 1: Rushing to Embrace a One-Size-Fits-All Digital Workplace
Companies had the best intentions when they set out to take care of their suddenly remote employees so they proposed what they saw as the easiest digital workplace solution, said Yassine Zaied, chief strategy officer at Nexthink, a digital employee experience management software provider with headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“They imagined a standardized digital workplace, virtualized, managed centrally by the [end-user computing] teams that would offer the convenience employees needed," Zaied said. "That approach proved to be counterproductive. It served only a fraction of the employees who preferred that kind of approach. The majority of employees were disappointed in receiving a digital workplace that doesn’t fit their work, their habits or their preferences.”
Conversely, those companies that took a more personalized approach in setting up digital workplaces for their remote workers were far more successful in supporting their employees.
“Companies who have been able to quickly understand what their employees’ needs are, have been able to avoid wasted time from employees needing to make specific requests,” Zaied said. “These companies did not fear the management load of a non-standardized digital workplace, because they trusted having the ability to understand their employees’ issues proactively and independently from where they work.”
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Failure No. 2: Loss of Water Cooler Culture
For some companies, the loss of the conversations that occurred during casual drop-ins or around the company water cooler was highly detrimental because they were key to monitoring employee sentiment and progressing business, said Davi Bryan, global workplace advisory executive for Avanade, a Seattle IT consulting company.
“While digital channels like Microsoft Teams have made it possible to recreate those interactions, it also requires more effort,” she said.
The loss of in-person interactions affects everything from company culture, hiring and onboarding practices, meeting etiquette and procedures, to employee reviews and promotions. “The bottom line is that organizations must move from a goal of recreating in-person events for a virtual world and instead re-imagine the events completely,” Bryan said.
Initially, employees themselves organized virtual get-togethers, parties and gaming events and by leveraging meeting tools, this worked well for about six participants. That’s when the cracks in the facade started appearing in those virtual environments. “The limitation of one person speaking at a time becomes too cumbersome," Wacey said. "While the platforms support breakout rooms, these are usually based on the organizer assigning people to rooms. To replicate the workplace, people need to be able to wander through the rooms and join in conversations.”
The loss of shared physical space for casual discussions has led some employees to feel disconnected and experience virtual meeting fatigue. Nardone said that flexible hours, spacing meetings out and not requiring video have helped at PAN.
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Failure No. 3: No Separation Between Home Life and Work Life
Many employees cite the loss of the daily commute as one of the biggest benefits of the mobile workplace, as it allowed them to sleep longer and eliminated what was a tedious, stress-filled daily exercise in patience.
For others, Wacey said, the lack of a commute just meant that they had more hours to work, and led to a loss of separation between home and work life. “This is more than just having different locations," he said. "It is having the time to make the transition.”
It’s not just the lack of a daily commute that is eroding the line between home and work. Collaboration and chat platforms are contributing as well.
Avanade’s Bryan said a Microsoft Workplace Insights report indicated that employees have experienced a 200% increase in chat messages on Saturday and Sunday. Managers haven’t been exempt. They experienced a 115% increase of chat messages during that period. In fact, a July 2020 Microsoft report on the Future of Work revealed that Teams chats on Saturday and Sunday have increased over 200% since the beginning of the pandemic.
Failure No. 4: Employee Emotional Health
Companies had an idea of what was expected of them for physical health and safety during the pandemic, but many did not realize the impact on the mental and emotional health of their employees.
Avanade's Bryan said many observers expected companies to restrict employee experience investments to only what would impact the bottom line, but many companies stepped up to the plate. “We’ve seen a surge of interest in engagement and wellbeing sometimes far beyond the confines of the workplace,” she said.
This has been good for employees that work for those companies, but in other places the state of employee emotional health has often been overlooked. Dr. Sun said the level of employee burnout is higher than usual and has largely gone unnoticed. "Zoom meetings don’t create or maintain the same level of relationships, especially when it comes to trust," he said. And the procession of video meetings have a negative effect on productivity as well.
“Before you had breaks to walk from one meeting to another," he said. "The travel time, whether it’s a few minutes to a short drive, was a perfect break for your brain to process the information from the previous meeting, reset and relax. Now Zoom meetings one after another are leading to mental fatigue as well as loss of information requiring redundant communication."
What Comes Next for the Remote Workplace
As companies move forward, they can learn from the successes and failures of the remote and mobile workplace. Many of the successes and benefits will be with us for at least for the foreseeable future, such as the flexible and hybrid workplace, more effective remote collaboration and communication tools, and a more empathetic approach to management.
But significant challenges remain, such as finding the right digital workplace solution, accounting for the loss of watercooler culture, balancing the separation between home and office life, and helping employees recover from the emotional stress and anxiety of the past year.