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Is working from home here to stay?

Taking a serious look at the "new normal"

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I believe the necessity for many people to work from home today to help stem the spread of the coronavirus could change the way we work in the future. Institutional barriers have come down as companies have adapted to today’s difficult times. But what will happen when the “all clear” is sounded? Will everyone go back to their offices and resume normal service?

From my perspective, that’s not likely. In 2019, Owl Labs reported that of the 1,202 people it surveyed, more than 60% reported working remotely in some capacity, and 42% of respondents planned to work from home more frequently in the future. The reality, in my view, is that the slow but steady trend toward remote working is likely to gather pace as employers and employees alike realize and appreciate its benefits.

By and large, the “pioneers” of remote work have been very pleased with the results. According to a 2019 survey by Buffer of nearly 2,500 remote workers, 99% of people would prefer to work remotely, at least part of the time, for the rest of their careers. And in that same Owl Labs survey, 83% of respondents said that a remote work opportunity would make them feel happier at their job. Some studies have also shown that remote workers can be more productive when working from home.

Employees also often enjoy the flexibility that a work-from-home schedule can provide, and companies can potentially reduce overhead (eventually) by downsizing office space.

What does remote work look like today?

As more companies implement remote work opportunities in response to the coronavirus, usage of videoconferencing tool Zoom has soared more than 300%, and Microsoft Teams saw an increase of 12 million users in the span of one week in March — up to 44 million people — according to MarketWatch. Cisco’s Webex hosted more than 70 million meetings in March, and Skype is seeing more than 40 million daily users, a boost of over 70% since February.

Although many employees are navigating working from home for the first time, my take is that it’s likely not as limiting or intimidating as some professionals might have imagined. Having talked to many corporate leaders, I see them embracing online communication. Many of them find that fears employees won’t perform if they’re out of sight are unfounded. In fact, if anything, workers are contributing more than ever. This would correspond with earlier studies in which remote employees reported working longer hours and struggling to unplug after work.

An essential element to all of this is learning how to communicate and work effectively to maintain productivity and, just as importantly, company culture. Managers must learn how to keep in touch as closely as they would if their teams were just down the corridor. It can be done. As a president and chief culture officer, I have a few suggestions for how leaders can create positive remote cultures.

Creating A Culture Of Remote Work 

When companies move to remote working for the first time, they face a few challenges. First, many managers fear employees might not be as productive. It’s as if they fear out of sight means potential goofing off. This is actually an outstanding opportunity for companies to demonstrate that they trust their team members to do the right thing. After all, managers often work out of different cities, offices or floors. No one stands over them making sure they do their work.

Leaders do need to consider that some employees might struggle with remote work at first. Setting up regular touch-base calls where goals and progress are discussed will set expectations and create accountability. Asking employees how they are feeling about being remote is important, too. Some people will truly feel isolated.

In addition to more frequent one-on-ones, leaders should up the frequency of team calls and make sure these calls are two-way. Have each team member summarize what they are working on. Give people the opportunity to ask for and offer help. Be lavish with your praise and positive feedback. Thank everyone for being a great team player, acknowledging that these are strange and difficult times.

Finally, be sure to remind everyone that working from home does not mean working 24/7. Be a good role model, and avoid sending out emails in the evening or on weekends. Ask people how they are spending their free time. Get people to share new hobbies or other activities they have started enjoying. This creates camaraderie, trust and comfort for people who might be under a lot of stress.

Now that large companies that had been reluctant to invest in the technological infrastructure for large-scale remote working have made that step, I believe it’s likely here to stay. Will telecommuting completely replace a brick-and-mortar work environment? Of course not.

However, I venture to say that in the future, there will be an increase in the number of companies and employees who embrace remote working to a much greater extent than would have been thought possible just a few months ago.

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