As we drifted into the tumultuous events of 2020, I spoke with a former boss of mine, one who is a level-headed thinker with a gift for clarity under pressure. Like many business owners, she was scrambling to find footing in a rapidly shifting landscape. Ultimately, she took some precautionary measures that will now sound familiar: she closed the office and sent her employees home to work remotely, perhaps permanently.
While the change was stark for many, there were others who were already working long distance. In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst for a change in business that was already going to happen, just on an otherwise much longer time scale.
Many companies had already incorporated policies for work/life balance and flexible hours, shifting closer to remote or hybrid work. However, with how quickly change to remote and hybrid work has come, business leaders are left wondering if these changes were a good thing, or if there should be a shift back to more traditional work environments.
The Convenience of Flexibility
Making an hour drive for a monthly client meeting never looked so inefficient as it does now. Even if the whole trip takes three or four hours, that’s half the day gone, with likely a reduced willingness to engage with new tasks for the latter half of the workday.
Just the routine of commuting to and from the office could take over an hour a day for the average American in the pre-pandemic world. Remote work has given employees back their time, but how those gains translate into increased productivity is still a matter of debate.
Managers are still split on the question of whether remote work has improved or decreased employee performance, though they overwhelmingly see the remote work transition as a success that will likely stick around in some form for a while. Employees, on the other hand, find themselves more productive or about the same when working from home, according to a 2020–21 survey from FlexJobs.
More than half the employees in that survey expressed their preference for remote work, finding gratification in no longer having to commute and in increased cost savings and professional development opportunities.
Today, remote or hybrid work has become a new bargaining chip for talented prospective employees, with 58% of FlexJob’s survey respondents claiming they would look for work elsewhere if they could not continue remote work. Even employers who desire a full return to the office recognize this reality in the competitive hiring landscape.
The Price of Flexibility
While many employees function better independently, some fare better in the office than at home, where they are surrounded by distractions. For example, project managers or team leaders working under deadlines can become frustrated with team members who neglect answering emails about important deliverables, with no option to visit their office in person for a status update.
Under the remote work paradigm, the expectation of an expedient reply to a text or email has become a point of contention, one that organizations will have to delicately renegotiate in the years to come.
Further, remote work has created some ambiguities in terms of when an employee can feel comfortable “switching off” for the evening or weekends. Those lines get blurred when an employee is already expected to be attached 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 those take 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 sitting on conference calls have divided attention, and even the engaged speakers struggle against millisecond time lags and imperfect audio qualities. Meeting a client or a coworker in person offers a sense of connection and often invigorates creative energies that just don’t arise from the other end of a computer monitor.
Lastly, the at-home employee may be highly talented and productive, but their efforts may elude the recognition of management; they’re simply out of sight and out of mind. Companies that are driven to promote from within and foster employee skill sets will have to reinvent their approach to these goals, because they simply are incompatible with teleworking.
Striking the Right Balance
Very few employers foresee a future where the office is a relic, and some expect the five-day in-office workweek to return in full force. Humans are too hard-wired for face-to-face social interactions, but we do value our independence and our free time.
For most employers, the model moving forward is going to be a hybrid of in-office and at-home, in the hopes of taking the best from both worlds. Surveys show a plurality in favor of keeping employees in the office three days a week, but there’s no consensus yet on the best path forward.
What does seem 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 fresh company talent. Regardless of the benefits or drawbacks of remote work, it will take time as business leaders and employees alike continue to find their footing in a landscape that hasn’t stopped moving.