365 Days Of Working Remotely: What Did We Learn?
About a year ago office work came to a grinding halt. Suddenly, most companies were forced to face their greatest fear: remote work. Let's recap what the world has learned after a year of working from home. Spoiler alert: it wasn't all that scary.
Why? I'm not sure. Probably it was a sad mix of baseless assumptions, lack of trust and fear of the unknown.
Clearly, the best way to overcome this fear is a pandemic. A global pandemic. Pretty sad that corporations needed a catastrophe to change their way of working, and thinking.
More positively, they were forced to experiment!
So, let's review the good and the bad of the world's largest workplace experiment ever.
PwC found that "remote work has been an overwhelming success for both employees and employers". They cite the positive attitudes to remote work:
- 83% of employers say the shift was successful for their company
- 11% report mixed results
- 6%, only, say it was unsuccessful.
For employees, the numbers differ slightly:
- 71% say it was successful
- 23% say it was mixed
- 6% say it was unsuccessful.
Clearly, the majority of employers and employees saw it as positive.
One study found over half of employees want to work remotely three days a week or more. This is in line with another study which found the majority would like to continue working remotely as much as possible, even when the pandemic is over.
Executives seem to agree; less than one in five executives say they want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic.
Another study concluded that the working conditions and wellbeing of employees on average hasn't changed a lot in 2020. That's a pretty powerful finding based on the fact that 2020 was such a turbulent year.
Imagine what could happen if remote work is not forced upon us by a virus, but is an option because people enjoy doing it. Imagine what could happen if people could find a healthier balance between office and remote work.
The working conditions and wellbeing of employees on average hasn't changed a lot in 2020. That's a pretty powerful finding based on the fact that 2020 was such a turbulent year.
Unfortunately, it's not all roses and sunshine. There are some dark sides in the sudden shift to remote work.
Workplace equality is under pressure (even more so than in normal times). "The involuntary nature of remote work, the greater demands at home (e.g., childcare and housework with less support), and the longer work days that often-characterized work during the crisis may also exacerbate work-family conflict", a Chinese study hypothesizes.
The painful conclusion: findings suggest that "women are likely to be more severely affected by the pandemic than men in domains such as well-being, job satisfaction, performance, and career progression."
Inequality isn't the only problem remote work is facing. A study published in HBR found that 40% of supervisors and managers expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely.
The worker's perspective seems to reflect a similar image: "Many workers [...] experienced a strong sense that their supervisor does not trust their ability to do the work. Thirty-four percent agreed that their supervisors “expressed a lack of confidence in their work skills.” Micromanagement appears to be a problem experienced by many.
I guess this is line with our earlier post in which we wrote about the explosion in demand for Big Brother-style surveillance software since the start of the pandemic—a shitty Orwellian side-effect of the lack of trust of employers.
Remote work vs remote work?
It's important to understand that the above findings are derived from a time when lots of other factors have dramatically changed as well. Social distancing, lockdowns, fewer social interactions and many more unusual restrictions have influenced the above findings.
What has been discovered about remote work in 2020 could differ quite a lot from remote work in other times. For example, the Chinese study mentioned before found that some of findings appeared to be unique to the pandemic context:
"Scholars and managers usually believe remote working can provide employees with autonomy to alleviate work‐family conflicts (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007). However, our research shows that remote workers were struggling with work‐home interference as a major challenge, and work‐home interference in this context cannot even be mitigated by job autonomy."
All of us need to understand that current times are far from normal. And remote work during a pandemic is not the same as remote work in more normal times. Today's situation is an extraordinary one. Therefore, organizations should be cautious in translating these findings to the post-pandemic world.
Unfortunately, some executives can't wait to fall back on their magical skills of predicting the future.
In the above mentioned PwC survey executives say they are worried about the effects of remote work: "68% say a typical employee should be in the office at least three days a week to maintain a distinct company culture."
How the hell would they know?
While this might be true, there's nothing that underpins this (except a lot of baseless assumptions). Wouldn't it be a lot smarter to test and experiment before jumping to conclusions? How about resisting the urge to draft new policies before the pandemic has even ended?
Remote work during a pandemic isn't the same as remote work in more normal times. Today's situation is an extraordinary one. Therefore, organizations should be cautious in translating these findings to a post-pandemic world.
Ignore the monsters
Whatever organizations learn from this forced remote work experiment, one lesson is more important than all others:
DON'T LISTEN TO THE MONSTERS IN YOUR CLOSET
Don't let misguided assumptions, a lack of trust in people, and fear of the unknown dictate how you work. For too long, they've kept organizations from experimenting with new approaches to work: approaches that—as proven again during the pandemic—contain a wealth of potential benefits.
Instead: experiment, learn, adapt, repeat.
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When we go to work, we work on our tasks. And we can do that from home. But we also engage with colleagues; watch their behaviours, understand their work and private issues and we socialise.This happens as an outcome of being together in the same location, across nearby desks.
We gain satisfaction in the way that we work together to achieve common outcomes. We identify ands resolve conflicts when we are together, we learn to work in teams. That is a major part of our work. How easy is this to be obvious when we are working from home?
We are social as well as focused. We are behavioural as well as logical. We are humans rather than robots.
So much of the dialogue about working from home occurs in the managerial space of seeing an organisation like a machine. How about looking at it as a complex adaptive system, centred around people? Then what would be see?
Great perspective, as always. Can I contribute an additional perspective?
We have a LOT of data on human motivation, productivity and happiness - because we've been assessing the impact of an activated purpose in organisations across 26 countries for the last few years.
We took a look at how remote workers feel compared to office-based colleagues. This is early analysis. But it's interesting. And instructive.
Of course, employees who identify with organisational purpose are significantly more engaged than average colleagues. But the impact of purpose on feelings of commitment and responsibility amongst remote workers are pretty remarkable - 3x stronger than amongst office based peers. That's huge.
Why? We think purpose bridges the "social distance" (Tsedal Neely) of remote work. And this has a dramatic impact on emotional connection and feelings of responsibility, care and commitment.
Which means we can make remote work really productive and enhancing for most - but only if we stand for something meaningful; and that meaning is shared. Otherwise what connection can I have stuck at home? What's my motivation to care and commit?
Anecdotally, it's clear that companies that we measure high on purpose have found the whole remote working thing a hell of a lot easier. Low purpose companies appear to have struggled.
Anyone interested there's a bit more here https://bit.ly/3ranSSP
Personally used the 3-days-a-week-example to answer the questions 'What will we do when the world starts to normalise again?'
But realise now that I softened that statement with words like, I think or let's see. Which felt a bit bad as I like to comply to that stigma of having to be clear and decisive. The only reason that made me state, 3-days-a-week, is the realisation I want to be able to to say good morning-how are you, to the colleagues you meet in the office. No need to do that everyday, but regularly would be nice, without having to schedule a virtual meeting.
Next to the social interaction, there is another element that for which I'd like to meet at the office. I recognise in our current situation, we can be efficient working from anywhere. I would even dare to state, we are more efficient not being in the office.
At the same time, efficiency is only one part of the puzzle.
Effectiveness is another part of that same puzzle, where little cracks appear.
Changing direction, even slightly - Creating new meaning - even small ones - starts to be challenging.
Without having all the people you need in one room.
A whiteboard to dump thoughts and ideas.
Looking someone in the eyes and realise they are not all-in, is 'virtually' impossible.
Working remote is proven to be efficient
COVID did what CIO's and CTO's couldn't achieve
We are a social species, not solitaire. The dynamics and safety the tribe, allows us to leave our comfort zone, to develop, innovate and create. This is what I hope we can do in one physical space. Wherever we execute should be up to your individual preference.
Adding to Frank's thoughts which I share:
I sense that it is becoming harder to create a more holistic view on the company for individuals. Everyone is stuck with regular meetings and contacts - nearly no communication without purpose is taking place. So meeting someone outside your working peers is missing (elevator, kitchen,..). I find those talks always super valuable, providing insights from outside your box you would not receive any other way. We will check now some random meeting apps and test what we can get from that.
If we could tag one apocalyptic rider for adaptive organizations, it would be "traditional performance management." It is old-fashioned performance management that keeps us in a world of humans as resources, as command-and-control takers, with rigid top-down planning, and solid prevention of curious and exploratively-minded cooperation. Its logic is plan – do – check – act.