Remote work — the Impact and what Leaders can do
There’s a lot of talk about the impact of ‘remote work’.
Recent studies (cited by McKinsey) claim that workers are leaving jobs at much higher rates than normal. Some say that one-quarter of US workers are preparing to look for new employment opportunities. The number may be greater (up to 40%) in the global workplace. This has been labelled the “Great Attrition”.
What does this mean for businesses? What should leaders be thinking about?
First, we’ll make some observations on the current labour environment and then look at actions leaders can take.
Observation: A Rare Event… But it has happened before
We don’t see these seismic shifts very often. The Industrial Revolution (the early 1800s) saw a huge proportion of the workforce move from fields to factories. World War II (the 1940s) greatly increased women’s participation in the workforce. The digital age (1990s) saw a big increase in productivity, faster decision-making, and more precise business communication. Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic saw many employees leave offices to work from home. The significance of this is yet to play out.
Observation: Widespread Remote Work can Succeed
Many leaders in 2019 or before would have resisted remote work citing security concerns, inadequate communication, lack of supervision, substandard facilities, distractions, and other factors. Many of those leaders have been positively surprised by the productivity of some remote employees, however.
Observation: Revisiting (and Revaluing) Business Culture
Remote work impacts organisational culture. People who spend a lot of time in the same location will develop certain behaviours and an understanding of one another. This can be a great asset… but at what cost? Preserving a business culture at the expense of productivity is not smart. And cultures evolve anyway. This question needs to be considered on a business-by-business basis.
Observation: Employees are Reevaluating their Relationships with Work
Some employees have embraced working remotely (at least part of the time). They reference a new positive connection to their home and family. In some cases, this is accompanied by wealth accumulation as the global share market rebounds and government stimulus packages kick in. The result is more confidence. And more options.
Others say that remote work has led to fatigue, difficulty in disconnecting from work, deterioration of social networks, and a weakened sense of belonging.
In either case, employees are reconsidering their relationship with work… and their employers.
Observation: A Hybrid Approach is Possible
It doesn’t have to be ‘remote work’ or ‘no remote work’. A blended approach where work is completed at home for a portion of the week but attendance at the office is mandatory at other times is entirely possible and seems to be working in some businesses.
Observation: Uncertainty and Timing
There is uncertainty as to whether the end is in sight and what that end may look like. Logistical questions can be addressed like the number of days employees are in the office, collaboration tools they will use, compensation arrangements, and the approach to meetings. But this doesn’t provide a long-term view. Simply put, the current evolutionary change is not done yet.
Observation: A Disconnect Between Employees and Employer
Many employers want to increase the team’s presence at the office… while many employees don’t. This disconnect could lead to attrition and disengagement. Simply put, Employees may feel ‘the grass is greener on the other side…’
Observation: Market Economics
Let’s not forget that employee supply and demand will have a huge influence. The ratio of job seekers to employers who are recruiting has NEVER been equal. The so-called ‘Great Attrition’ may be mostly fueled by job seekers taking advantage of market demand to secure better economic outcomes, rather than any disappointment in remote work.
With all this in mind, what can business leaders do?
Explore new models
This is a good time for experimenting. Consider:
- Which work is more suited to a ‘virtual’ versus ‘in-person’ environment?
- How should virtual meetings be conducted? (length, format, style)
- How can off-site employees get access to influence and experience?
- How can you avoid a two-tier system where people working in the office are valued and rewarded differently from those working more from home?
- What physical gatherings should be encouraged (or mandatory)?
- What should the office look (and feel) like?
- What technology can be piloted to enable collaboration?
There’s more to this than how many days are spent working at home… so experiment with different approaches.
Accept the uncertainty
Don’t characterise this as a temporary phase or imply we will soon be ‘returning to normalcy’. This will sound unconvincing, fuel confusion and people will lose trust in their leaders, encouraging them to consider their options. Set the tone for continued change in policies, practices, working norms, and collaboration technologies as you test and learn.
Focus on listening and understanding employees
Listening is always important… but when we are dealing with fundamental change, constructively hearing people’s concerns is more important than ever. This is a hallmark of enlightened leadership.
Engage employees and delegate
Rather than leadership trying to resolve all of these questions, engage with employees and let them drive some of the change. They will probably have sensible ideas for the business. This approach increases ‘buy-in’ to any decisions. Share the load by delegating new projects arising.
Focus on the positives
In many cases, businesses (and employees) are thriving, innovating, and finding new directions. This is good for everyone and celebrating success (however small) is a wise move. In the long term, many good things will emerge from this period. For example, where we spend less time with people, we tend to VALUE that time more… resulting in increased productivity, action, and fun!
A final thought…
It may be that many people leave their jobs as predicted by some studies. How many of them were happy and fulfilled in their jobs in the first place? How many were making a positive contribution to their businesses? In many cases, the departing employees may go on to more productive roles and their employees will find better replacements.
Retaining employees for the sake of it should not be the desired outcome. Building better businesses in changing conditions should be the focus.