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Remote Work: The New Normal?

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Lisa Rowan, Research Vice President for IDC
Research Vice President for IDC

Telecommuting and working from home have been hot topics for several years now. According to a recent study conducted by Flexjobs, the number of people working from home at least part time has increased by 44% over the last five years. And since Coronavirus has struck, working from home has become the de facto standard for most office workers. Even call center and customer service positions have moved to home offices.

Challenges of shifting business-as-usual to remote work

There are several challenges that the work-at-home model presents to both employees and employers even in the best of times. A study published by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute prior to the onset of Coronavirus indicates that those that work from home on a regular basis while eligible to be considered for promotions are likely to suffer from overall lower pay increases than those given to on-premises employees.

Some of the challenges that we are seeing now stem from employers that typically don’t support a geographically dispersed workforce. Managers and supervisors may be ill-equipped to manage staff remotely. In general, management style and culture are deeply ingrained and tend to fit into either the McGregor Theory X or Theory Y model. “X” management believes that workers need to be closely watched to keep them on task, while “Y” management believes that if you hire the right people and give them the tools that they need, they will invariably do the right thing. The “Y” style conveys a culture of trust; trust is the key ingredient for success in the current circumstances.

Reaching beyond culture and trust, there are technical challenges to be faced. Not every home has an office or quiet workspace. Many people do not possess sophisticated systems along with headsets, video cameras, high-speed connectivity, and the skills to manage all of it. At the same time, many people right now are not only trying to do their own work, but they are trying to help their families cope and keep their children on a course of study.

Creating a resilient workforce

Lastly, on the challenges front, there are very real social and psychological concerns. In a crisis such as what we are facing right now, there are worries for almost everyone. To overcome these concerns, it is helpful to deploy the tenets of positive psychology, including resiliency, positivity, and psychological safety. Employers can play an important role in bringing such tactics to the virtual workspace in which their employees operate.

So how do we overcome these challenges? People crave routine. Therefore, it is important that employers lay the groundwork for employees working from home to establish and maintain normalcy—whatever normal may mean under current circumstances—including taking time out of the day to tend to love ones. Part of laying the groundwork for normalcy includes establishing and agreeing upon goals, along with regular measurement of the progress of goal achievement. This is followed up by aligning weekly priorities and milestones so that employees stay focused on the most important things. Then, it is all about communication. 

The power of communication

Management needs to check in often and consistently to learn how people are dealing with transitioning to remote work. It is also critical to give employees a place to feel seen and heard.

We are hearing about informal virtual meetings being held where people are sharing videos of themselves, pets, and home office spaces. These sessions serve to anchor teams and give them the sense of being part of a whole even though they are working physically alone.

Now is also an excellent time to step up recognition programs. Peer-to-peer and manager to subordinate recognition can help motivate the team to stay on track to together achieve the organization’ s goals. There is no better time to express gratitude.

The benefits of working from home

While employing a home-based team presents challenges, there are also benefits to the practice beyond the immediate need for social distancing. A home-based workforce saves the company money through lower overhead and reduced drain on energy resources.

From a macroeconomic perspective, fewer people commuting means a reduction in pollution and usage of fossil fuels. Just in the few short weeks of the pandemic crisis so far, pollution levels have been measured as falling meaningfully over parts of China and Europe.

Benefits also include productivity gains. Adam Grant’s Nick Bloom experiment showed that if you let call centers work from home, they’re 13% more productive. They have the flexibility around where they work, when they work, and how they work, and they don’t feel like they’re being micromanaged. Perhaps most importantly, offering home-based work improves employee morale. People who no longer must deal with lengthy commutes have more time to devote to family and work-life balance.

No one possesses an infallible crystal ball to predict the timing of the end of the current crisis, or what life will be like following the crisis. However, organizations now more than ever before will have had the opportunity to experiment with a geographically dispersed workforce and will gain tremendous insight into how to do so effectively. 

Home-based work can be incredibly successful for your teams. Here are a few tips to consider: 

• Establish goals 

• Conduct regular manager and employee communication 

• Provide space and virtual tools to allow employees to feel seen and heard 

• Start the first 2 – 5 minutes of every meeting talking about non-work-related items to deepen trust and connection 

• Ensure recognition is rooted into the rhythms of the work week

Given the many benefits of home-based work, it is likely that it will become far more accepted as the new normal. 

Lisa Rowan is Research Vice President for IDC and responsible for global research on human capital and talent management software and services. Lisa provides expert analysis focused on both the business services and software used to address HR and talent-related dimensions. Her research addresses developments in human capital and talent management applications, human resources consulting, and HR outsourcing services.