There are so many things we all miss during this time of lockdown: the big things like vacations and sports and movie theaters and sending our kids to school for the day, but also the little things like running out to the grocery store for dog food because you forgot to add it to the list. That used to be a pain, but a small pain, and a pretty easy one to deal with. Now dealing with that problem feels like a matter of life and death. And you aren’t even sure there will be any dog food when you go back.
COVID-19 has forced us to rethink how we do almost everything – including formerly menial tasks like that one – and as we alternate between new listing apps and order harvest boxes for the sake of our grocery lists, set up a yoga mat in the living room and pay just $30/month for online classes, or take two more hours with the kids when we would be commuting to work, we think maybe, just maybe, we’re learning a few tricks that could improve our lives when things return to “more normal.”
In a similar process, businesses are taking another look at remote work (since they have to). Long before COVID-19, the benefits of working from home were well documented: saving carbon footprints with reduced commutes and travel, better work/life balance for employees, saving overhead on office space, reduction in office distractions and politics, and so on. And yet according to data gathered prior to the pandemic, only 3.6% of the employee work force was working from home half the time or more. In contrast, 80% of employees want to work from home and at least 56% of the U.S. workforce holds jobs that are compatible with remote work.
Moving to the work-from-home model so abruptly in the COVID-19 hellscape has been challenging: employees trying to juggle children, pets and spouses, working in places not set up to be offices, implementing technology that has not been tested or utilized, management having to change course without training, etc. And yet with all those obstacles, as with the grocery shopping, that doesn’t mean we haven’t learned things in this lockdown we never thought we would. None of us wanted to forget the dog food. None of us are missing rush hour commutes. No one wants to spend money they don’t have to. Now that the entire world knows how to use Zoom, couldn’t we work this to our advantage in the future?
Absolutely. But it obviously isn’t as simple as saying “Okay, the world has reopened but we’ll just keep doing this thing we’re doing.” Once the emergency has passed and we all have breathing room again, businesses have the opportunity to take the best parts of working from home and optimize the process. Here are some thoughts and strategies that AM Insights anticipates will be critical to the transition:
- Take the time to implement optimal security and tech support measures. In the rush to shelter in place, many workers went to work from home without adequate security in place for their home networks. This has created huge liabilities for businesses, and the repercussions could be long-term following the pandemic. VPNs are secure but easy to forget to use. Additional security is often necessary, as well as training employees for best practices regarding personal use and password protection on their devices.
Similarly, many offices have a tech support department in case of any glitches experienced by the workforce. While screen-sharing technology can aid remote tech support, it cannot solve all problems. Be sure to have a plan in place for assistance from IT or a third party to help as needed, and consider at least partially paying for home networks and devices in order to ensure better quality and minimal interruptions.
- Find a balance between remote and in-person interactions. The vast majority of employees who are now working from home were not doing so before, which means they are working with people they have known for months or years in an office. They have already bonded and come to know each other as coworkers. A new hire in these circumstances would not have that advantage.
In this 2015 study reflecting the benefits of working remotely, subjects worked from home four days a week and then came into work on the fifth day. While this might not be feasible for remote workers who are not local or office spaces that are reduced in the name of saving on overhead, the concept that some team interaction is necessary applies. In-person team building reduces turnover, improves collaboration and opens the door to discussions that are difficult to have through a video window. Maybe it is a yearly retreat or a monthly meal, but teams should gather outside of the home regularly.
- Consider that not everyone likes working remotely (or should work remotely). Some people simply work better in an office. Some people enjoy leaving their work “at work” and letting home be home. Others have distractions at home that make remote work unfeasible – kids being homeschooled in the space, ailing family members who need assistance, noisy neighbors and so on. While the aforementioned 80% at least partially want to work from home, that doesn’t mean they are ready to give up the office space entirely. Consider what a balanced remote/in-office team might look like and get input from those making the transition.
- Help management evaluate productivity and give them avenues to motivate/change strategies with employees. Management that is used to managing, as this article says, with “butts in seats” might not know how to measure how much an employee is doing, how much they can do or should do when they can’t physically see them working (or not working) at their desks. This creates problems of trust on managers’ parts and problems of uncertainty for employees who don’t know where the milestones are for “enough” or “that extra mile.”
Time-tracking apps might make sense to you as a solution, but they are a bandage on a greater issue: how do we know how much is expected? Moreover, especially for creative employees, creating a work-only vacuum with a time tracking tool can be counterproductive. Businesses must instead fundamentally change how they manage productivity in this model by setting objective goals and offering employees the freedom to meet them on their time. Open communication about adjustments therein should also be encouraged, and management should be trained in how to best support and motivate their teams.
- Create an honest work-from-home culture. With the previous strategy, open communication is key when expanding a greater remote workforce, but also a realistic understanding and allowance of what work-from-home culture looks like. Employees should feel comfortable telling teammates they went for a walk during this conference call. They should be able to say they took a workout class at lunchtime or picked the kids up from school and took a moment to get them settled. They should maybe be able to get on a Zoom meeting without dressing for work from the waist up (though basic hygiene should still be encouraged).
One of the most cited benefits to working from home is schedule flexibility. Consider how much time your employees are saving without commutes and water cooler talks, and allow them to communicate what does distract them or make them unavailable at times. This will be extremely beneficial for managing a non-physical work force with trust. Moreover, consider that reducing the stress of managing work and life simultaneously could have positive benefits for productivity.
There are not many silver linings to the global pandemic, no matter what the Facebook memes might tell you. Many of us do not have “extra” time or energy to, say, learn another language or start a small business when we are all worried about our health and economic survival. But one thing we can be sure of is that we will have changed. We all will have learned new ways to cope and manage and produce that might make way for that “extra” in the post-COVID world. And when that happens, our quality of work should also improve exponentially.