For the last six months, hundreds of millions of people around the world have been collectively redefining the meaning of office work – remote working, mastering new tools, rethinking methods and spending an inordinate amount of time trying to understand what it all means going forward.
There are two prevailing theories about the future of remote work. On one hand, we’ve gained too much flexibility and productivity to go back. On the other, the relationships and work cultures we left behind in the office are simply too valuable to keep going without.
As chief people officer at a highly collaborative, tech-savvy innovation hub, I understand both sides. I do believe we need to weigh the intangible value of face-to-face work with the tangible benefits of saving on rent and infrastructure.
But six months in, I also think it’s clear that some of us are trying too hard to fit the past into the future. Before the pandemic, the basic concept of office work had scarcely changed in decades. Whatever the challenges and tragedies of COVID-19, it has also provided us with a moment to evaluate our priorities with an eye to the future, especially on inclusivity and productivity. This might be our best chance for years to reimagine the employee experience.
However we respond to this challenge, we shouldn’t just be fitting old habits into modern technology. We should be remaking office practices and culture for tomorrow. We need to think beyond COVID-19, to use the pandemic as an opportunity to institute longer-term changes that were already begging to be made.
The ability to work remotely has been a longstanding task by employees at many types of workplace. In December, 35% of U.S. workers said they would take a pay cut in exchange for the chance to take up remote working. It’s too simplistic to call it “working from home” – that term should go by the wayside, because too many managers hear the word “home” and think about a day of lounging on the couch. But the office savings and productivity gains companies have discovered in the past six months are proof enough that employees don’t see remote work as an excuse to sit back with their feet up.
Those managers forget are that most people want nothing more than flexibility in how and where they get things done. It’s not the 1950s anymore – the world steals a lot of time and attention from our lives today, through gridlocked commutes and e-mail and breaking news delivered by smartphone. Employees are constantly looking for ways to use their time better, and remote working can be a big piece of the puzzle. A parent might work a bit longer if they could just be home when school lets out. A junior staffer might be more productive without her long commute. An employee with a disability might feel more comfortable and creative based in a home office. Or not – but a rigid policy is rarely going to get the best from everyone.
Plus, it’s perfectly clear now that companies have the ability to enable remote work properly. We may pine for better WiFi or beg for an updated version of Zoom or Slack, but the cat is out of the bag – our old excuses about the tech are no longer valid. Even after the pandemic is over, we need to give our people the trust and the tools to work wherever and however they need to, as long as they are meeting the business’s core needs.
Maybe that means allowing them to live in another city or country and travel to head office for training and team-building twice a year. Maybe it means signing off on flexible hours, split shifts or compressed weeks, with caveats for important meetings.
Maybe it means spending saved office costs on IT that facilitates flexibility, like a company I work with, OpenText, has done. Or maybe it means hiring a head of remote work to manage the entire process more professionally, as other companies are now doing.
Part and parcel of this shift means rethinking how we quantify our work. The idea that we are better employees because we spend more time at a desk would be laughable if it weren’t so pernicious – even dangerous to our health, as researchers have found.
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Instead, we need to start measuring ourselves by the impact of what we accomplish – our ‘deliverables’. Many HR departments have been moving in recent years toward data, outcomes, key results and deliverables, rather than checking time clocks and trading in fuzzy managerial perceptions. For example, this has long been the case at consulting companies, where the work is by nature more measurable, and employees consequently have had more freedom to work remotely. If other companies shift toward measuring impact, it should facilitate remote work for their employees, too.
For years, too many of us have ignored requests for remote working policies and tools, thinking we were guarding our companies’ interests. But COVID-19 has laid waste to that thinking. We have the tech and the ability to use them, and our employees want nothing more than the flexibility to use them productively. As employers, we should always be looking for ways to increase productivity – during the pandemic, yes, but also beyond.
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