There is some inevitability to what “the office” will look like going forward. For months, many teams have been demonstrating that they can be productive from remote locations, and numerous employees see great value in the flexibility working from home offers. As we discussed in our last blog, Tomorrow Is Not Yesterday, there is no returning to where we were in early March, and a big part of that is embracing remote workers (well, metaphorically; let’s keep that six-foot distancing). Trying to hammer your staff back into the way they worked before may be doomed to failure. As you redefine what your work environment looks like, you need to rethink how you’ll foster teamwork, instill company culture, and assess performance.
Is the Future Pants-Optional?
Some of us have become very comfortable with a morning commute down the hall and pants-optional business attire. There haven’t been any passive-aggressive notes about dirty mugs in the office sink in months. And, heck, Zoom has facilitated many meetings remarkably well. It may be tempting to let everyone stay where they are (it’s certainly cost-effective). However, just because your team can do it, doesn’t mean everyone should or even wants to.
First, not everyone is set up for long-term remote working, even if they are making it work now. The configuration of a home “office” (see also: the kitchen table, the couch, a small desk in the corner of the family room) can vary widely, and some might not be conducive to sustained, focused productivity. Interruptions and distractions can be rampant if workers are also trying to home school and care for their children, not to mention having spouses or significant others working at home as well. Furthermore, there’s often a benefit to being able to leave work at the office – and go home.
Trying to hammer your staff back into the way they worked before may be doomed to failure
Beyond these workspace considerations, think about the value of traditional, in-person interactions. Steve Jobs said, “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.” According to a study by Great Business Schools, 84% of people still say they prefer in-person meetings.”¹ Online meetings may not yield the same collaborative results as traditional meetings. Moreover, the day-to-day interactions inherent to working in the same location (e.g., running into each other in the break room or parking lot, small talk before a meeting starts) yields interactions that help develop the relationships that are critical to effective teams.
So, do you tell everyone to stay home? No. Will some workers need to stay home for medical reasons? Certainly. Do you make everyone else come back in to the office? Probably not. For many workers, the best solution is not an either-or scenario; it’s both. Therefore, a model which allows workers to spend part of the time in the office and part of the time remotely could best meet your team’s needs. Further proof that a hybrid solution may be most effective is found in a 2016 Gallup poll. Citing that study, Simovic summarized that, people who work remote 60–80% of the time have the highest engagement....”²
The best bet may be encouraging those who prefer to work from home to do so several days a week but to also come into the office on a regularly scheduled basis, making it easier for others to set up in-person meetings. Being flexible with when and where people work can greatly contribute to mental health (see our next blog for more on this topic). You want to avoid locking anyone into one option unnecessarily.
To connect workers, many companies are embracing instant messaging platforms (here’s looking at you, Slack) to compensate for the organic conversations that used to happen in the office. Continuing to use these platforms can help solve the issue of the people at home missing out on in-office conversations. Companies need to retain that sense of inclusion for both productivity and team-building purposes. Still, with all of this technology, remember there are times when picking up the phone and talking live can save a lot of frustration. While it may be really, really easy to fire off an email and leave it in someone else’s inbox, it can be better to just walk down the hall or pick up the phone and have that live conversation. Again, the best solutions might be blended: embracing impromptu chats in the halls and chats on instant messaging platforms, phone calls and emails, and traditional meetings and video calls.
Preserving and Instilling Your Culture
Every company and every office have a culture. Understanding and fitting into that culture can be a huge part of employee success. That’s hard to do remotely. Consider having new hires (who are able to) start out in the office for a few months so they can more easily grasp how teams interact, how work gets done, and to appreciate the subtleties that are hard to convey over email or solely through online meetings. Give new folks a chance to absorb these things; they’ll feel more a part of the team moving forward if you do.
For those who cannot come into the office, go the extra mile to convey the company culture as much as possible and be sure to set up video calls with as many colleagues as possible to help foster those relationships. As they move through the onboarding process, keep checking in to ensure they have the tools and resources they need and are building the connections that will help them be successful. You may need to work a little harder to help them feel fully engaged, but it will pay off in loyalty and productivity.
Managing Team Anywhere
It may feel easier and more comfortable to manage people you can see, but most managers are having a crash course in how to manage from afar. As Jeanne Meister states, “Face time will no longer be the measure of worker productivity. Instead, we will finally focus on results!”³ It sounds awesome and what many employees have clamored for in the past, but it isn’t easy. People managers need to learn new ways to interact with employees, demonstrate trust, and assess performance. That means finding new ways to bridge the gap and create consistency among those in the office and those out of the office.
First, ensure that all of your team members are experiencing similar check-ins with you, whether they are working in the office or not. So, if you have weekly 1:1s with the employees who are back in the office, make sure to use video conferencing (yes, we are back to this again) for weekly 1:1s with your remote people. Video helps both of you communicate more effectively since being able to read body language and facial expressions is key to fully understanding what is being conveyed. It also keeps both parties more fully engaged. (How many of us check our phones during conference calls without video? Be honest.) We’ve come a long way in getting even the most reluctant to turn on their cameras, and continuing that practice will increase engagement and aid in communication as we move forward.
Resist the urge to micro-manage the folks you cannot see. You may have already become quite good at this over the past few months, but as we move into blended work solutions, you may be tempted to start checking in too much with team members whom you can’t physically see working. While you want them to feel connected, you also want them to feel trusted. If you would normally stop by their desks every morning, check in with them on Slack or email. If you then leave them to their work all day, show the same trust when you can’t see them.
Look at the quantity and quality of work. You more than likely have individual goals for each employee and an idea of what they should be completing on a day-to-day basis. Focus your assessments on those metrics. If a job requires a person to be available during certain hours, that person should be held to that standard when remote. If the job doesn’t specifically require that, you may want to establish core office hours (wherever that office is) and communicate those so coworkers know when they can count on that person being available. When shifts are necessary, work to communicate those needs to the team. We’ll say it over and over again: you want to be flexible without compromising productivity and effectiveness. Solid communication streams can go a long way to making various ways of working effective for the individual, the team, and the company.
The workplace has changed and will keep changing. Quickly. Leaders need to be able to nimbly respond to their teams’ diverse needs to keep morale and productivity high. Balancing what we’ve learned about remote working over the past few months with what we already know about traditional in-office dynamics can result in policies, processes, and training that bring out the best in every team member.
If you see yourself and your teams reflected in these struggles, now is the time to invest in skills development. Reach out to us. We’ll listen and offer you our expertise.
Be sure to check back next week as we continue our series on supporting managers during this transition.
¹ SpeedNetworking (2018, June 18). Steve Jobs on the importance of face-to-face meetings (even in the age of iPhones). Retrieved from https://medium.com/@shannonkelly_80469/steve-jobs-on-the-importance-of-face-to-face-meetings-even-in-the-age-of-iphones-a5a4b83621a6#:~:text=Steve%20Jobs%20on%20the%20Importance%20of%20Face%2Dto%2DFace%20Meetings,in%20the%20Age%20of%20iPhones)&text=According%20to%20a%20study%20by,really%20get%20the%20ideas%20flowing.
² Simovic, D. (2019, October 28). The ultimate list of remote work statistics – 2020 edition. Smallbizgenius. Retrieved from https://www.smallbizgenius.net/by-the-numbers/remote-work-statistics/
³ Meister, J. (2020, March 31). The impact of coronavirus on HR and the new normal of work. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2020/03/31/the-impact-of-the-coronavirus-on-hr-and-the-new-normal-of-work/#4617da102b60
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