The longer we work remotely, the more we like it. Now, almost a year after being begrudgingly forced to evacuate our offices, the thought of going back to a daily commute and dismal cubicle is tough to stomach. In fact, recent surveys are revealing that nearly 70% of U.S. workers are requesting to continue working remotely after the pandemic is over. Such staggering demand is forcing employers to adopt remote work permanently in order to retain and attract their talent. From fully-remote to hybrid work models, flexibility is the new normal. But are businesses ready to operate this way forever?
In the early days of the pandemic, working from home was implemented as a temporary contingency plan — a haphazard bandage wrapped around operations to prevent halted productivity and output from bleeding the company to death. All assumptions were that the business would go back to being in the office as usual within a few weeks. Now companies are embracing workplace flexibility as a permanent change, but are still operating on that emergency bandage plan. As with any wound, a bandage should only be temporary. For complete healing, a thorough treatment plan is needed.
In the case of remote work, health can be restored when companies upgrade their temporary workplace flexibility plan into a comprehensive virtual organizational model that includes updates to infrastructure, protocols, and employee experience. More specifically, changes should include use of software and workflows that help securely coordinate information asynchronously, so that teams are less dependent on video meetings (hello, zoom fatigue!) and in-person teamwork.
The change management process of becoming a virtual or hybrid organization isn’t overwhelming, but it does require careful intention and attention. To get the process started, you can optimize a workplace flexibility in your organization post-pandemic by prioritizing these tasks to set your team up for long-term success:
Write a Policy
If you haven’t written or updated a remote work policy yet, add it to the top of your list. Many companies don’t know that the absence of a remote work policy can be illegal by dangerously compromising the compliance of an organization. Remote work, or flexible work policies, provide your workforce with the information they need to be empowered and successful when working outside of the office. This provides much-needed structure for distributed teams and an opportunity to “observe” operations in action, such as staff organizational charts and directories, an outline of performance expectations, tool and equipment checklists, available culture development resources (to prevent the dreaded remote worker isolation), burnout-prevention rules, and more. Having a strong policy will lead to happier, healthy, more productive workers, not to mention help your company avoid costly legal and compliance issues.
Build a Digital Infrastructure
In 2020, you did the work to start using video calls for meetings, use project management systems to track productivity and assignments, and communicate asynchronously with messaging tools. But is that short-term software stack enough to keep a distributed team running at full speed permanently? Probably not. So, next you’ll need to optimize your toolkit by building a true digital infrastructure that enhances employee experience and meticulously manages output.
“Many companies have cobbled together a Band-aid tool stack to address the challenges of distributed work. Few, however, have created a complete digital workplace environment that enables employees to thrive in a virtual setting—even basic things like visibility across people, teams, and projects are left to chance,” said Tariq Rauf, Founder and CEO of Qatalog, a digital operating system. “With a bit of effort, team and company leaders can go from surviving to thriving and empower their people to do their best work by connecting tools in a way that’s complementary. This will be especially important for leaders in hybrid workforces to both uncover new work insights and maximize collaboration between in-person team members and their increasingly remote peers.”
Invest in Training
If you haven’t already, make sure your training programs — from new hire onboarding to ongoing learning and development — include improving essential skills that lead to a more self-managed and empowered workforce. The skills required for remote work extend far beyond the ability to mute and unmute yourself in a video call. Research proves that soft skills like empathy, communication, adaptability, and discipline are equally as important and require continuous development. Committing to developing a long-term learning and development program specifically for remote work will improve your team’s effectiveness and wellbeing, regardless of future workplace plans.
Tammy Bjelland, CEO and Founder of Workplaceless shares more on the impact of a remote learning and development strategy. “Remote capability building future-proofs your workforce and contributes to better business outcomes. Any remote learning and development strategy needs to be comprehensive in content, focused on behavior change, and aligned for all employees—those who work with remote team members as well as those who work remotely themselves. Support is needed at the individual contributor, manager, and executive levels in order to successfully build commitment to a shared vision for remote work, set expectations, and address obstacles. After all, a company can only truly capitalize on the benefits of remote work if all layers of an organization have the skills and confidence to implement and execute remote work effectively.”
Make Culture Location-Independent
The reality of connectedness is that modern professionals are at risk of experiencing isolation, regardless of if they have miles or desks between them. Building a company culture that ensures employees feel a sense of belonging and value is key whether you choose to have a central office or home offices. Culture is not about perks and benefits; reimagining your culture for a virtual environment is about returning to the foundations of your company and building infrastructure to support connection to each other through the lens of your mission, vision and core values. Build rituals that allow team members to truly get to know each other, and work with intention to ensure the team is engaging with and getting the intended result from these rituals.
Leah Knobler, Director of Talent Acquisition at Helpscout, an iconic remote-friendly employer known for their innovative distributed culture development methods, offers this advice, “Think about what was special about working at your company before you went remote and get creative about how to make that translate in a remote way. If it doesn’t translate, this is a great moment to create new remote-first rituals for your team. There are so many ways to use video to build your remote team culture and it doesn’t require a professional video team or fancy equipment (but bonus points if you already have those!). Also, planning your first team’s first virtual retreat — this can become an awesome new tradition and give your teammates an opportunity to form deeper bonds and build trust.”
Like we learned in 2020, our relationship to remote work may last much longer than we ever expected. So, the best thing we can do to set our teams up for success in 2021 and beyond, is to commit to changing our mindset to focus on sustainability. Continuing to operate on a contingency plan will only fuel burnout and reactive decision making. Now is the time to start thinking proactively about what the future of workplace flexibility will look like in our teams, our companies, and our communities.