As companies from Nationwide to Twitter are instituting permanent work-from-home policies in response to the pandemic, plenty of employees are left wondering if this is really what they signed up for. Remote collaboration, a laptop on a kitchen table, and no social time with coworkers isn’t working for everyone–even if it’s technically possible.
There are many elements that go into an effective work-from-home (WFH) strategy, including the necessary hardware and collaboration tools. But there is a clear difference between enabling remote working and enabling sustainable remote working.
Who knows, we may never get in-person team happy hours back, but there are things leaders can institute NOW to make sure their internal culture stays intact for the long haul.
A few years ago, our communications company, Hotwire, instituted our “thoughtful working” policy, which revolves around empowering staff to work how and where they get their best work done. Simply put, it means that we trust our employees to be the adults that they are: to be accountable and complete their work on time and to the highest quality, but to do so where, when, and how it makes the most sense for them. Thoughtful working shifts the focus to results (not time spent), strategy (not tactics), and effectiveness (not “busyness”).
The reality is that for many companies, their employees will be working from home for the foreseeable future. And even when it is possible to return to an office, we won’t be the same; many of those same employees will demand more flexible work environments because they’ve proven they can be just as effective. So, in order to attract and retain top talent, leaders must consider this a differentiating factor and implement long-term strategies—not just Band-Aid solutions—to keep workers engaged and motivated while remote. In order to make the true culture shift to a sustainable, supportive, and effective WFH culture, here are a few elements to consider:
Lead from the top down
Microsoft recently released data that shows their employees have been working an average of four additional hours per week during the pandemic as they WFH. If you, as a leader, are responding to emails at 11 p.m., you may not realize you’re setting an example for other staff members. However, more inexperienced employees will take your lead or assume they need to be responding at all hours, which can foster an unsustainable, always-on working lifestyle.
In a thoughtful working environment, you are online when it makes the most sense for you, which may not be the traditional 9 to 5. However, communicating and providing transparency around when that is and why your schedule is set up that way is what creates the balance of shared and met expectations. When talking about tasks, start to shift your language from a discussion of time spent to a focus on the work itself and when it will get completed.
Our physical (and mental) work environments have changed these past few months, so the way you train your employees–for their individual situation and in the context of their teams–should also change. Without the structure of a physical workspace, companies should prioritize providing training that better supports an employee’s “whole person.” In our current environment, resiliency education and meditation offerings could be especially beneficial in addition to the traditional skill-based training.
Empowering your employees to take hold of their own career training while working from home also works in tandem with the inherently autonomous nature of remote work—but it requires new thinking when FaceTime isn’t possible. Because much of what we learn is in proximity to others, via observation and off-the-cuff conversations, employees must now manufacture those organic opportunities to regularly connect with coworkers when working from home. Be curious, ask questions about others’ work, and seek out stretch opportunities! Managers can do their part to encourage this behavior by conducting regular conversations on goals and professional ambitions, then finding ways to actively provide those opportunities.
We have all had one too many Zoom happy hours these past few months. Though seeing coworkers’ faces still provides better connection than just hopping on the phone, a virtual “cheers” really doesn’t make up for the real thing.
But as WFH continues–and, possibly, sticks around–don’t lose sight of those “soft” perks and moments of connection that can easily go by the wayside. Make better use of the technology you have available by adding polls to your Zoom calls for virtual trivia nights. Support local makers by bringing them in to lead a virtual “master class” for your group. Or promote the skills, talents, and interests of your own employees by hosting PowerPoint Parties or musical performances.
We at Hotwire recently had a two-day, all company training session–what we call Bootcamp–where two of our employees who DJ on the side kicked us off by performing their own sets. Who knew a 9 a.m. rave could be so much fun?! Our speakers provided a rich diversity of content that could only be virtual, since it allowed for less travel time and cost. And the full company was also able to be in constant conversation with one another during the sessions using a shared Slack channel—something that would have been impossible to replicate during an in-person event.
The current WFH environment focuses a lot on what we lose when we’re not in person, but make sure to look for and capitalize on those methods of connection—the unintended upsides of remote work—to actively engage your employees.
Invest in your employees
Creating this type of thoughtful working environment takes time and it takes money, and often the items seen as “perks” are the first to be cut when budgets are being scrutinized. But by sitting down to truly think about what a supportive remote culture looks like for your employees—including how it’s built, rolled out, and championed by leadership—will save you both time and money in the long run in the form of higher employee satisfaction and retention rates.
Employees who recognize your company’s support of their whole person will be much less likely to burn out and look for opportunities elsewhere. The creation of this sustainable WFH environment is not just corporate “fluff,” as a true investment in your employees also saves money because of fewer new hire processes and reduced expenses for things such as physical office space.
So, even though instituting thoughtful working is the right thing to do, it also makes the most financial sense for the long-term sustainability of your company and teams.
At Hotwire, when we feel it’s safe for our employees to return to their respective offices—and it supports the safety of others in the community—we will reopen our doors. But even then, as is true now, employees will continue to have the chance to design their work in a way that works for them.
Tiffany Ankenman is Head of People & Culture, North America, at communications giant Hotwire.