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3 lessons COVID-19 has taught us about remote work

In March, thousands of white collar workers were forced into a gigantic work-from-home experiment. Some things are already clear.

3 lessons COVID-19 has taught us about remote work
[Source images: Nobi_Prizue/iStock; cherezoff/iStock; Melpomenem/iStock]
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This article is part of Fast Company’s Lessons of COVID-19 package, exploring some of the ways America has changed since the pandemic hit and what we have learned from it. Click here to read the entire series.

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Citi’s CEO, Michael Corbat, thinks productivity may suffer with long-term remote work. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg anticipates as much as half of Facebook’s employees will transition to working remotely over the next five to 10 years. Netflix’s Reed Hastings believes working from home is “a pure negative.”

Over the past nine-plus months, just about every major CEO has declared remote work the new way of the world, a necessary evil, or—less frequently—somewhere in between. And it’s not just CEOs. Since the start of the pandemic, my inbox has been filled with contributed pieces from thought leaders and experts which can generally fall into one of two categories: A) Why we can’t wait to go back to the office after the pandemic, or B) Why we’re never in a million years going back to the office post-pandemic.

These strong opinions make sense. For individual workers, March’s sudden transition meant figuring out Zoom etiquette (and Zoom fatigue), wondering what happened to that “extra” time now that you don’t have a commute, and what to do when your kid or dog interrupts your meeting for the fourth time. For managers overseeing disparate teams, sometimes across time zones, this change has provided its own challenges.

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Add in the fact that every worker has their own remote work set up, tools, preferences for collaboration, and tolerance for troubleshooting tech, and it’s no wonder we all feel differently. Some love the flexibility that working from home provides, while others miss their quiet cubicles, running into their coworkers in the communal kitchen, or just having a real reason to get dressed each morning.

The data suggests that even once it’s safe again to go back to an in-person work environment, plenty of employees won’t be rushing to return to 9-5s at their office desks. In a recent report by ManpowerGroup, most of the workers surveyed said they’d prefer working two to three days in an office, and working remotely the rest of the time.

Which brings us to that sticky question of productivity—surely the lion’s share of the calculation that Hastings, Zuckerberg, or any CEO, is making. Can employees get as much done while working from their kitchen table?

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The short answer seems to be “yes.” Mercer surveyed 800 employers and 94% said that productivity was unaffected—or even improved—compared to its pre-pandemic levels.

But it’s not that simple, of course. Quality matters, too. Leaders from across industries have agonized about the other intangible factors affecting remote teams. What do video meetings mean for creative brainstorming and innovation? How can you preserve company culture when you only see your coworkers in rectangular boxes on your screen? What does it mean for employee mental health when the only thing separating “work” and “life” is whether you’re using your company-provided laptop, or your personal one?

Unsurprisingly, these factors are harder to quantify. But a few things are already clear about this huge work-from-home experiment we’ve embarked on:

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There isn’t one version of remote work

Unlike the Buffers or GitLabs of the world, most companies were thrust into the work from home game suddenly, when the world started to shut down in mid-March. Teams first had to figure out the practical logistics (selecting video conferencing tools, distributing work laptops, etc.) before even beginning to think about more theoretical concerns. So working remotely at some companies meant just trying to replicate the type of activities that usually happened in-office. But at other institutions that were further along, leaders were focused on building a successful culture where employees felt connected and empowered to do creative work.

When I spoke with Sid Sijbrandij, GitLab’s CEO, back in March, just as many companies were first making the transition, he was quick to point out that “working remotely” didn’t look the same across all companies. “We’re trying to do our part in teaching the world, ‘Hey, remote is more than just using Slack and Zoom,'” he told me.

Successful remote teams often require restructuring—and support

Many companies that have decided to invest in remote work long-term have realized that it requires leadership to make a genuine investment to succeed. That includes articulating clear goals and values—and setting an example about how remote work should look. Creating an environment where employees remain engaged is not an undertaking that mid-level managers can solve by holding more frequent check-ins with direct reports.

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In fact, more frequent check-ins and micromanaging is generally the wrong approach when trying to build a productive remote team, say experts. Instead, managers should prioritize results over hours logged. “What if you had an organization that could eliminate most layers of management?” writes remote work expert and former CEO of Optiva Danielle Royston. “Start to think about what changes to your business processes you’d have to make so that employees could work with zero management overhead.”

One thing that a number of tech companies, including Facebook, are increasingly opting for: Hiring a head of remote work. The position is intended to help create a cohesive experience for all workers, says Brynn Harrington, vice president of people growth at Facebook. “We’re looking for the person with influence, skills, and experience who can help us pivot the company. When we think about the transformation to remote, it’s a wholesale shift in how we run.”

It’s a recent shift. A report from T3 Advisors of 95 tech companies found that only 2% had a designated leader to oversee remote work in August 2020, but that number had climbed to 12% by November 2020.

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More flexibility is great, but it doesn’t solve fundamental problems

One of the biggest perks touted by remote work evangelists is the flexibility it provides. Need to be home for the plumber, or because your kid is sick? Not a problem. Need to take your dog for a 3 p.m. walk? Now you can. And for teams that work asynchronously, workers have even more options—a boon for night owls, midday exercisers, or anyone who appreciates being trusted to get their work done when it’s most convenient for them.

But while flexibility can be helpful for working parents—especially mothers, who often shoulder the majority of caretaking responsibilities—it’s dangerous to think of it as a solution to the underlying caregiving crisis playing out in homes across the country.

Parents have been largely left to their own devices during the pandemic, cut off from much of the childcare support they once relied upon. Sure, some companies have extended flexible leave for working white-collar parents, allowed them to shift or reduce their hours, or offered additional perks and benefits.

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But while being allowed to work from home is a privilege that many lack, juggling full-time work, plus supervising remote learning is untenable for months on end. So it’s no wonder many are dropping out. According to the Labor department, in September, 865,000 women left the workforce. That more than four times the number of men.

“Working mothers don’t need bike shares,” writes senior staff writer Ainsley Harris. “They certainly don’t need magic shows. They need their companies to act as better corporate citizens and advocate for policies that address the daily needs of parents across the payroll spectrum.”

Until substantive changes are made to provide families affordable childcare, women will continue to be left out. “We’re already seeing and will continue to see fundamental rollbacks in women’s gains in the workforce—in earnings, promotions, and leadership,” Katherine Eyster, the director of strategic partnerships and policy initiatives at the National Partnership for Women and Families, told staff writer Pavithra Mohan back in August.

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It’s a significant cost—and not just for the women and their families. Companies will miss out, too. And, while it may be easier to see who is missing when you’re all sitting around an office conference table and not on a Zoom call, make no mistake: Remote work isn’t a success unless it works for everyone.

About the author

Julia Herbst is a senior staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously she worked as a writer and editor at Los Angeles magazine and BREAKER magazine

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