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Leaders: Here’s how to deal with the good and bad effects of remote work

A communications professor says that instead of a “my way or the highway” scenario, leaders and employees can work together to find solutions. 

Leaders: Here’s how to deal with the good and bad effects of remote work
[Photo: Oleg Magni/Unsplash]
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The Great Wait. This is what industry observers have been calling the current period of uncertainty as employees who had been looking forward to going back into the office have gone back to waiting for employers to resume their canceled back-to-office plans. While canceling these plans was a wise precaution, it is, unfortunately, adding to some of the negative effects that almost two years of working remotely has had on many employees’ mental states. Worker morale is low, burnout continues to be a problem, and people are still quitting their jobs in record numbers.

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Of course, no leader wants to have their workers suffer from low morale and energy, especially since it’s widely understood that this negatively impacts job performance and productivity. Being away from coworkers, and the social support that a workplace community can offer, for so long is a huge part of the cause for low employee morale. But there have also been some good effects due to so much time away from the office. Understanding how this period has had both good and bad effects on employees will enable leaders to take steps to maximize the beneficial effects of the good while minimizing the negative effects of the bad. In fact, the bad can be used for beneficial effects as well.

Expected challenges, unexpected benefits

Spending so much time at home has allowed many people to discover new interests and new passions. Many also found themselves wanting to learn new skills, and some of them may have been fortunate enough to begin doing so. This kind of newfound self-awareness and clarity can be of tremendous value at work if employers can tap into it—for example, by working closely with employees to expand or change their current roles to capitalize on new interests or skills.

On the downside, depriving people of the important social connections and support they used to get at work has also contributed to much of the low morale, low motivation, low engagement, and burnout that we’ve been seeing. The most common assumption about burnout is that it’s caused by overwork or poor work/life balance. That is definitely part of it. But not being able to see their colleagues in person for so long, and the resulting isolation and loneliness, has also been a major cause of burnout and low morale. But what this also means is that when colleagues eventually do get back together, there will be magic. 

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Another result of working from home is that it’s led many employees to realize what wasn’t working for them. In fact, this is part of the reason for the Great Resignation. Employees are leaving because they’ve concluded that their jobs can’t provide them with what they need anymore, whether that’s more flexibility, a change in working conditions, or different roles and responsibilities.

This seems like a “bad” effect, but it’s only negative on the surface. Hidden inside is an opportunity. Not only are there ways to prevent workers from leaving, but in the process, you can also improve your organization on multiple levels. For example, if an employee is wanting a change, this could be a chance to explore micro-growth opportunities for that employee. Instead of a “my way or the highway” scenario, leaders and employees can work together to find solutions. 

Harnessing the surge in creative energy

Fortunately, working together to find solutions can happen on a company-wide scale. What’s more, both the good and bad effects of working remotely for so long can be used in positive ways to improve the company. The key is the aforementioned clarity and self-awareness that employees have gained, whether that’s the “good” clarity of new interests and skills or the “bad” clarity of realizing what isn’t working for them anymore. And there is no better way to gain insights than by taking advantage of something that will happen when you bring your employees back together, now or in the future. 

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When people gather after being away from each other for a long time, there is a natural surge of creative energy. This is the “magic” that can result in a treasure trove of new ideas. But it needs to be actively tapped. Exactly how can differ depending on the company and whether people have already returned to the physical workplace or not. Here are some ideas based on my experience working with organizations.   

First, for organizations that have already returned to the office, fully or partially, or are planning to do so soon, there is a golden but limited window of opportunity right now. The energy created by people coming back together will eventually level off once employees adapt to being back in the office. Instead of wasting this window of opportunity with, say, boring meetings that could easily be done over Zoom, harvest that temporary spike of energy with creative brainstorming and ideation workshops.

Covering the wall with Post-it notes

One of my favorite workshops I facilitate is one where I have employees brainstorm and anonymously jot down work-related ideas and opinions on Post-it notes, using a separate note for each idea. I ask them to include any and all ideas for how to make the company better. These can include ideas about the company’s product or service, but also includes ideas for how to improve the workplace itself via policies, structures, workplace culture, COVID-related issues, anything. We stick these on the wall and group them into categories.

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Throughout it all, I reassure employees that this is a safe space since they won’t share their honest ideas if they’re worried about getting disciplined for saying the wrong thing. I also remind leaders that they will be best positioned to truly improve their organization if they can welcome even the ideas and opinions that seem critical or negative. Combining the “good” and “bad” clarity that employees have gained with the surge of creative energy people have when coming back together will be tremendous. With the right kind of workshop facilitator, you will have more ideas than you know what to do with.   

If you’re one of the leaders who canceled your return-to-office plans and don’t know when you’ll reinstate them, you don’t have to wait to take advantage of the kind of energy I’m talking about. You can create similar opportunities in the short term by bringing in small groups of people for one-shot idea sessions. Make these optional and pressure-free so that only those who genuinely want to come in will do so, and of course, be completely transparent and ultra-communicative about everything you will do to protect their health and safety. While these smaller, one-shot sessions may not result in the kind of explosive creative energy you might see in a company-wide return to the office, you’ll still be able to tap into valuable ideas. Plus, these sessions would have the added benefit of injecting a bit of morale into your employees to help them get through the remainder of the Great Wait.     

Navigating the uncertain and the unknown

Whether you have already brought your workforce back into the office, are in the process of doing so, or are inviting small groups of employees in for one-shot brainstorming sessions, another important point is to navigate what is and will be okay in terms of non-verbal communication and behavior. There is a wide, uncertain spectrum of what people are currently comfortable with in terms of personal space, handshakes, hugs, or fist-bumping. Do not make casual assumptions about what people will be okay with. Again, frequent and transparent communication will be key.

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There are also some unknowns that no one knows the full answer to at the moment. For example, what about fully remote employees? Will they be unavoidably excluded from the magic of in-person office reunions? Or are there ways to get them swept up in that tidal wave of creative energy as well? And looking further beyond, just how will leaders manage all the ins-and-out of working and effectively communicating in a hybrid environment?

What is clear, however, is that sooner or later many employees will return to their offices, and that will provide leaders with an opportunity to take both the good and the bad of this period and turn it all into good. And the more good is created overall, the more all employees—in-person, remote, and hybrid—and their organizations can benefit. 


Dustin York, PhD is an associate professor of communication at Maryville University.

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