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Remote Working Policies

Setting boundaries will see some employee attrition, but those who remain will feel a heightened sense of trust and an improved quality of employment.
This article is part of my FY24 Strategic Outlook series.

Prior to Covid, with some notable exceptions, organisational leaders were not planning on leveraging technology to ensure an ideal balance between work that is ‘best’ done remotely and that which is best done in person. Much less, were managers working out how they could enable their teams to be close to 100% remote because ‘people do their best work at home’. This inconvenient truth is important to keep in mind when thinking about remote working policies.

This is because while some business models — GitHub most readily springs to mind — revolved around getting the best people no matter where in the world they lived, most organisations recruited local people who lived within a reasonable commute of a central office. Laptops and remote work were largely confined to field sales managers or other people who held a role that militated against being in an office. For those who could be assigned to a desk and kept in a central location, desktop computers and a strict ‘you may not work from home’ policy applied.

Covid did not change this mindset. Perhaps more importantly, Covid did not change the fundamental nature of human interaction and the work employees do. What Covid brought were hitherto unimaginable circumstances — at least for democratic western countries — with governments issuing laws effectively locking people in their homes. While few governments had a formal zero Covid policy, many — Australia and New Zealand among the most notable — treated even single digit transmission numbers as a near extinction level event. This wrought a problem for organisations, how to maintain output, and this is the key word here, among a staff base that were now restricted from coming into a central place of work.

The technology for remote work had long been available, but as many who previously made requests found, it was not innovation that opened remote working possibilities. Rather, it was the reality of businesses shutting down if they could not adopt and adapt. The remote work policies which flowed enabled many to migrate to an essentially 100% remote setup. The trouble, which I will deal with in this piece, is that many (85% according to some surveys) assumed this environment would remain a permanent ‘new normal’ of office life — 53% of all people surveyed thought remote opportunities would increase.

Survey Data: as regular readers of this column will be aware; I am a major exponent of research and survey data. However, data in and of itself is of little value without context. Because of this, data can be highly misleading. To take one example: “of all survey respondents (n = 566), 53% expect to see remote work opportunities increase, while 33% expect the levels of remote work to remain the same”. With over 85% of people expecting something, how can it be that remote working is likely to steadily decrease in the years to come? The answer is pretty much the same for many predictions people make. They assume history moves in the direction of their preference. To put it in more grandiose terms, history has a right side, and they are on it. Sadly, as countless people have found, sometimes to their peril, history has no ‘side’, much less a right one. And the arc of history does not bend toward an inevitable future.

On the back of this ‘full remote is here to stay’ assumption, lifestyles adapted. Day care costs could now be saved as children were kept at home. Parents used Bluey, Paw Patrol, and Peppa Pig as stand in babysitters and educators, making snacks while they dialled into the now ubiquitous video call. People could move to suburbs where property was ‘cheap’ because commute time no longer mattered. Yet, just as Covid and economic pressure had driven up remote work opportunities, a sound conclusion was that the end of Covid restrictions and economic pressure could do the opposite — and drive down remote work opportunities. This logical conclusion was drowned out amid the clamour of, ‘I am more productive at home’, ‘at home is where I do my best work’, ‘I find it easier to focus at home’. A clamour that was seldom challenged and thus allowed to toughen and harden as ‘the truth’ for many.

The seemingly inevitable Great Recession may seem not to be manifesting — yet. But organisations are increasingly tightening their belts following the tumultuous Covid-era workplace changes and Great Resignation that followed record low interest rates and, in many countries, low unemployment rates. Now with almost all Covid restrictions removed, organisations are also assessing where value, rather than the output I mentioned earlier, is being produced. Working remotely, I may be able to attend just as many meetings as I can in the office or produce as many monthly reports, but my value to an organisation is not, or rather should not, be measured in quantitative output alone. My value to an organisation should have a qualitative measure as well. A qualitative value which human evolution has honed over millennia, and that a technological shift or pandemic cannot alter in a fist full of years.

One final word before diving into the analysis. If you are reading this and think ‘they will never mandate 100% office attendance again’, ask yourself if you also thought, prior to Covid, that the government would ever force you to remain in your home. Governments and organisations will take what seem like unimaginable steps, so long as they see value in the outcomes. In such a context, all bets are off regarding what an organisation will or will never do.

‘True Hybrid’

Regardless of the motivations, hybrid work is here. Perhaps not to stay, but certainly to stay for some time. However, I am increasingly speaking with leaders, mostly in the finance sector, who have a clear eye on employees being back in the office full time. Some have even expanded their office space during Covid and have no intention of allowing prime real estate to remain empty.

For the part of employees, a majority have a clear preference for remote work with around 80% of workers surveyed expressing a preference for hybrid models. The numbers are even more staggering when the job seeker market is surveyed. Since early 2022, more than half of all LinkedIn job searches have been for remote roles. Yet these roles only accounted for 20% of all jobs listed on the platform. Meaning that while there is greater demand than ever for remote work, fully remote roles still only represent a minority of available positions.

Given this strong remote or hybrid preference; given that a program of mass hypnosis is unlikely to eventuate in the next 12-months to shift employee sentiment; and given organisations are increasingly mandating employees return to the office, there is benefit in digging into the trends and examining how maximal value can be derived from a hybrid workplace.

I won’t go into the data on the benefits or productivity gains regarding remote or office work. The reasoning for this is that it essentially does not matter. Much like it does not matter if employees are statistically better served by working in a union, taking longer holidays, or moving to shorter working weeks. People want what they want and will often want it despite the data and not because of it. There is also the difficulty that, like in so many fields, studies often return a researcher’s ‘bias’ rather than a universal truth. Thus, while managers need to harmonise employee wants with organisational needs, they also need to meet workers part way lest they be unable to recruit. Because of this, it is not about making a case for or against remote work, but conceptualising the issues which need addressing. The first is visibility.

Seen But Not Heard

Both managers and employees report feelings of discomfort in hybrid environments. For the part of managers, around 85% describe some level of discomfort in managing remote employees. The key driver of this sentiment is that they miss the engagement and oversight that readily occurs when people are in the same building. Instead, interactions can become stilted, with managers needing to book meetings to directly ask ‘what are you working on’ rather than organically observing this through physical interaction. In my own experience, poor performing employees will often seek to ‘take a rain check’ on these diarised 1:1s because their time is better spent focusing on their work. In short, instead of being able to manage by direct and indirect observation, progress monitoring becomes an awkward affair that often leaves people feeling distrusted and that their boss is checking up on them.

Remote employees report the sentiment that they are seen but not heard in hybrid settings. In part because even with the best video facilities, lag (the time taken for audio or video to travel) creates micro-breaks in conversation flows. Great presenters will tell you that it is all in the timing, a timing that is lost when on a video call. In such a context, employees who struggle ‘in real life’ to make their voice heard in a conversation, are put firmly behind the eight ball when online.

Other employees report the feeling of a multi-tier system in which people who are constantly in the office with their manager ‘do coffee’, or lunch, or chat, and therefore have more opportunities to make their case when measured against people who are truly hybrid or fully remote. This can result in managerial bias and hamper organisations already struggling with retention or diversity among their staff base.

It’s a Matter of Boundaries

Although most mainstream media channels will have you believe that the future is all about openness, people benefit from and need boundaries. We witness this in children for whom ‘this is my plate, and therefore this cookie on my plate is my cookie’. Sharing and cooperation is important, but I can only share what is mine. Sharing what is yours will usually start an argument.

This same boundary concept is writ large in organisational settings. If I want to build my brand and position myself for an opportunity, it is highly problematic if all my time is monopolised by people for whom their last minute is my emergency. In such an environment, employees will often guard their time jealously. For those who are less ambitious, or simply want to avoid burning out as their hitherto meteoric career comes crashing to earth, creating a boundary between what is their working day versus personal time is important.

Picking up again on the ‘output’ comment earlier in this piece. Remote work has indeed seen output increase, as employee FOMO or guilt is leveraged to keep people working for longer. Incidents of people working through lunch, not taking bathroom breaks because video calls are back to back, and generally feeling permanently under the pump are dramatically on the rise. Employees are also working much later into the evening with family time interrupted by ‘that email I should have sent’ being front of mind rather than being 100% present with their children or allowing themselves to decompress with Netflix and chill.

For those on a productivity kick, the data regarding concentrated work has not changed. Once we have our concentration broken, it takes on average 20 minutes to get back into that train of thought. Covid has not changed this and the increased focus switching as people hop between video calls is only worsening the situation. A bad situation that is compounded by people doing their work late at night because instead of getting through everything during the day, their kids needed picking up, they had to attend their yoga class, or put on that load of washing not done on the weekend. We may ‘feel’ more productive, but this chronic erosion of boundaries is producing less critically sound work and while output is up, value is down as employees are increasingly re-doing or fixing problems created by their more haste less speed approach.

Finding a New Normal

While ‘100%’ models, pure remote or pure on site, have their drawbacks, the opportunities to be found in both can be harmonised into something that enhances the personal and organisational value that is created. This ‘workplace appropriate’ model is not one size fits all and, maddeningly for large organisations, is driven as much by the role as it is by the organisation or industry. Your field sales manager may benefit from being based at home, coming into the office for team meetings or planning days. While your general legal counsel will benefit from being based in the office and working from home as meetings and physical engagements allow. However, your front of house remains in the office 5-days a week.

The only way competent managers can gauge which working model is best is by resetting performance measures. Not, as some would have you believe, by resetting performance expectations. This is because, as repeatedly flagged, output seldom matters. Highly successful organisations are all about Sustaining Value in the Transformation Life Cycle, rather than merely how much time their employees have spent working or how many reports they have produced in a week. It is seldom about quantity over quality.

Once effective performance measures are established, transparency regarding role expectations, measures, and outcomes is necessary. If it looks like Jill gets to mostly work from home and no one really knows on what she is working, apart from Jill’s manager, while Jack is always in the office burning the midnight oil, disaffection can manifest. It is important that all staff feel they are on an equal footing, or at the very least understand why differences in workplace, approach, or performance are warranted.

Be bold with boundaries and make it as critical that employees feel as comfortable about leaving work — be that an office or their desk at home — as they are uncomfortable about skipping key meetings or failing to deliver on key objectives. Also, make it clear why some work must be done in person. This is essential as we bring people in from their Covid-safe 100% remote world. On the face of it there seems to be no logic in requiring people in an office to perform a function you have been letting them do for the last three or four years from home. While some will understand the logic, others will simply have to follow the mandate until the boundaries are reset and being in the office feels as natural as working from home had become.

Finally, iterate. Managers who ‘set and forget’ policies will find that as organisational and staffing needs change, their policies will steadily become obsolete and possibly even illegal. The same applies to remote working policies. Share lessons learned throughout the organisation, monitor performance, and asses where and when policies need revisiting. Setting boundaries in such a transparent way will see some employee attrition among people who think they can have their cake and eat it too. But the remainder are likely to experience a heightened sense of trust as managers and employees turn organisational behaviour into a process rather than an abstract policy with everyone contributing to making work a better place for the many, not just the few.

Photo by Kristin Wilson on Unsplash.

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