When the UK entered its third national lockdown in early January, employees were once again asked to work from home whenever possible. This has been a common theme of the last year, but in the post-COVID future, remote working will not be a necessity of circumstance: it will be the obvious choice for most businesses to attract and retain the best workers.
Even as the Covid-19 vaccine rollout paves the way for people to return to the office, many workers will prefer to continue working remotely. People have begun to experience the substantial benefits remote work offers. Not only does remote work allow for a better work-life balance, but professionals working remotely can do so from anywhere in the world, not just crowded cities or commuter towns. Today, the question facing employers and employees is not how long remote work will last but how best to prepare for this “new normal”.
Making the most of remote work in a pandemic
Unfortunately, the rapid shift to remote work in 2020 didn’t provide much time for HR teams to prepare a smooth transition from the office to the home. This sudden and abrupt change to established work patterns contributed to mental health issues and heightened stress in an already stressful year. Remote work normally makes life easier and helps workers be more productive, but remote working during a lockdown presents unusual challenges. Working parents have to juggle children at home due to school closures, and "Zoom fatigue” can leave even the most dedicated workers exhausted.
The pandemic will end one day, and the true benefits of remote work will finally unlock for workers around the world. Until then, though, how should companies adjust their remote working policies to give employees the support they need?
First, business leaders and staff need to be adaptable and open to innovation, such as by adopting new technologies. For example, one company took a rather unconventional approach by hosting team meetings via Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a video game for the Nintendo Switch.
Second, leaders and staff must actively contribute to and nurture their workplace culture. In a remote working environment, there’s no joking by the watercooler or chatting while making coffee. You need to replace in-person culture-building activities with virtual ones.
Investing in remote work culture is essential because company culture is strongly linked to mental health and wellbeing. Research we conducted in 2020 revealed that almost half of organisations believe that positive workplace culture is essential to success. Staff is more likely to thrive in a happier culture driven by purposeful decisions from leadership.
To promote culture within our business, we make a conscious effort to ensure the team gets to know each other and feels connected. We have daily team calls in which the aim is purely to get to know each other, which we do by asking random “questions of the day” not related to work. We also play games and watch movies together. And we have a “hangout” Slack channel for colleagues to video or voice chat while working if they want some company.
Third, everyone within the organisation should practice demonstrating kindness. We named kindness as our top company value, so our employees strive to be kind in all their communication and decisions. That means assuming good intent on the part of your colleagues and communicating praise often. A single kind gesture — or simply treating colleagues, clients, and customers well — can have an outsized positive impact on others’ lives.
On top of kindness, leaders must trust their staff. They must move away from endless meetings and video calls that get in the way of productivity and allow staff to work flexible hours that suit them. That will lead to a culture where colleagues can do their best work without worrying about micromanagement or keeping up appearances for the sake of appearances.
What happens to remote work when the pandemic ends?
Tips like these can help leaders overcome the struggles that have arisen during the pandemic, but what happens when the danger finally passes? Most businesses are thinking in the long term about how to improve the remote working practices they have adopted so far. Some may consider switching to a hybrid working model, where a portion of staff works in the office while others work remotely.
Hybrid work may sound appealing, but adopting a hybrid model without a strategy can be hazardous. Hybrid working is the hardest model to make work because it can cause home workers to feel left out and cut off from the rest of the workplace.
To maintain an effective hybrid model, everyone must work as if they are remote. That means working asynchronously, making sure to document everything, and continuing to make meetings accessible regardless of location. Otherwise, decisions will be made during in-person meetings, while remote workers are out of the loop.
Hybrid working also makes it a little harder to build a strong company culture. It’s easier to grab a drink with a colleague after work or have a casual chat when people are physically in the office. Whether that happens at the same time as remote culture-building activities or not, it can separate those who work in the office and those who do not.
Therefore, key skills for hybrid working must include the ability to work asynchronously, such as using collaboration platforms and cloud software to document work, share notes, and track decisions. Leaders will need to enforce discipline to ensure remote workers feel included and build a culture that works for everyone.
Leaders will also need to address the frictions that may form between staff who are office-based and receive certain salaries, benefits, and perks, compared to those who choose to work remotely. Last year, we saw some businesses (for example, VMware and Stripe) implement pay cut policies for employees who choose to work from locations that have a lower cost of living.
Ideally, remote work should empower workers to live and work anywhere in the world. The hybrid model can work, but only if company leaders recognise the need to create a remote-first workplace instead of just a remote-friendly one. With remote working set to become the standard for millions of workers, businesses and HR leaders must now focus on fostering sustainable remote company culture.
Job van der Voort, CEO and Co-founder, Remote