Remote work came in a sweep last year and caused rapid changes in practices and attitudes. A year later, 83% of employees report working from home makes them more productive and 62% of them expect their employers to continue to provide such opportunities.
So it appears that remote work is here to stay. But do we realize all the impacts that it has and all the challenges it poses for us? Now that we know it is not a temporary state, it is time to look deeper and work more intentionally on making the best of it.
The Silent Impact of Remote Work on Employees
I have always hated working from home. It deprives me of some valuable interactions with my colleagues, hampers my ability to focus, but above all, makes it extremely difficult for me to maintain a work/life balance. I just cannot leave “the office,” so I never seem to stop working or thinking about work. These past 18 months have taught me to build boundaries to some extent, but I still do not feel completely comfortable with this setup.
And I am sure that there are many others like me.
Even the people who prefer work remote work sometimes have trouble just to disconnect and stop working. Over time, this will become a bigger and bigger issue. So each of us needs to find an approach and solution that works for them to avoid burnout.
Work-life Balance or Work-Life Integration
Many, including some of the most successful people in the world, like Jeff Bezos, argue that work-life balance is not the answer, and we should be striving for work/life integration. This would mean interspersing your work activities with personal activities and not trying to build a wall between them.
Preparing a daily schedule would include addressing all your priorities holistically to manage all your needs. It would bring greater satisfaction and eliminate the tension caused by maintaining impossibly strict boundaries and balance between your work and the rest of your life. After all, work is an integral part of life.
For many of us who regularly work 10-12 hours days jam-packed with meetings and impending deadlines, this may seem like a difficult task, but having spent time with your kid or taking a walk in the middle of the workday may make that 9 pm conference call seem a bit less burdensome.
But achieving such integration depends not only on the employee but also on how employers address the requirements of the future and present of work from home.
The Challenges Before Companies and Leaders
During the pandemic, employers gave one unequivocal message to their employees “We care about you.” This message was not necessarily present or so explicit for many companies prior to 2020. But now that it’s out there, employees expect it to still hold true even after the COVID-19 threat has subsided.
The demands of our personal lives irretrievably seeped into our workdays, and even though the pandemic exacerbated some of them, they will not completely go away. Kids will continue to bring home those daycare colds every other week, our elderly relatives will still tending, and our cars will still break down unexpectedly. And now that they have proven that they can do their jobs well and be more attentive to their personal lives, employees will expect that their employers continue to extend the same level of trust and partnership to them as during the pandemic.
Most companies understand that to remain competitive in the labor market, they must address those needs and expectations. But to truly reap the rewards of this new manner of working, they have to consider other changes as well.
As mentioned, work from home can be wholly beneficial for an employee only if combined with the additional flexibility that would allow them to integrate their work and personal life. Closing of schools and the need to care for family members have imposed allowing flexible hours to specific individuals. However, my observations are that this is still done on a case-by-case basis and rather as an exception.
Many remote capable jobs allow flexibility in hours, which should not be acceptable only when a specific, unavoidable need arises. Employers should establish policies that enable this for all their employees to remain competitive in the labor market and achieve greater productivity and performance.
Prolonged or permanent work from home and hybrid workforce present other challenges that need to be addressed on a leadership level. Work culture and team cooperation, and cohesion have often been built around office interactions and activities. Now that our communication is primarily remote, the efforts we need to make as leaders to keep our teams engaged and motivated need to change direction.
I lead seven teams and have been able to observe closely the different effects remote work has had on them. The teams whose work is centered around and requires constant cooperation have adapted to remote work a lot easier. They interact with each other on work topics continuously throughout the day, and not being able to meet in person has not impeded their relationships considerably. Even new team members who joined the team during the pandemic have been onboarded and assimilated with the team with ease.
The only thing we as their leaders needed to do was carve out some time within their day dedicated only to informal interactions – we chat about our day, play virtual games, or discuss any non-work-related topic of interest. This was never something we had to intentionally organize while we were back in the office. And even though it seemed like a small and insignificant activity, when we had to discontinue it for a couple of months due to increased workload, the impact was felt, and the team requested it back.
It was even more difficult for teams whose daily work does not require intensive interactions with their colleagues. The first few months seemed to run quite smoothly. Completing their daily tasks was not dependent on interactions with their colleagues, and being at home seemed to allow them to focus better and avoid distractions. But over time, I can see that the connection and the sense of belonging with the team are visibly disturbed. And a simple regular informal chat does not seem to do the trick. My next task as their leader will be to introduce some joint projects to work on that will encourage collaboration and communication.
And these are just a couple of examples of how employers and leaders need to reconsider the communication practices and the structure of work to address the specifics of remote working. There is a lot more that needs to be addressed to preserve company culture and maintain engagement.
The Larger Impact of Work from Home
But work from home has significant economic consequences as well. Even now, it is easy to see the effects of less spend on dining and entertainment, transportation and fuel. With more and more companies revising their long-term workforce strategies and their future office space needs, the impact on real estate will become even more significant. Without the need to be close to big cities’ talent, companies may start pulling away, which will hurt city economies even more.
As with everything else, the coin has a flip side too. Working from home, especially when taken a step further to work from anywhere, could have multiple positive economic effects. The Centre for Economic and Business Research has conducted a study that shows that the potential new work flexibility may attract unemployed or retired individuals into the workforce. They also predict that widespread flexibility and work from anywhere would increase the productivity of those currently employed. The overall impact on the US economy they foresee is to the amount of $2.36 trillion annually.
The ability to work from anywhere will boost countries and regions with lower economic power and lower the “brain drain” that is currently experienced in many parts of the world. I have been lucky enough to be able to remain in my home country and at the same time have a global, high-impact and high-income job. But many of my childhood friends and classmates have had to move abroad to achieve economic success. And even though I did not need to leave the country, I still had to move to a bigger city to find a job. With the future greater flexibility in work location, many of us will be able to live wherever we want in the world and still have the opportunity to do the work we are passionate about.
Remote work has been and will continue to be a game-changer for the way we do business and live our lives. But it brought many challenges we still have not figured out how to tackle. Hopefully, now that we have become more intentional about it, every company and individual will find the solutions that work for them. And that governments will follow suit.