The unique moment in which we live in right now made us all rethink some of the basic principles of our day-to-day lives. The way we work is one of them. Lower pollution levels, reduced commute times and operational costs. These are some of the key benefits that remote work provides to companies and their employees. For many of them, this is a new experience, having not previously had the opportunity to work from home, as their company’s policy did not allow it. A large number of organizations report that their employees’ productivity has not dropped since the beginning of the pandemic. In some cases, it is even higher. However, there is a growing concern that permanent remote work is not a long-term answer and should be treated with caution.
Big tech giants like Facebook and Google announced publicly over the past few weeks that they will allow their employees to work from home at least until the end of 2020. Twitter and Square went even further, declaring that work from home will be granted permanently. I expect that many other companies will be tempted to follow their lead, mainly due to the short-term productivity success, and reduced operational costs. This will require a significant organizational change, which I аm not sure these leaders take fully into account.
Remote vs Flexible Work
Before we move on, let us make a clear distinction between remote work, and having a flexible working schedule. Remote work means that as an employee, you are generally not in the office, and you do not have a dedicated desk. You may come to the office occasionally for meetings or onsite events, but you do not work from there. On the other hand, having a flexible working schedule assumes that you split your time between the office and your remote work location. Hence, you have a dedicated desk.
Facebook expects that as many of 50 % of its employees could be working remotely in the next five to ten years. This will give the option to existing employees to relocate, without the fear of looking for a new job. It will also require a change in the company’s hiring policy that will allow it to seek talent outside of the areas where it currently has established offices. The main goal will be to go after experts who do not want to live in big cities but will enjoy working for Facebook.
The concept of remote hiring could apply to both domestic and international organizations that will seek new employees outside of the area their offices presently cover.
Role and Experience Suitability
Although it might look attractive to have the ability to work from the comfort of your home every day, one of the main aspects that both companies and their employees have to figure out is which roles could be as productive (as closest as possible) as working from the office.
Listening to a public Facebook townhall earlier in May, Mark Zuckerberg gave an example with employees who manage critical support lines that cover suicide and terrorism. They require therapy and mental support from qualified personnel onsite, which would be impossible if they had to work remotely.
Employees’ experience provides another perspective. Even if the role is generally fit for remote work, if you are not experienced enough, chances are that you will not be able to do well, and you will need a lot of support from other colleagues.
Team and Corporate Culture Struggles
Team bonding is key for success. Same goes for shared corporate culture and principles. These are the important ingredients of every successful organization. Although there are many proven good practices such as daily check-ins, virtual coffee breaks and townhalls, eventually the lack of real connection adds up. There is a reason why employees who work together in the same office have closer relationships as opposed to with people from other locations. This is like comparing face-to-face with online dating. It is difficult at best.
Collaboration, Accountability and Performance Challenges
Collaboration and accountability are also an obstacle when working remotely. While some people will always find a way to make it work, others will not, either because they do not want to or are not able to. Common examples of such behaviors are often seen in never-ending email threads with slow replies and lack of decision making. This can certainly lead to personal performance related challenges and productivity loss. These are common when you have teams working from different offices, but the lack of alignment could be worse, considering that even employees who are supposed to sit together actually work from home.
Many people like the convenience of working from home. However, staying at home for most of the time can make them anxious and depressed. This specifically applies to those who live alone. If your only real-world interaction throughout the day is with your cat, this will inflict significant damage over time.
I am lucky enough to live in a house and have a yard, but I also start to feel the lack of connection and the desire to simply have a face-to-face chat with a friend or a colleague. I cannot imagine going like that for many months to come, without this having an impact on my personality and performance at work.
Of course, health and safety remain top priority in these challenging times, but we need to make sure that one disease will not lead to another.
Information Security Risks
Individual homes are not safe environments from an information security standpoint. This could expose organizations to significant risks in the long run. Yes, there is VPN, storage drive encryption, advanced firewalls, and anti-virus software applications, but the reality is that the bad guys are always one step ahead.
Over the past ten years, companies like Adobe, eBay, LinkedIn, Equifax, and Yahoo have all become victims to major cyber security breaches, losing the personal data of millions of users. All of this happened prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, proving that the risk is real for everyone.
There is not a silver bullet when it comes to managing remote work in this time of change. What is important is that business leaders should approach the topic with caution and consideration, not swinging from one extreme to the other.