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Virtually all projections anticipate the post-pandemic workforce will be relatively more remote—that is, nearly all firms will experience an increase in remote work relative to their pre-pandemic baseline levels.
As pandemic restrictions ease, company leaders need to make decisions about how to achieve an optimal remote work strategy. Unlike the reactive shift that began abruptly in early 2020, the coming shift can be proactive and intentional. And yet, in a recent PWC survey of 133 US executives, nearly one-third described their approach to post-pandemic remote work as "going with the flow."
Rather than simply shifting operations "back to normal," we urge leaders to think about how they can leverage recent remote-work experiences to intentionally plan for a remote/hybrid workforce in the future. Leaders must think strategically about their remote work policies and practices going forward. And, whether you lead a company or a small team, now is the time to start planning.
Our research, executive education and corporate advisory experience suggests that the key decisions leaders will face fall into two main categories: company policies and management practices. Below, we take a look at key emerging trends in each of these categories.
A proactive implementation of remote work may require updating company policies to fit the needs of a dispersed workforce. As companies reconsider existing policies, they'll need to address the following questions:
What's the right mix of remote work for your organization?
Possible scenarios include a primarily remote, hybrid (with employees in the office part-time, typically two or three days per week), or in-office setting. To determine the optimal policy for your organization, leaders should factor in the following strategic considerations:
- Nature of the work. Independent tasks — that do not rely heavily on collaboration or coordination with others — are ideal for remote work. Highly collaborative work can also be successful remotely, but requires more effort to manage. Obviously, some jobs simply cannot be performed remotely, but these may be fewer than you think. Companies continue to stretch the boundaries of remote work, with technologies like robotics and augmented reality being used to enable remote machine maintenance in manufacturing, and even some medical screenings and diagnosis functions..
- Experience level of the workforce. New employees or those recently promoted typically benefit from an initial period of time in the office, both to build relationships and to gain the implicit knowledge that can be more easily absorbed in the office environment. If the workforce is primarily remote, synchronous virtual orientation sessions or on-site retreats may be beneficial.
- Employee preferences. Individual choices should be taken into consideration given differences in personalities and preferences for remote work. Although some employees may indicate preferences now, those conversations should be revisited as work patterns and routines normalize.
- Real estate costs and carbon footprint. Less may be more to position for sustainability or scalable growth.
Are you ready to consider a work from anywhere (WFA) policy?
This would enable employees to live anywhere they wish (typically within a defined region, such as the United States or the European Union), as long as they are able to productively perform their work for the company. Early research on WFA suggests that granting geographic flexibility enables employees to pursue bigger life goals related to "residential satisfaction," and that this benefit may actually increase employee productivity relative to WFH conditions.
Strategic considerations for WFA include the potential for an increased talent pool, as well as competitive recruitment of highly sought-after employees. Company leadership also needs to decide how best to take advantage of asynchronous work in a WFA environment while managing challenges related to scheduling and task coordination. State-specific tax consequences are also likely to evolve depending on the number of employees and roles performed while working from home.
How can you maintain a strong company culture?
Company culture may need to be reinforced or refined as work transitions to more remote/hybrid models. Spreading knowledge of the norms, values, and assumptions important to the organization becomes more difficult with a distributed workforce. Recommendations for sustaining culture in a virtual environment include town halls and special lunches to build shared experiences, pulse check surveys to check whether shared values are coming across to employees, and intentional communications about programs and initiatives important to the organization.
Which HR policies will need to be updated?
Companies considering fully remote or hybrid work may need to change a variety of human resource policies and practices:
- Recruiting strategies may need to focus on new or different skills and competencies for potential candidates, such as self-motivation, initiative-taking and effective virtual communications.
- Compensation decisions, such as adjusting salaries for working from home and scaling pay relative to geographic offices, are important to consider. One survey indicated that around 44% of employees would be willing to reduce their pay by 10% to work remotely forever. Some companies such as Facebook and Twitter have announced they will adjust the pay of employees who choose to move away from their headquarters to areas with lower costs of living.
- Benefit programs may be adapted to reflect the shift from traditional on-site perks to more remote options. For example, one of our corporate contacts has begun receiving a company-provided Peleton subscription as a substitute for a previous gym-membership benefit.
What kinds of new training will need to be offered?
Companies are increasingly realizing that training in the social and relational aspects of remote work is at least as important as training in technology and company policies. Results from a recent survey show that 64% of executives plan to invest in training leaders to manage a more virtual workforce. Our own research found that, prior to the pandemic, only 30% of companies trained employees in virtual work skills, and that training overwhelmingly focused on software technology and company policies.
We recommend that companies provide training on relational skills known to enhance remote work, including: establishing working norms, building trust, effective virtual communication patterns, and incorporating social elements into virtual work relationships. For example, training on bursty communications, where ideas are given and responses provided quickly, can be provided as these communication bursts have been shown to generate greater productivity and better remote team outcomes. In addition, training on managing hybrid teams will be valuable in maintaining equity between remote and on-site employees.
In addition to company policy, organizations should consider adapting management practices and behaviors to a remote or hybrid work environment. Here are a few questions that managers should think about as part of the transition to a longer-term remote workforce:
How can you foster a healthy remote-work climate?
One of the most important aspects of managing a remote or hybrid workforce in the long run will be establishing an organizational climate that is encouraging and positive for remote workers. (Organizational climate is different than organizational culture, and refers to the perceptions employees have about their work environment.)
One effective tool is a leader-supported declaration of organizational expectations related to remote work. For example, in the early days of the pandemic, IBM employees created a "work-from-home pledge" that specified company norms such as how to communicate and treat each other while working remotely. This grassroots initiative was ultimately supported by IBM's CEO, which provided a strong signal to the rest of the organization about accepted remote-work norms. Similar leader-led supportive statements and behaviors can have significant impact on the remote-work climate that evolves post-pandemic.
How can you help employees manage competing work and life priorities?
In a remote or hybrid work environment, leaders have the opportunity to help employees enact models to effectively manage work and life. Sometimes this involves demonstrating that the goal may not be to find a perfect balance, but more of a work-life rhythm that works best for them.
Employees watch their managers for cues on how to do this. Boundary management research identifies several types of boundaries that leaders can help employees establish and maintain, including:
- Physical/spatial (e.g., having a dedicated work space)
- Temporal (e.g., finding the optimal time to work)
- Relational/interpersonal boundaries (e.g., when is it okay for colleagues to reach out)
- Cognitive (e.g., individual preferences for integrating or segmenting work)
- Behavioral (e.g., faking a commute through a walk or stationary bike ride)
How can you create a sense of psychological safety?
Research has demonstrated that high-performing teams have a sense of psychological safety where employees feel they can speak up, ask for help and offer ideas without being punished or ostracized. Psychological safety is valuable in the remote work environment and can be increased when managers:
- Ask questions (such as checking in on employees to see how they are doing),
- Show vulnerability (sharing experiences, such as when you accidentally used a cat filter on an important video call)
- Invite participation from all team members (asking "What do you think? What's your perception of this? What are we missing?)"
- Encourage risk (letting employees try out new ideas, pitch new processes, etc.)
How can you consciously engage employees?
Research indicates that even small amounts of high-quality social interactions, such as those demonstrating compassion or concern, can lower stress and improve well-being. Repeated occurrences of these interactions throughout the day can provide a sense of belonging, mitigating the feelings of isolation often associated with remote work.
A study of remote colleagues indicated that a predictable communication cadence fosters productive and trusting working relationships. Managers can build cadence among employees by using meetings as opportunities for employees to connect socially and foster personalized relationships through sharing songs, photos, or fun facts.
In addition, leaders can establish practices for team collaboration. Building a shared mindset for dispersed and digital teams promotes a common identity and common understanding. This can be developed by setting team goals, providing a shared information context and clarifying the purpose of the team, similar to team development in traditional office settings. Events to proactively connect in-office and remote workers should be maintained as well going forward, such as virtual coffee chats and remote office hours.
How can you nurture employee trust and accountability?
After the Covid-19 crisis has passed, managers may need to find ways to re-establish trust among remote teams on a longer-term basis. Because it is more difficult to know and understand employee actions and motivations in remote work, establishing competence and interpersonal trust can be challenging.
Managers can invest in technology to set and update goals and objectives related to desired outcomes and generate feedback on those objectives. For example, General Electric replaced a performance management system with a coaching app called PD@GE to provide real-time information and feedback to employees. Managers set up touch points throughout the year to build accountability and help employees develop professionally. Importantly, these types of technologies are not used to monitor employee presence, but to provide opportunities to share information and guide employees.
As we return to pre-pandemic workplaces, strategic decisions about whether or how to develop a remote and hybrid work come to the forefront. With intentional planning, organizations can proactively consider company policies and management practices to transform their remote workforce. Now is the time to reflect on how much you and your employees have learned over the past year, and use your new knowledge and experience to create your own optimal workplace of the future.
Erin E. Makarius is an associate professor of management at the University of Akron's College of Business Administration. Barbara Z. Larson is executive professor of management and director of partnerships at Northeastern's D'Amore-McKim School of Business. Susan R. Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University.
This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2021. All rights reserved.