While remote working is not a new practice, most organizations or individuals have never experienced it at such a significant scale.
While a lot of research and discussion over the last two years has focused on whether people want to work remotely (or whether people want other people to work remotely), more recent work has started to look at the impact on drivers of engagement and commitment – especially feeling of control, job embeddedness, collaboration and belonging.
Recent data continues to show a very mixed picture. While remote work can increase feelings of control and empowerment, it can also enhance feelings of loneliness and disconnection. Going deeper, analysing data on employee behaviour found remote working caused communication to become more siloed and less “real-time” which made it harder to share information across the organization network. Relationships weaken and it becomes harder to interact informally which creates barriers to the social ties that generate feelings of belonging. This said, some workers from diverse backgrounds or with different needs have found a reduction in the demands from the office to be beneficial – perhaps because informal interactions in the office made them feel less included or valued.
As with many things in life – one size does not fit all, and the discussion of how remote work can help improve fairness and equity is ongoing.
As more people work remotely than ever before, HR teams, leaders and researchers have also been asking what it takes to work well while you are working remote. Increasing the overall scale of remote working also creates additional demand on the skills of managers, who need to be more structured and less passive to engage people they see less often.
Eliminating the commute, focusing productively on important activities all day and having the flexibility to enjoy family or leisure time on-demand is the fantasy of the remote worker; but as many (hilarious) parodies have pointed out, there are also many significant pitfalls. The lack of natural breaks in the day, the increase in sedentary lifestyle, and the reduction of social contact all create an increased risk of exhaustion and burnout for many people. Interacting for long periods on video also causes many people to experience lower levels of energy over time and impact mental health. It seems the commute can be useful for more than just traveling to and from an office to see people – it’s also a natural break in your day. Interestingly, some people have found remote work easier to adopt, particularly those who are less extraverted and conscientious – perhaps because these people have a more relaxed attitude to work in general.
Researchers diving into this topic have found that social support via digital channels can help to buffer against declines in wellness for remote workers, but not remove them entirely. Some have also looked into the importance of working remotely from different places – like co-working spaces, coffee shops or hotels - as a way to boost wellness. Others have explored manager behaviours, and have found that clear work structures, flexibility and considerate treatment help to maintain worker wellbeing. What strikes me is that many of these things are no different from what it takes to be a good manager in any context – but of course doing them well while someone is working remotely requires much more intentional action, and probably more skill.
The Harvard Business Review published an insightful piece on this, emphasizing the role of manager behaviours to address some of the issues and challenges of remote working. The piece highlights the “ground game” that managers need to play to ensure they keep employees engaged, developing intentional habits to compensate for the lack of ad-hoc interactions and “soft data” offices generate. For me, there are a few things that stand out.
First, many of the strategies try to directly mirror or simulate the act of being together – like enjoying the same bottle of wine together (sent to everyone’s home in advance). Second, the importance of regular face to face/in person interactions continues to be emphasized – it’s always important to have the next in-person connection planned. Last, the role of the manager expands significantly, with many additional tasks and activities including an increase in planned one-on-one check-ins and regular ad-hoc calls that help create connection.
The last part is important because it’s clear that it has never been more difficult to be a manager – not only does a good manager need to be inspiring, empathetic, technically competent, calm, objective, etc, – they now also need to be able to help connect employees to the wider culture of the organization and generate a sense of belonging for each person, all while managing their own boss effectively. The job is getting even harder and changing fast. The risk of this is that an increasing number of people who might actually be good at it (like women or people in care-giving situations) start to avoid taking on the role, which opens opportunities for ambitious but ineffective managers to step into the gap. This would only make a bad situation worse and is something that organizations much actively intervene to avoid.
The other advice that has appeared is largely in the areas of setting clear guidelines, boundaries and work patterns. This can mean working in a more “asynchronous” way – using cloud technologies to collaborate on work products independently. It can also mean establishing new rules for hybrid work meetings, frequency of interactions and expectations about response times across various interaction platforms (email, direct messages, meetings, etc). Many are still struggling with this and a recent report found that just 28% have established team agreements to clearly define the new norms of behaviour.
Last, as people spend more time working remotely (and therefore independently), the individual’s own role and skills to operate in that context become more important. While discussions about “quiet quitting” are just a continuation of trends related to employee disengagement – they also signal an increased focused on the importance of an employee’s managing their own engagement and motivation with less structure provided by an organization or community around them. This is something that might benefit some people (conscientious, curious, self-starters will do well in this environment) while others might struggle.
The key point to note here is that new ways of working requires new skills and behaviours from everyone. As research and practice develops, I expect that we will learn how to make remote work more effective and less stressful without reverting to pre-pandemic practices that would reintroduce friction that many people have eliminated in the last 24 months.
If there is something we have learnt from the last few years, it’s that remote work is very popular. Workers are increasingly expecting remote working options to be part of their deal, and will even avoid working for organizations that will not offer. Organizations are also looking for ways to take advantage of the increased access to talent, and potential cost savings of a more distributed workforce that can work from anywhere. There is no shortage of enthusiasm (with notable exceptions that I have mentioned before).
One area that is emerging and that needs a lot more attention is the role that job and work design plays in keeping people engaged as they work more remotely more often. As people spend more time working remotely, a much bigger chunk of their working experience is driven by the personal value and meaning of the tasks that they do rather than the social experience of being “at work”. This makes the employee experience a bigger topic as people will be paying more attention to the activities that their job comprises of, and the formal processes and tools an organization uses. Frustrating bureaucracy, in efficient HR processes, and mind-numbing meetings feel viscerally more irritating when there is less social engagement to buffer them or fancy lunch places to visit. To some extent, many employee experience projects are aimed at eliminating this irritation anyway.
One solution to this is to force people back to the office so as to reintroduce more social influence from the organization – which some are trying and struggling with. But a potentially more sustainable option is to focus on making the work itself tangibly better. One recent article points to the boring but useful activity of auditing work processes to ensure they makes sense for people. Another suggestion is to find ways connect work to a higher personal purpose and clear value – which requires that the work design makes this possible in the first place. Transforming in this way means that managers and leaders spend more time thinking about work design, which is likely more difficult than just making sure people go back to the office; but those that bother to solve this problem will no doubt be more future ready.
Recent technical innovations are making work redesign more enticing. Technologies like ChatGPT and other AI tools provide an interesting avenue for work redesign, perhaps enable an even greater number of traditionally manual or time-consuming work to simply become “supervised” by a person. Combining this innovation with adopting more hybrid and remote work at scale could be one way that organizations unlock hidden productivity.
As a final thought, remote and hybrid workers are likely to create increasingly idiosyncratic workstyles and jobs (especially if the shift to skills-based careers happens). This means that every individual will need to be much more self-aware and connected to his/her personality-task fit. Personality has predicted performance and wellbeing as people have moved to remote work, and so being able to design a job unique employee needs will be something that individuals and managers will need to spend more time on in future.