So we aren’t all working from home forever? Probably not.
The challenges of remote work are becoming more apparent for many companies as the pandemic drags on.
“I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.” Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix
Now consider what this looks like when you don’t have the scale, financial means, or technology capacity and fluency that comes with being the world’s largest subscription service for streaming content during a time of massive growth.
That isn’t to say that a fully remote workplace cannot be effective. It can be when it is done intentionally and with proper support. This means rethinking everything from a company’s business plan to its technology, and from its recruiting plan to its staff engagement and retention.
What we can say with confidence is that working fully remote is not viable as a default solution. It requires intention. Here are seven of the most common problems that companies are reporting as they reach this realization, with supporting quotes from a recent Wall Street Journal profile of CEO opinions.
1. Not everyone likes working remotely.
Sure, most of us don’t miss our commutes. But satisfaction with working remotely goes much deeper than that.
Consider a recent survey by The Martec Group, the results of which were recently published in Forbes. The survey included more than 1,200 professionally diverse respondents who are working remotely during COVID-19. Their responses were divided into four groups:
- Trapped employees (32%) who dislike working remotely and are dissatisfied with their employer’s response to COVID-19
- Discouraged employees (27%) who dislike working from home but are satisfied with their employer’s effort
- Hopeful employees (25%) who are satisfied with working remotely for the short term and with their employer’s effort, but don’t see remote work as a long-term solution
- Thriving employees (16%) who are more satisfied and motivated working remotely than they were prior to the pandemic.
That’s a strong majority of employees reporting dissatisfaction with working remotely. The survey’s summary statistics note that overall job satisfaction among respondents fell from 57% to 32% during the pandemic, and job motivation from 56% to 36%.
“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable.’” Laszlo Bock, CEO at Humu, former head of HR at Google
2. Not everyone is mentally healthy working remotely.
A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation taken in July found that 53% of adults in the US feel that “their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus,” up from 32% in March of this year.
These numbers are a sobering reminder that work is much more than a salary and job description for many people.
“Most of us are not hermits…We need that social interaction, not only from a business standpoint but truly from a kind of personal-development standpoint.” Jim Fish, CEO of Waste Management Inc.
3. Not everyone is as effective working remotely.
The question of whether the shift to remote work during COVID has helped or hurt productivity is a contentious one. There is an article or a survey out there to support your point of view, whatever it may be.
What can we conclude in the absence of a clear trend? It seems safe to assume that the impact of the pandemic on productivity is variable. We have certainly heard companies voice both opinions. It is not safe to assume productivity gains across the board.
“We tried it…It’s just not the same. You just cannot get the same quality of work.” Rajat Bhageria, CEO of Chef Robotics
One consistent trend in our conversations: the number and variety of performance issues has gone way up for most managers since the start of the pandemic.
4. Technology infrastructure and fluency aren't sufficient.
The shift to remote work means that many companies have leaned harder on technology, particularly collaboration software. Slack, Microsoft, Google, Zoom, and other companies have reported substantial growth over the course of the pandemic.
This has increased the pressure on companies to equip their employees with adequate technology. It has also exacerbated preexisting differences in technology fluency. Employees have had to quickly adapt to learning new technologies, using them reliably, and navigating the increases in task switching that often come with more technology-driven work.
5. Virtual meeting overload is a real thing.
Working remotely means working longer and being on screen more for many employees. In a recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors conducted an analysis of more than three million employee calendars. They found that the average work day is longer, meetings are more numerous, and the average meeting is now shorter than it was prior to the pandemic.
Not all work weighs equally on employees. It turns out that video meeting fatigue is real. Our brains have evolved for in-person communication. The delays, however slight, that are inherent in video meetings do not register in the same way. The mental effort required to work through these delays can lead to fatigue over time.
6. Workplace engagement and culture can be difficult to sustain.
What we have heard from companies is that, while overall engagement may have improved, it is differently distributed. The shift to remote work has changed how employees interact with one another and who they interact with. Those less comfortable with technology as well as the quieter voices in the (virtual) room can have a tougher time engaging.
“That unplanned kind of interaction that contributes so much to how we build relationships with people and how we build culture, those things are what are missing.” Andi Owen, CEO of Herman Miller Inc.
The vast majority of executives and employees believe that workplace culture is core to their company’s success. These companies need to think intentionally and creatively about how engagement, representation, and workplace culture have changed since work became remote.
7. Working remotely can be a competitive disadvantage.
While this is certainly not true for all companies and industries, we hear a growing appreciation for the intangibles that come with in-person collaboration.
“Remote work clearly works for many things, but I think we’re going to find that being together delivers value in productivity and creativity and relationships that is irreplaceable.” Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International Inc.
Companies are learning, if they have not already, where and how these intangibles impact their products or services. If a company isn’t planning for a return to some level of in-person work, their competitors likely are. This will create competitive and financial pressure to shift away from fully remote work for many companies
“What I worry about the most is innovation. Innovation is hard to schedule — it’s impossible to schedule.” Ellen Kullman, CEO of Carbon Inc.
Working remotely by default is not a sustainable strategy during COVID-19.
If your company is committed to 100% remote work for the foreseeable future, it will require a commitment to restructuring, as well as technology and financial support. This will likely mean:
- Losing employees who don’t prefer remote work.
- Supporting employees who struggle with mental health concerns while working remotely.
- Coaching or letting go of employees who were high performers in the office but are not performing at the same level remotely.
- Investing in technology and training to support remote work.
- Redesigning the workday to make virtual meetings sustainable.
- Thinking intentionally and creatively about how engagement, representation, and workplace culture will change.
- Understanding whether and how working remotely might put the company at a competitive disadvantage.
If you see a return to in-person activities in your company’s future, the time is now to start planning and clearly communicating this to your employees. Our free framework can help you get started or review the plan you already have in place.