How you worked before the pandemic could determine how successful your remote working experience has been since.

You are sitting at your desk in a shirt and pyjama bottoms, and it doesn’t seem strange anymore. You are well acquainted with your colleagues’ children, pets and bookshelves, even though you have had no physical contact with them for a full year. This has been the world of work for many people since the Covid-19 pandemic sent most of us home in March 2020. So, how has it been for you?

The answer probably depends on the way you worked before the pandemic.

Office mindset vs. remote working

Companies that had remote work policies before last March were feeling a little smug when the pandemic struck. Their employees were equipped with the devices, technologies and processes to ensure a smooth transition to fully remote working. But more importantly, they had the right mindset to work productively.

Successful remote-first working is all about building a team whose members can work together while physically apart. At NearForm, remote-first has long been our approach. With 90% of our employees working remotely before the pandemic, we are able to serve clients irrespective of their location by fostering a team culture based on trust, collaboration, communication and support. This ensures an optimum environment for productivity, creativity and focus.

Other companies have not had such happy experiences with remote working. Netflix co-founder and co-CEO Reed Hastings voiced his opposition to working remotely in a Wall Street Journal interview, saying that he can’t see any positive aspects in it and that not being able to meet in person is completely negative. CEO Marissa Mayer famously ended Yahoo!’s remote-working experiment back in 2013, claiming that speed and quality were often sacrificed when employees worked from home.

Many company leaders who are reluctant to continue with remote working beyond the pandemic believe that employees need to be present in the office to facilitate productive interactions and experiences.

The issues that proved problematic

Nobody would claim the global experiment in remote working has been a total success.

Depending on the tasks they are required to complete, some workers simply do not have the option of working remotely. Caregiving, machine operation and food serving are just some of the activities you cannot undertake successfully from a spare bedroom. Even other jobs that can be done remotely — such as teaching and counselling — are often less effective in a remote context.

Some organisations do not provide their employees with adequate technology and equipment to support successful remote working. Unreliable internet connections and a lack of suitable work space are other issues that can make remote working an unsatisfactory experience for both company and employee.

Once you get beyond the technical aspects of remote working, a central criticism it attracts is that workers can feel isolated. Such feelings can reduce productivity if workers feel they have to juggle home and work responsibilities without support from their colleagues or clear guidelines about separating work and home life.

In some organisations, measuring productivity remains a challenge even when employees are seated in the same space. Many companies that traditionally relied on time spent at a desk as an indicator of performance have moved to tracking their employees’ activities by installing software on their computers. This kind of monitoring software logs keystrokes, email, file transfers, applications used and the amount of time an employee spends on each task. Screenshots may also be taken periodically to keep managers informed of what employees have on their screens.

In many cases, organisations that have had poor experiences with remote working operate under cultural and performance norms that do not build trust or support collaboration and social cohesion. If this foundation is not in place from the outset, remote working will simply highlight the gaps. Without making trust, cohesion and collaboration mainstays of your company culture, remote working is unlikely to be a positive experience.

The winning aspects of remote working

Even those who are wary of remote work concede that it reduces the time and money spent commuting. This gives workers more opportunities for cultivating a better work-life balance and means companies can save money renting and maintaining office space in major centres where rents have soared. From a global perspective, a reduction in traffic congestion and time spent travelling reduces the emission of greenhouse gases.

Less immediately obvious benefits of remote work have inspired companies like NearForm to embrace the approach as part of their corporate culture. Offering remote work means you can hire from anywhere on the planet. Not only does this give you the broadest possible pool of talent to choose from, it also allows you to serve clients worldwide, irrespective of time zone. Organisations are beginning to realise the democratisation of remote work is something worth retaining long after the pandemic has ended, if only for the opportunities for talent acquisition — and retention — it creates.

Optimising the remote working experience

This past year has been a baptism of fire for many organisations and their employees, plunging them without warning into a remote working experience that shows no signs of ending anytime soon. Whether companies like it or not, working outside the office is something that many of them will have to continue for the foreseeable future. This means they need to support their workers in providing the physical infrastructure and processes they need to create a productive work environment outside the office.

For example, NearForm provides employees with an allowance for equipping a home office, so that team members don’t have to make do with kitchen tables and chairs. It is important that every employee has access to the equipment they need to perform their work properly, including laptops, monitors and all software required to ensure the security and quality of work. Organisations could also investigate the potential for diverting resources into renting space in local digital hubs for employees if their home environment isn’t suitable.

Physical supports are not the only elements required for a good remote working experience. For remote work to succeed, it has to be supported and encouraged. It’s not about running the same meetings you had in the office, but via Zoom. You need to ensure that communication is designed around the unique constructs of the remote work experience, so that nobody feels as if they are omitted from important developments or obstructed in making progress.

At NearForm, we use Slack to keep everyone informed of what is going on, as well as to maintain active social contact among our team members. On Zoom calls, we encourage everyone to keep their cameras on to reinforce the human element of communication. We also run regular remote water cooler sessions via Zoom to combat feelings of isolation and disconnect, and ensure that people get the opportunity to interact on a human level on matters unrelated to work.

Why trust matters

One of the biggest barriers to a successful remote work experience is trust — some managers simply don’t trust their people to work when they cannot see them because they tend to manage by headcount rather than by results.

This tendency can be combated if managers measure by agreed milestones rather than by hours logged. At Gitlab, for example, a results value means employees take ownership of the tasks to which they are assigned. This approach demands organisation-wide trust and a mentality that colleagues will do what they are supposed to do without the need for strict rules.

Trust your team members to focus on what they think is the most beneficial use of their time. You will find that people are more productive when they have agency to use their time in a way that extracts most value. This could mean skipping meetings in which their participation is not critical in order to focus on more constructive tasks. Managers need to agree measurable KPIs with those who report them, something that requires mutually respectful relationships to work.

What the future may look like

A recent Gartner survey found that 82% of company leaders supported a move to some kind of remote working post-pandemic. A hybrid working model is gaining traction in many quarters, although that raises its own issues. Among them is the risk that twin organisational cultures will emerge, with the dominant one centring on in-office workers who collaborate in-person while the remote workforce is abandoned, with scant consideration for their cultural and social cohesion.

It doesn’t take long for remote workers in these kinds of organisations to start feeling isolated, disenfranchised and frustrated. The feeling of belonging and common purpose they had established while work was done exclusively outside the office soon declines, productivity deteriorates and organisational performance suffers as a result.

Physical offices are not going to disappear any time soon. Larger organisations may operate satellite offices in key urban centres, allowing them to attract talent and offer flexibility for employees who do not wish to work from home. The hybrid approach may appeal to businesses seeking a balance between office-based and fully remote work, but they are likely to face challenges maintaining that balance and preventing remote workers from feeling alienated.

In the long run, companies that embraced the experience during the year we all went remote will experience distinct, ongoing benefits by consolidating their efforts and becoming remote-first. Having solid remote working practices in place and — more importantly — establishing a culture of trust and collaboration will help employees do their best work in the place that suits them.

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