The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to make rapid and drastic changes to how and where their work gets done. Although these changes were not welcome at first, they will likely remain in place in some form even after the crisis is over, so firms and workers alike need to establish a positive framework for hybrid work models.
— By Donna Chan
In recent years, remote work has become feasible for an increasing number of workers. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, greatly accelerated this once slow shift. Businesses worried about potential decreases in output, team cohesion, and morale when the forced move to remote work came. It has therefore been something of a surprise that many workers are more productive and happy working remotely.
Globally, the percentage of workers permanently working from home is expected to double after the pandemic. With so much decentralization of labor, some commentators are predicting that the big companies of tomorrow will not even require formal headquarters. Still, even without a central physical location, firms and employees alike will need to find a way to maintain standards of performance and a distinct company culture that supports long-term organizational success.
As companies and employees alike navigate this liminal time, they will need to reflect on their experiences operating during the pandemic, analyze the practicalities of their situations, and communicate honestly about their preferences and requirements.
The Difficult Transition
For many, the process of transitioning to a self-isolating, remote labor model has been at times chaotic, stressful, and even harmful. It may therefore be surprising that so many workers are planning to continue working this way. A full 20 percent of the workforce is believed to be able to work as effectively from home as they would in the office, for three to five days each week. It is predicted that a large portion of those workers will choose to do a majority of their work from home. This is expected to have large impacts on the transportation industry, urban economies, and so on.
It must be said, of course, that a 100 percent remote work economy is not yet possible with current technology. Many jobs still require a person to be physically present, for example to operate machinery at a job site or to make “last mile” deliveries. While these tasks may one day be automated or operated remotely, for now most businesses will need to settle into a custom hybrid model.
In fact, it may be helpful to think of this ongoing transition as an example of Hegelian Dialectic. The traditional office work system is the thesis, the initial proposed philosophy for achieving ideal productivity. The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to flirt with the antithesis, the opposite extreme to the thesis: maximum remoteness. Post-COVID, companies must try to achieve synthesis, the middle ground position between the two extremes, the best of both worlds, a fluid and adaptable hybrid system.
Turning Ad Hoc Policy Changes into Permanent Solutions
Throughout 2020, as businesses adjusted to the reality of operating during a pandemic, many of them applied temporary solutions on top of temporary solutions. This approach was necessary because of how quickly the situation changed. When the time comes to shift to longer-term post-outbreak strategies, these messy patches will have to be removed and reworked into comprehensive redesigns of workflows.
Obviously, this process will be slow and not without its hitches. Many employees will have trouble properly equipping themselves for long-term remote work. Those in management will need to start measuring productivity by tasks completed rather than hours worked, and line managers in particular may need retraining to be more effective team managers for workers they will potentially never meet face-to-face. Companies are also currently trying to determine the best method for delivering coaching online. This will be a long and far-reaching process of adjustment, and it will be some time before new questions stop cropping up.
About one-in-two people who can work mostly or entirely from home plan to do so even after the outbreak has passed.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to make a hybrid model that works for any given company. Each corporation will have to assess its own options and the preferences of its own employees. That said, two qualities that will be invaluable for any company going through this process are communication and freedom of choice.
Some employees will be able to do most of their work remotely but will need to come to the office once or twice a week. Some will not realistically be able to do any of their work remotely. Others might be able to work entirely remotely and yet prefer to come in as much as possible. The differentiating factors between companies that handle this transition well and those that falter will be how well they listen to their employees and how much flexibility they give those employees to help themselves succeed.
Employees Want the Option to Work from Home
About one-in-two people who can work mostly or entirely from home plan to do so even after the outbreak has passed. Many workers have found it just as easy to work from home as at the office. They report little trouble completing their goals at home, and the change in productivity measurement from an hours worked system to a tasks completed system is an improvement in many of their eyes.
The data suggests that many companies would benefit from allowing as many of their employees as possible the option to work remotely on a permanent basis. This not only seems to be a mentally healthier option for the employees; it also increases their overall productivity.
The primary concern here will be flexibility, both of the workers’ hours and of the companies’ policies. Each employee will have their own ideal balance of remote and on-premise work, and they will be at their healthiest and their most productive if their employers allow them the wiggle room to find that balance for themselves.
However, by maintaining open lines of communication, firms and employees alike should be able to reflect on their experiences and make the needed adjustments so that a welcome – and workable – hybrid model takes hold.