As the world reopened from lockdown in the pandemic, workers trickled back into the offices after remote working. Some ended up right back on their Zoom calls, leading to questions about the significance of the brick-and-mortar office. After the dust settled, business leaders found themselves with a novel question: Is the office an artifact of the past?
The data has started to point to the end of the fully in-person office. Some leaders, though, have dug in their heels that it will never lose its allure and benefit (cue Elon Musk demanding an in-person return for Tesla employees last summer). According to Zip Recruiter’s monthly surveys in 2022, 60% of workers say they “hope to find remote opportunities”. Of that, 20% say they would only work remotely, while 40% prefer it but would consider other arrangements.
And, as it turns out, it wasn’t just a pandemic fad. Before the pandemic, the number of remote workers had doubled every 15 years, according to a “Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes” update, making the pandemic a timely nudge toward what was already coming. However, “the increase in [working from home] during the pandemic was equal to 30 years of pre-pandemic growth,” writes the researchers in the report.
Tina Paterson is the author of Effective Remote Teams and a corporate leadership consultant. She had an eye on hybrid work before it was the cool thing to do, leading her team remotely with the mantra: “Outcome over hours in the office.” She says where her team worked was a distant second priority to outcomes, as long as there was effective collaboration. “The levels of engagement in my team went up, retention went up and we were more productive. We acknowledged that people had lives outside of work… you could have both… you can be really passionate about your career and also want to drop your kids off at school or care for your elderly parents or be able to volunteer,” she says.
Almost half of workers say they are more productive with flexible hours, and 30% say increased productivity comes from having little to no commute, according to Gartner’s 2021 Digital Worker Experience Survey.
Remote working widens your potential talent pool
One of the freeing realizations for some during the beginning of the remote work boom was that they could seek talent far from a one-hour commute circumference around a physical office building. This benefit has been valuable to Michael Heinrich, CEO and founder of garten, a data-driven workplace well-being company. The company transitioned to a fully remote workforce during the pandemic.
“When we moved to a remote-only workforce, we were able to hire team members from all over the country. Previously, we were limited to hiring based on a broad skill set available in the Bay Area, our former headquarters,” he says. Expanding the hiring potential can mean accessing more specialists that might save companies money by skipping training. “During the pandemic, we hired several new remote engineers based on their niche experience that was required to help build our platform. So instead of our team learning these skills over time, the new hires were already ready to jump into our tech platform and start building, because they knew how to do so.” Heinrich says this allowed them to shorten their development cycle from 30 days to two weeks, improving efficiency.
Remote working offers increased potential for deep focus
While the water cooler can be a source of friendship and bonding, it has a darker side—procrastination and distraction. Shifting to remote work has allowed some to get deeper into concentrated work sprints, followed by periods of rest, movement or other home-based obligations.
Before she even had home internet decades ago, Paterson remembers taking a day to unplug, where nobody could contact her, to get through her hundreds of emails offline.
“As a leader, I’d go into meeting rooms, have all these meetings, go back to my desk, and there’d be a line at my desk of people just wanting one minute of my time,” she says. “I never had time to get what I thought was important done.” When she came back the next day, she realized that day was a catalyst to realize there was a more productive way of working. “It was the most productive day I’d had in my role… I felt in control again. I got out of the business because I’d stepped away from the open plan office, and gone ‘what’s really important for me to serve our people, our customers and our organization?’”
After that, she encouraged her team to take advantage of a day unplugged at home, as a solution. Years later, the rest of the world caught onto her idea.
The remaining role of the office
Some leaders will never see the office as completely replaceable. For example, Ben Hodzic, managing director at Selby Jennings, the financial services sub-brand of Phaidon International, sees the benefits of a return to office.
Hodzic says that in financial services, the office is the only solution. “It’s not because companies distrust their employees to work hard from home. It’s because it is important to be around the team and in person, especially for new hires, to learn and work alongside their peers in order to fully comprehend the inner workings of the role,” he says. “This includes everything a company uses to make money, including its technology platforms, its risk management, its operations and culture.”
He thinks offering a remote role would set employees up for failure from the beginning. “A lot of that learning happens in person by sitting next to a manager or a peer and understanding how the models and technology are built, and how to use that to build strategies of their own and ultimately impact the revenues of the firm,” he says.
“Self-teaching the complicated and data-heavy systems would be impossible, and new hires would have no way to learn through osmosis or demonstration, so it’s been imperative for people to be back in office, especially in the New York City area,” he adds.
Paterson says that learning through osmosis and face time with senior leaders is essential. But there are other ways to do it. “It just doesn’t have to be Monday to Friday from eight till five,” she says. She asks leaders she works with to determine what things make sense to do together in office or at an off-site location, including career development.
Shifting tools and skills for remote working
Traditional office leaders are finding their typical styles and management techniques might not be immediately transferable to remote work leadership. This calls for an inventory of their current tools. House says his team switched to fully remote work in the pandemic, crediting this with their best quarters ever. They had a 63% year-on-year growth rate, and employee engagement scores increased from 2021 to 2022, with high workplace satisfaction rates, including in work-life balance. But House and other leaders had to shift leadership skills and tools to make a smooth transition to remote work.
“To be an effective leader of a remote team, you must be a skilled and engaged user of the tools of the team, such as project management tools like Jira and Asana, communications tools like Zoom and Slack and collaboration tools like GSuite. This is where some baby boomers can fall short as leaders if they don’t focus on learning the tools for collaborating with younger workers who are digital natives,” he says.
There has also been a transition from focusing on very specific task management, to overall outcomes. “On a technical level, all teams have productivity tools where they collaborate and monitor progress,” he says. “However, as leaders, we are focused on outcomes. So while these technology tools can give us insight into day-to-day activity, it’s the larger picture of the growth of our business that shows how productive our teams actually are.”
The leadership skill of the future? Trust.
Paterson says the research she did for her book revealed leadership traits C-suite executives from major companies value in the rise of remote work, and into the future. Every single leader pointed to a focus on trust.
“We trust people to buy houses and have children, so why wouldn’t we also extend that trust to them wanting to do a great job?” she says. She adds that this can be a major shift for those who spent decades putting in “blood, sweat and tears” of 80-hour weeks in previous generations. But the trust has to be mutual, according to Heather Hammond, a shareholder and employment attorney at Gravel & Shea in Vermont. Part of her job is advising companies on policies that bring out the best in their remote or hybrid workplace.
“Remote employees should understand that remote work is not a substitute for child care or elder care. They must understand the necessity to maintain the confidentiality of client/customer information or company documents—even at home. They need to know that they will be held to performance, attendance and productivity expectations, just as non-remote workers are,” she says, adding that essential policies must be established to create guardrails to continue to foster this trust.
Paterson calls this an important opportunity for leaders around the world to shift styles. “Treat them like adults, that they can get their work done, and we don’t have to have this command and control management style. But if we inspire them, and set an amazing vision, they really will rise to the occasion.”
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