For many, the "Can we maintain the same quality of work and productivity without any supervision, colleagues, and while working from home?" used to be the biggest concern pre-pandemic. Today, after an extended period of experimenting, we have finally found the answer to the question above: "Of course we can." And for many, remote work is the norm due to its flexibility and agility.
Nevertheless, no matter how great it is to work from anywhere, remote work does come with a unique set of downsides. Is remote work truly magical like it sounds?
Employees are exhausted and disengaged despite the increase in productivity
Results from research done by Airtasker1 on 1,004 employees revealed that virtual workers (on average) work 1.4 more days per month than their office-based colleagues. Moreover, virtual workers are only unproductive for 27 minutes a day, 10 minutes less than their office counterparts.
In an interview with TechRepublic2, Kamal Janardhan, General Manager of Microsoft 365 Insights commented that although the interest in remote work increases, and that employees "finally bring their full selves, complete with pets, family members and the worries they might share, along with a few tears, to work without embarrassment", the lines between work and home are blurring, creativity and innovation are under threat, and remote employees are showing signs of exhaustion.
50% of employees respond to a chat within five minutes2 – they are not stepping away from work and are constantly processing others' body language via a computer screen.
The virtual world is taking away social interactions that we took for granted. Those water cooler moments, coffee breaks or unexpected encounters in the elevator are precious opportunities that spark great new ideas and help team members connect, engage, and build trust.
People are still interacting with each other but only in a close-knit group, a.k.a. their immediate team members; interactions outside this circle are declining. Fortunately, the effect can be reversed once employees return to the office.
The same TechReuplic interview also stated that Generation Z is "surviving rather than thriving". They are flat out exhausted after work. What's more, they find it difficult to feel engaged, suggest ideas, raise their opinions in meetings, and even network with others to grow their career.
In fact, Gen Z is not the only portion of the workforce that feels overwhelmed. In Microsoft's Work Trend Index study3, along with Gen Z, women, frontline workers, and those new to their careers are reported to be struggling over the past year. Only Millennials/ Gen X male business leaders are "thriving and faring better than their employees."
What's also worth noting is that companies advertising remote positions do not live up to their standards and invest in what staff needs to make virtual workplace works. More than a year after the pandemic, employers seem to focus on other areas of the business instead of office supplies (42%), adequate internet connection (1 in 10 respondents), and remote work expenses (46%)3.
If not well taken care of, businesses can lose valuable talents and the bottom line.
The next workplace disruption – A hybrid work arrangement
Hybrid work, where employees are free to choose to alternate between working onsite and remotely any day of the week, will be the next disruption. The model is among the top priorities of many corporations like McKinsey and PwC, both of whom expect to apply it permanently for their workforce.
Beautifully designed offices and decent paychecks are no longer enough to attract and retain talents (especially Gen Z), but a work environment where employees feel content and willing to contribute is.
To empower employees to achieve greater productivity, engagement, cultural cohesion from practically anywhere, whether they choose to work onsite, offsite, or a mix of both, business leaders need to pay attention to not only the operating model but also to the office space and the technology that helps unlock flexibility and bridge physical and digital worlds.
To achieve such a goal, employers and employees need to speak the same language first. For instance, in a recent PwC research4 about the same subject, 68% of executives reportedly believe that employees should be physically present in the office for at least three days per week to maintain the company culture. In contrast, over half of employees (55%) prefer to continue working remotely for the same number of days – three days a week.
A smooth transition from the previous work model to hybrid requires leaders to answer the following critical questions:
- How are people doing, and what do they need?
- Who will be able to work remotely?
- Who needs to be physically present in the office? Why? And how often do they need to be in the office?
- How can remote team members effectively interact and collaborate with in-office teams?
- How is an employee feeling about working from home versus in the office?
- Is that employee feeling disconnected and overwhelmed?
- Are they clear about their roles and responsibilities as well as the company's strategies? How do they get updated in the company's latest news, changing policies, upcoming events, etc.?
- Should all teams (or specific teams) be allowed in the office for in-person meetings?
- What types of meetings are best to hold in person?
- Will there be days when all employees can work from home?
Both leaders and employees have to put in an effort to combat digital exhaustion by reducing workloads and encourage and respect breaks when necessary. Furthermore, employees' expectations have shifted dramatically during the past year. Leaders need to empathise and accommodate the unique needs of each team and encourage them to proactively re-engineer network-building to keep interdepartmental teams connected.
Our virtual team members are equally productive and valuable. They need better policies to protect both their wellbeing and digital assets. Constant meetings via Zoom, Teams, or other conferencing platforms with a webcam turned on can do more harm than good. Push notifications on our smart devices are designed to be eye-catching to force us to take immediate actions. More emails and chat messages have been sent out today than ever.
Thus, the next time when you are about to schedule a meeting with your team, consider if the meeting can be:
- Replaced with an email or Teams messages
- Audio-only to reduce screen time and distractions
- Shortened, thus forcing discussions to be clear and concise
Moving away from all these screens can be difficult, but we need to make an effort to shut off and step away to recharge sometimes.
And with your best attempt to meet the needs of both physical and virtual employees, the hybrid work model might not always be the ultimate solution. It might cause hindrances in other areas such as breaking the company culture, team cohesion, and shared experiences. Businesses post-pandemic will not function “as usual”.
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