Of all the changes we’ve become accustomed to during COVID-19, dramatic shifts in the way we communicate and collaborate might be the most pronounced. In most cases, employees can no longer drop by a colleague’s office or say hello in the hallway – instead, we’ve been confined to scheduled meeting after scheduled meeting from behind our screens. This has made many interactions less organic, and relationships have suffered as a result.
However, remote work has also provided many advantages – from making companies leaner and more agile to giving employees an opportunity to take control of their own schedules and work environments. Remote meetings simultaneously provide flexibility and structure – managers don’t have to make sure employees are all in the same place at the same time, but they can also set firm parameters around the length of a meeting, what will be discussed, and so on. Remote communication and collaboration platforms also offer tools that can make meetings more productive and engaging – from shared screens to easy document sharing.
As remote work remains the norm even after COVID-19, executives and managers will need to focus on making digital interactions as natural and productive as possible. This doesn’t just mean hosting the occasional digital happy hour or giving employees more latitude in how they schedule meetings and work sessions – it means developing a culture of openness in which all employees feel like their opinions and contributions are valued.
Preparing for the era of remote work
Although the number of COVID-19 infections continues to drop and many companies are likely to reopen offices at some point during 2021, remote work is here to stay. According to an October 2020 Pew Research Center survey, 54 percent of Americans say they would prefer to continue working from home even after COVID-19 is under control. Meanwhile, 83 percent of employers say the shift to remote work has been successful – a proportion that has risen since the summer of 2020.
All of that said, a recent PwC survey found that just 5 percent of executives think they can maintain a strong company culture if employees only come into the office one day per week. Another 15 percent believe two days per week would be sufficient. Most executives say it’s necessary for employees to be in the office three (29 percent), four (18 percent), or even five (21 percent) days per week. These executives are identifying a real issue – there will never be a full replacement for in-person interaction, but there are many ways to make remote interactions more personal and authentic.
Executives and managers can still build a healthy workplace culture with a significant proportion of their employees working remotely. But they have to focus on increasing employee engagement, facilitating organic interactions, and taking full advantage of the digital communication and collaboration tools at their disposal.
How to build a strong remote work culture
Although COVID-19 has been a painful shock, it has also given companies powerful reasons to reconsider long standing assumptions about how and where employees work. Beyond the flexibility offered by remote work, companies are discovering that it isn’t necessary to pay for thousands of square feet of office space, force employees to waste potentially productive time in traffic jams or on buses and subways, or be physically present for work that can be done anywhere in the world.
But the advantages of remote work have to be balanced with the costs. For example, a survey conducted by Slack found that 45 percent of workers said their sense of belonging had suffered since they began working from home. This can have a dramatic impact on morale, and companies need to address it proactively by simulating the natural and informal interactions that take place around an office every day. They can do this by scheduling periodic opt-in meetings for employees to discuss whatever is on their minds, requesting input from all participants in digital meetings, and encouraging employees to use company resources and time to have conversations about whatever they want.
Finally, companies should remember that digital interactions can’t completely replace in-person conversations and events – once it’s safe to do so, they should find ways to bring employees together in the real world. While the remote work era will present many obstacles to employee interaction and engagement, there are strategies and resources companies can deploy to forge healthy connections between employees.
Why adaptability is more important than ever
The companies that have performed best over the past year are the ones capable of adjusting to rapidly changing circumstances in real time: dramatic shifts in consumer behavior, economic conditions, and of course, how and where employees work. While employees made the transition to remote work effectively in some areas, there were also plenty of inevitable headaches.
According to a study conducted by Boston Consulting Group, more than three-quarters of employees say they were as productive or more productive on individual tasks after moving to remote work – a proportion that fell to 60 percent for managerial tasks. However, 56 percent say their productivity on collaborative tasks decreased. It’s clear that this has been a difficult transition for companies, but it was also a necessary one. The economic and logistical arguments for remote work were only becoming stronger, due to the increasing availability of powerful digital collaboration tools (such as Slack and Microsoft Teams) and shifting norms around conventional nine-to-five work arrangements.
As with many crises, COVID-19 has been transformative. The way we work will never be the same, but companies have to recognize that many fundamental aspects of a successful business remain unchanged – especially the importance of an open workplace culture in which all employees feel empowered to speak their minds and build real relationships with their colleagues.
David Hunt is the COO at Enable.