Looking Back at The Year of Telework: Now What?
Throughout the world, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a crisis unlike any we’ve seen. In response, regulations and social distancing safety measures went into effect. Intended to keep people safe, they also prevented vast numbers of people from going to work. Many businesses closed their doors.
Employers that could enable employees to work remotely did so. For them, decades of planning for continuity of business operations through emergencies paid off. Workers around the world started reporting to work online, many for the first time. 2020 became the year of telework.
The transition to telework may not have been smooth, but employers resolved most issues long ago. Many employees discovered they could work from home as effectively as from the office. Communicating and collaborating with others, sharing files, and managing calendars are part of the modern digital workplace. Desktop conferencing and meetings, both audio and video, have become routine.
If we can work remotely using online technologies, the physical office looks a bit contrived.
Today’s workplace encompasses all the capabilities and tools that enable telework and has for some time. Despite this, only 3.6% of workers in the United States worked from home half-time or more in 2018. Most people continued to commute into offices right up until the pandemic changed the rules.
If we can work remotely using online technologies, the physical office looks a bit contrived. Maintaining offices and buildings is a significant expense to employers. Productivity, employee satisfaction, unscheduled absences, and attrition rates can all improve with telework. Why would 96.4% of workers doing digital work commute nearly an hour a day (U.S. Census Bureau) to do work they could do from home? Why would their employers expect or even want them to commute?
Work is Inherently Social
At its core, work is a social activity. Since at least the 1700s, the office was where employees did work alongside other employees. It remained the center for work throughout the telecommunications boom that distinguished the twentieth century.
The personal computer began decentralizing computing in the 1980s. Even as work became more digital and moved to people at their desks, organizations remained unchanged. Critical workplace processes that require collaboration and innovation are simply more effective in person than using digital technology. Aside from noteworthy experiments and companies without a physical location, working from home remained sparsely used.
The pandemic of 2020 was a flood that washed out the bridge to the workplace. Employers had little choice but to find alternate routes to work. Around the world, there were two common choices: enable work from home or shut down. People who could do their job at a distance were doing so, using teleworking and cloud technologies. Some estimates put the mid-pandemic rate of working from home as high as 71% of those who could do their work remotely. I call it a forced experiment. It proved that telework, proposed by Jack Nilles nearly a half-century earlier, was viable.
Communicating using technology, even video, remains a poor replacement for face-to-face meetings. Facial expressions are masked. Speaking up and interrupting violates online meeting etiquette far too often. Serendipitous encounters, those unexpected but stimulating exchanges that lead to innovation and creative problem-solving, are much less frequent.
After a year, however, people are more adept at being creative in the online space. They’re developing business rhythms that mitigate some deficiencies of remote work. Just as businesses adapted to the pandemic, workers are adapting to new ways of doing business.
Return to “Normal”
Still, most everyone looks forward to the end of the pandemic. Vaccinations are on the rise, and real-world data look encouraging. Whatever the future normal state will be, it’s coming soon. The big question is, how will that look?
Simply put, work may look a lot different than it did before the pandemic.
Many employees learned that they’re capable of working well from home. With the kids back in school, many want the flexibility and environment that telework offers, at least part of the time. Indeed, competent projections suggest that 25% or more employees will use telework in the post-pandemic workplace.
The real world is complex. While it’s a simple way of looking at the future workplace, I see three distinct versions of the coming hybrid workplace. Most workplaces will blend these scenarios, but each presents different challenges for both employees and managers.
Teleworking Like It’s 2019. Many workplaces will likely return to operations similar to before the pandemic, with most employees physically present in the workplace. Employers know what to expect. If an employee teleworks, they may now be in the minority, leading to challenges that many employers and managers have never faced before.
Everyone Teleworks. Some notable companies, including Twitter, Square, Shopify, and others say they’ll support full-time telework indefinitely. Some of their employees have even relocated, despite the risk of their employer reversing direction in the future.
Everyone Teleworks Part-Time. Still others, including giants like Microsoft and Siemens, will allow many employees to work from home about half of their working time. Simple math suggests that any two workers will overlap in the office only 25% of the time on average. Coordinating schedules will increase overlap for some employees but decrease it for others. How this scheduling overlap works in the long-term remains to be seen.
Many employers haven’t announced specific plans, which makes sense. These are uncertain times that require caution from leaders to avoid all manner of problems. This kind of planning represents consequential policymaking. There simply isn’t enough data to make these decisions confidently. Employees might make significant personal decisions in their wake, including relocations farther from office locations.
The array of return-to-work options creates a global tapestry of work modalities for the digital workplace. Employees have new opportunities for enhanced work-life balance and overall satisfaction. Employers can attract talent with little regard for geographic location and reduce overhead costs. On the surface, it sounds like a win-win situation.
Of course, this situation is no panacea for employers or their employees. Like any significant change in the workplace, there will be issues to resolve. There will be resistance and conflict, pitting managers against employees for all kinds of reasons. Everyone will look to leaders for answers, even if when there are none.
Employers will need to create equitable policies for this next phase of work, whatever position they adopt. They’ll have to communicate these policies clearly throughout management chains and to employees. Transparency will be essential for this to succeed since trust has already eroded since the early days of pandemic telework.
Unfortunately, the real enemy of transparency is the illusion of it. We think we’re communicating positions, policies, and practices, but any uncertainty will bias our efforts. Uncertainty is inherent to the current situation for most employers. It’s not a stretch to conclude that trust will further erode without significant action to overcommunicate.
The question is, what do we need to communicate? Employee perspectives can be our guide.
What Leaders Need to Communicate to Employees
The pandemic disrupted business as usual. Employers, both large and small, have faced unprecedented challenges. Companies may be affected for years to come. Employees may not feel secure in their jobs, especially as government-subsidized programs end. These workers may be far more concerned about whether they will have work in the future than where they do it.
Other employers may project far greater stability to their employees. This luxury also presents different challenges as workers focus on how the workplace’s changing nature affects job and career growth. When it comes to performance reviews, promotions, and succession planning, those who are visible might well have a real advantage over those who telework.
Employers must seriously consider equity for teleworkers. Offering teleworking arrangements to attract the best talent regardless of location, employers must walk their talk. Employees who work primarily out of sight need to know that they’re valued and have the same opportunities as those working in offices. If this is not the case in any workplace, teleworking will likely fail, and valued teleworking employees may seek more equitable employment.
With inevitable changes in culture, management practices, and even organizational structure, employers will need to minimize their employees’ uncertainty.
The Bottom Line
Telework is growing, setting the stage for a new workplace divide. Those who are more frequently seen in the office by managers will have perceived—if not actual—advantages over those who are not. Creating effective telework management practices, performance evaluation, task and project assignments, and promotions will be essential. Those practices will need to be communicated clearly and emphatically throughout organizations, even while overarching telework policies remain uncertain. Successful employers will likely be those that demonstrate their policies are more than just talk or words on paper.
Thanks for reading!