What Should Organizations Keep after the Pandemic?
When the pandemic hit at the very beginning of 2020, most organizations scrambled to adjust to the new situation. For many of them, it meant organizing remote work, a practice that was often uncommon until then. With the end of the pandemic in sight, organizations now face new questions: What should they keep from this new form of organization, and what should they abandon? In particular, should they keep remote work or should they encourage (or compel) employees to go back to the office? In this post, I’ll try to dispel some misconceptions about remote work, and summarize what we know about its benefits and challenges.
Are people less productive when working from home?
The idea that people work less when they are working from home is widespread and may push managers to bring back employees to the office as soon as possible. But before making any hasty decision, managers should weigh the pros and cons.
If people were less productive during the pandemic, should we blame remote work?
The pandemic was a unique situation that has forced employees to work remotely for an extended period of time. As such, it is not surprising that this abrupt change would negatively affect productivity. People had to re-organize their way of working overnight, were physically separated from their colleagues, had to improvise a working space at home, some had to manage childcare while working… All these factors took a toll on people’s mental health [1,2], and research suggests that this was associated with lower productivity [3,4].
However, we should not be too quick to blame remote work: The culprit is most likely the pandemic itself and the major impact it had on people’s lives. In normal circumstances, employees, managers, and organizations might have appreciated the benefits of remote work.
Benefits of remote work
Remote work can have direct and indirect benefits for the organization. First, remote work eliminates the commute to and from work, which is often cited as a major source of stress and fatigue among employees . Removing the need to commute frees up extra time for other activities, work-related or not: Spending time with one’s family, developing new skills, exercising…
Remote work can also be empowering by giving employees more control and flexibility over their schedule , which might subsequently reduce their stress and frustration, and increase their job (and life) satisfaction. These happier employees might then be more willing to go the extra mile when necessary, more available to help colleagues when they need it, and less likely to leave the company.
Finally, remote work can also reduce the culture of “presenteeism” by shifting the focus away from “how much time people spend at work”, and toward “what are they accomplishing when they are working”.
In other words, allowing remote work might be a cheap investment for the organization, that may ultimately pay well.
Remote work needs to be managed properly
But if companies want to keep remote work after the pandemic, they will have to properly organize it: It cannot be an improvisation or an afterthought.
Managers should first take the time to discuss remote opportunities with their employees: Do they want it? How often? Is remote work compatible with their job and responsibilities? Indeed, research suggests that while working from home can be good for some tasks (e.g., creative tasks that require less structure), it can be bad for others (e.g., tasks that require a high degree of coordination among people). Ultimately, given the respective pros and cons of “work from home” and “work from office”, the best arrangement might be to allow people to work from home one to three days a week, and be in the office the rest of the time .
Once remote work becomes a reality, managers should also adjust their practices: Remote workers cannot be managed in the same way as employees in the office. Managers need to assign clear objectives, and actively maintain contact with remote workers to keep them engaged and motivated. Companies should make sure that they have the right infrastructure in place (e.g., online collaborative tools such as Slack) to facilitate exchanges between remote and on-site workers. Remote work fails when remote workers, and their work, are invisible to the rest of the organization.
Remote work might help reward better employees and managers
Some managers might strongly resist a remote work organization: Either because they associate remote working with “less work” and “reduced motivation” [8,9]; or because they sense that it will erode their power .
The first reaction stems from a misconception: It is not because people are in the office that they are delivering value for the company. In fact, the traditional work office culture may accidentally reward the wrong behaviors: Pretending to be busy (e.g., by spending long hours at the office, by multiplying emails and phone calls), spending one’s time networking and politicking (e.g., by focusing on tasks that are conspicuous rather than useful), engaging in toxic behaviors to affirm dominance (e.g., stealing others’ work and idea or putting down others’ contribution)… On the contrary, remote work might give organizations the opportunity to better measure the contributions of employees, and therefore to reward those who favor substance over appearance.
Second, it is true that remote work might reduce managers’ ability to control their employees… and this might be a good thing. Many managers (often those who are insufficiently trained to occupy these roles) exhibit toxic behaviors towards their subordinates : They nag their subordinates rather than give them clear objectives and guidelines, they blame them when something goes wrong rather than find solutions, they use fear and threats rather than support and encouragements. A bad manager is often what leads people to leave their organization [12,13]. If a manager strongly opposes remote work, it might therefore be a red flag to consider.
Can remote work favor diversity within the organization?
Remote work might be a solution to increase workforce diversity
I’m living in a city that is incredibly homogeneous: People are overwhelmingly white, educated, rich, and lean Democrat. It means that any organization headquartered in this city will not only have a hard time reaching out to diverse people, but it will also have a hard time convincing them to live in a city that does not represent them.
On the contrary, when physical presence is no longer required, it opens possibilities in term of recruitment. Organizations can suddenly enlarge their pool of candidates by reaching out to whoever is the best and be more likely to recruit talented candidates who would not feel “at home” wherever the office is headquartered.
Remote work might support women’s career
Research on gender inequality has shown that, since men tend to earn more money than women, women are more likely to follow their spouse when he gets a job opportunity in another city . If remote work is not an option, neither for him nor for her, it means that women must quit their job. In an organization open to remote work however, women would not have to choose between their family and their job. This fact alone would make remote work empowering to women.
In addition, generalizing remote work would give women more flexibility to manage their career. Women are uniquely constrained insofar as the period during which people build their career (20s - 30s) is also the time during which women may have children. This constraint is reflected in women’s pay: Research has shown that the gender pay gap appears around the time women have their first child, and tends to widen after that [15-17].
In a world in which remote work is rare, couples have very little flexibility to organize their family life, and women often bear the burden of domestic tasks. Consequently, with the arrival of a first child, women may be tempted to work fewer hours, to take fewer responsibilities or even to switch to part-time jobs, which ultimately hinders their professional growth.
If both partners had access to remote work however, it would not only be easier for women to balance their professional and personal responsibilities, but also easier for their partner to support them by taking their fair share of domestic tasks.
Ultimately, being open-minded about remote work might be a significant asset for companies that want to attract, recruit, and keep talented women.
Can people build and maintain a network when working remotely? Is the information flowing correctly in a remote work context?
This is probably the biggest challenge raised by remote work. When everybody is working from home, there is no opportunity for serendipitous encounters and informal interactions (e.g., bumping into a colleague at the cafeteria, sharing a coffee at the break…). However, such interactions are essential to the well-functioning of the organization, to people’s career, and to their well-being. They usually allow people to gather information; to get help, advice, or tips; to discuss issues that are difficult to raise in a more formal setting; to make sense of some complex situations (e.g., internal politics of the workplace); to get a broader vision of the organization and of what everybody does; or simply to create and maintain friendships [18, 19].
By limiting exchanges to formal communication (e.g., emails, virtual meetings), remote work can derail the information flow. For example, important information is not only shared formally over meetings, but it is also shared informally, before or after meetings, between people from different teams or units who gather in small groups.
This lack of informal encounters can be particularly hard for newcomers : It may slow down their learning, limit their understanding of the culture and codes of their workplace, or hinder their ability to build relationships with the people who will support them.
What can organizations do?
Organizing regular virtual social events, or assigning mentors to newcomers, can be two simple steps to overcome those issues. Besides, regularly scheduling in-person events with persons of different organizational units and teams can help people escape the “tunnel vision” and give them a bigger picture: What are the organizational goals, who does what, and who knows what?
Many questions remain unanswered about remote work. For example, we don’t know the optimal ratio of employees working from home and those working from office to keep the organization efficient. We also don’t know whether remote work might exacerbate the fault lines between those who occupy “white collar” jobs (who will have access to it) and those who occupy “blue collar” jobs (who will be forced to come to work every day) .
But whatever organizations decide, they should seize the opportunity offered by the pandemic to reconsider their processes and their management. They should take time to reflect on this past year: What worked, and what didn’t? What should be kept, improved, or abandoned? What are the employee’s aspirations, expectations, and needs going forward? The worst decision would be to pretend that the pandemic never happened, and to “go back to normal” despite the historical momentum. The demand for change among employees, consumers, and citizens has never been so strong, and organizations would be fool not to seize this opportunity.
Work from Home
- Loneliness, isolation
- Lack of visibility: you don’t see what’s going on in the organization and you’re invisible to others
- For newcomers: may slow down learning and integration
- Problem of communication: the information does not flow well, implicit and complex knowledge is not easily transferred
- Problem of sense-making: difficulty to understand some information, to read in people’s intentions, to get a sense of who does what and who knows what, to grasp the internal politics of the workplace
- Blurry boundaries between professional life and personal life: your office is in your home
- Increased inequality: not everybody can work well from home
Work from Office
- Commute, sometimes long, that increases stress, fatigue, and frustration
- Interruptions, noisy setting, feeling to waste one’s time (e.g., small talks, long lunches)
- The corporate culture and office life can be taxing when it is toxic
- May favor a culture of “presenteism” that rewards the appearance of work rather than work itself
To go further…
- Minahan T. What Your Future Employees Want Most. Harvard Business Review. 2021 May 31.
- Cushing E. Slackers of the World, Unite! The Atlantic. 2021 Oct 12.
- Yang L, Holtz D, Jaffe S, Suri S, Sinha S, Weston J, et al. The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers. Nat Hum Behav. 2021 Sep 9;1–12.
- Towner E, Ladensack D, Chu K, Callaghan B. Welcome to My Zoom Party - Virtual Social Interaction, Loneliness, and Well-Being Among Emerging Adults Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic. 2021.
- Brooks AC. The Hidden Toll of Remote Work. The Atlantic. 2021 Apr.
- Bevan S. New research explains why some people are less productive working from home. Fast Company. 2021 May.
- Parry J, Young Z, Bevan S, Veliziotis M, Baruch Y, Beigi M, et al. Working from Home under COVID-19 lockdown: Transitions and Tensions. 2021 Jan. Available from: https://www.workafterlockdown.uk
- Schaefer A. Commuting Takes Its Toll. Scientific American – Mind & Brain. 2005.
- State of Remote Work 2020. Available from: https://lp.buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2020
- Mull A. There’s a Perfect Number of Days to Work From Home, and It’s 2. The Atlantic. 2021 May.
- Khazan O. What Bosses Really Think of Remote Workers. The Atlantic. 2021 May.
- Elsbach KD, Cable DM, Sherman JW. How passive ‘face time’ affects perceptions of employees: Evidence of spontaneous trait inference. Hum Relat. 2010 Jun 1;63(6):735–60.
- Zitron E. Why Managers Fear a Remote-Work Future. The Atlantic. 2021 Jul.
- Beck RJ, Harter J. Why Great Managers Are So Rare. Gallup; 2014 Mar.
- Harter J, Adkins A. Employees Want a Lot More From Their Managers. Gallup; 2015 Apr.
- Kelly J. People Don’t Leave Bad Jobs, They Leave Bad Bosses: Here’s How To Be A Better Manager To Maintain And Motivate Your Team. Forbes. 2019.
- Stroh LK, Brett JM, Reilly AH. All the right stuff: A comparison of female and male managers’ career progression. - PsycNET. J Appl Psychol. 1992;77(3):251–60.
- Kleven H, Landais C, Søgaard JE. Children and Gender Inequality: Evidence from Denmark. National Bureau of Economic Research; 2018 Jan. (Working Paper Series). Report No.: 24219.
- Bertrand M, Goldin C, Katz LF. Dynamics of the gender gap for young professionals in the financial and corporate sectors. Am Econ J Appl Econ. 2010;2(3):228–55.
- Chung Y, Downs B, Sandler DH, Sienkiewicz R. The parental gender earnings gap in the United States. 2017.
- Mo N. The Pandemic Is Changing Work Friendships. The Atlantic. 2020 Jul.
- Tett G. The empty office: what we lose when we work from home. the Guardian. 2021 Jun.
- Thompson D. Winners and Losers of the Work-From-Home Revolution. The Atlantic. 2021 Jun.