Remote Work: The Impact and What Leaders Can Do

Remote Work: The Impact and What Leaders Can Do 1000 400 Rock Creek Consulting Group

There’s a lot of talk about the impact of ‘remote work.’

Recent studies claim that workers are leaving jobs at much higher rates than normal. Some say that one-quarter of US workers are preparing to look for new employment opportunities. The number may be greater (up to 40%) in the global workplace. This has been labeled the “Great Attrition.”

What does this mean for businesses? What should leaders be thinking about?

First, we’ll make some observations on the current labor environment and then look at some actions that leaders can take.

Observation: A rare event…but it has happened before

We don’t see these seismic shifts very often. The early 1800s Industrial Revolution saw a huge proportion of the workforce move from fields to factories. During the 1940s, World War II greatly increased women’s participation in the workforce. The digital age of the 1990s saw a big increase in productivity, faster decision-making, and more precise business communication. Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic saw many employees leave offices to work from home. The significance of this is yet to play out.

Observation: Widespread remote work can succeed

Many leaders in 2019 or before would have resisted remote work, citing security concerns, inadequate communication, lack of supervision, substandard facilities, distractions, and other factors. However, many of those leaders have been positively surprised by the productivity of some remote employees.

Observation: Revisiting (and revaluing) business culture

Remote work impacts organizational culture. People who spend a lot of time in the same location will develop certain behaviors and an understanding of one another. This can be a great asset, but at what cost? Preserving a business culture at the expense of productivity isn’t smart. And cultures evolve anyway. This question needs to be considered on a business-by-business basis.

Observation: Employees are reevaluating their relationships with work

Some employees have embraced working remotely for at least part of the time. They reference a new positive connection to their home and family. In some cases, this is accompanied by wealth accumulation as the global share market rebounds, and government stimulus packages kick in. The result is more confidence and more options.

Others say that remote work has led to fatigue, difficulty disconnecting from work, deterioration of social networks, and a weakened sense of belonging.

In either case, employees are reconsidering their relationship with work…and with their employers.

Observation: A hybrid approach is possible

It doesn’t have to be ‘remote work’ or ‘no remote work.’ A blended approach where work is completed at home for a portion of the week but attendance at the office is mandatory at other times is entirely possible and seems to be working for some businesses.

Observation: Uncertainty and timing 

There is uncertainty as to whether the end is in sight and what that end may look like. Logistical questions can be addressed like the number of days employees are in the office, collaboration tools they will use, compensation arrangements, and the approach to meetings. But this doesn’t provide a long-term view. Simply put, the current evolutionary change isn’t over yet.

Observation: A disconnect between employees and employer

Many employers want to increase the team’s presence at the office, while many employees don’t. This disconnect could lead to attrition and disengagement. Simply put, employees may feel ‘the grass is greener on the other side….’

Observation: Market economics

Let’s not forget that employee supply and demand will have a huge influence. The ratio of job seekers to employers who are recruiting has NEVER been equal. The so-called ‘Great Attrition’ may be mostly fueled by job seekers taking advantage of market demand to secure better economic outcomes rather than any disappointment in remote work.

With all this in mind, what can business leaders do? 

Explore new models 

This is a good time for experimenting. Consider:

  • Which work is more suited to a ‘virtual’ versus an ‘in-person’ environment?
  • How should virtual meetings be conducted? (length, format, style)
  • What technology do you need for remote workers to uniformly adopt so they can communicate, collaborate and feel connected?
  • How can off-site employees get access to influence and experience?
  • How can you avoid a two-tier system where people working in the office are valued and rewarded differently from those working more from home?
  • What physical gatherings should be encouraged (or mandatory)?
  • What should the office look (and feel) like?

There’s more to this than how many days are spent working at home, so experiment with different approaches.

Accept the uncertainty 

Don’t characterize this as a temporary phase or imply we will soon be ‘returning to normalcy.’ This will sound unconvincing, fuel confusion, and people will lose trust in their leaders, encouraging them to consider other options. Set the tone for continued change in policies, practices, working norms, and collaboration technologies as you test and learn.

Focus on listening and understanding employees 

Listening is always important, but constructively hearing people’s concerns is more important than ever when we’re dealing with fundamental change. This is a hallmark of enlightened leadership.

Engage employees and delegate

Rather than leadership trying to resolve all these questions, engage with employees and let them drive some of the recommendations for change. They will probably have sensible ideas for the business. This approach increases ‘buy-in’ to any decisions. Share the load by delegating new projects arising.

However, it’s extremely important that once the company adopts a system, everyone adopts the same system. For example, if projects are run through a project management system, all projects should run through the system, and the process should be documented. Remote workers must have the proper technology, and the company must set the standards for its use to ensure everyone can work together seamlessly and uniformly.

Focus on the positives

In many cases, businesses (and employees) are thriving, innovating, and finding new directions. This is good for everyone, and celebrating success – however small – is a wise move. In the long term, many good things will emerge from this period. For example, where we spend less time with people, we tend to VALUE that time more, resulting in increased productivity, action, and fun!

A final thought

It may be that many people leave their jobs as predicted by some studies but how many of them were happy and fulfilled in their jobs in the first place? How many were making a positive contribution to their businesses? In many cases, the departing employees may go on to more productive roles, and their employees will find better replacements.

Retaining employees for the sake of it should not be the desired outcome. Building a better business in changing conditions should be the focus.