2020 may lead to permanent changes in how we do business, as both companies and employees consider the pluses and minuses of working from home.
Emerging research indicates that not all workers, perhaps not even most in certain industries, who shifted to home offices this spring will go back after the pandemic is over.
A survey of 550 businesses reported by the U.S. Small Business Administration showed that 85 percent of employers were encouraging remote work back in March. That probably pleased most employees, as a 2019 survey by Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics found 81 percent of onsite workers said working remotely would make them happier.
For some businesses and positions, remote may not be temporary. The longer businesses experiment with it, whether born of necessity or creativity, some are finding it worth continuing.
Working from home has both challenges and rewards. While distraction, accountability and cybersecurity can be a worry, research such as a 2019 study by Harvard Business School suggests that overall, remote work increases worker productivity and decreases business costs.
Plus it’s nice to get the laundry done while tapping away on the laptop.
Finding the right balance is a learning process, but where such models have been successful, American business seems to be expanding its vision of what it means to “go to work.”
Tips from the SBA and other business consultants published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and other respected journals have common themes:
Invest in virtual connection tools. Determine which tools are necessary to connect the team and work remotely, and don’t assume everyone has the same technology at home. If workers lack the equipment and software necessary to meet all work, video meetings, and security requirements, analyzing and, wherever necessary, providing those tools is priority one.
Have a communication routine. This starts with rethinking communication. Gone are the drop-by chats and spontaneous brainstorming. It’s impossible to “read” faces in an email. But you don’t have to lose all the benefits of nonverbal communication.
Scheduled conference calls and video meetings are the remote office solution, with apps such as WhatsApp, Zoom or Skype (most are free). Keep in mind that communication channels may be slower this way. Experts recommend scheduling regular video and audio meetings and providing plenty of notice so work can be better planned (and no one is caught in pajamas).
Err on the side of overcommunicating. In addition to being sure nothing is missed or misfired, consultants say this can help the team feel informed, validated and empowered. Face time is also important to keep the spirit of teamwork alive.
Don’t neglect cybersecurity. Staying secure while working from home is an aspect of remote offices which some overlooked at first. Acknowledge the risk and if necessary, equip employees with training and tools to protect both the tools and content of work.
Set boundaries. Establish and communicate a schedule for the workday. In addition to helping everyone “show up” for work, it reduces worker stress by setting limits to work time vs. free time. It’s tempting to fire off a text, call or email when the thought strikes and expect an instant reply even on evenings and weekends, but that tends to lead to resentment, stress and dissatisfaction.
Conversely, it also establishes when work and responsive communication are expected.
Redefine urgency. Because the assurances of physical proximity are absent, it’s even more important to promptly respond to communications and participate in meetings and chat threads during work hours when a project is pressing.
As a manager, communicating from the outset which projects are, or are not, pressing is key and helps the team prioritize time and attention.
Practice empathy. Working from home includes its challenges and distractions, especially for those with family at home. When intrusions occur, say advisors, practice patient understanding. Expect them to happen and try to be flexible.
Prioritize wellness. Mental health is as important to worker productivity as physical health — and they’re related. Encourage, perhaps even incorporating into the work schedule, regular stretch breaks. Enforce work schedule boundaries by discouraging non-urgent communications at other times, and by encouraging employees to abide by those boundaries whenever possible.
Suggestions for boosting morale include voluntary virtual happy hours by videoconference — perhaps incorporating a theme, “bring your pet to work” days with a few minutes of pet time during video calls, and the ever-welcome joke swap after a stressful task.
Not every business is well-suited to remote work and virtual offices. However, some are discovering that it works well, at least for certain positions, and can save money. Only time will tell how much it sticks, but it seems clear that what was forced by a pandemic is transitioning into place as part of the new normal.
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Sholeh Patrick, J.D., is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network and former small business legal adviser. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.