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Lessons From a Year of WFH: How to Work Remotely in 2021

Work from home and remote trends have seen a steady increase over the past few years. But with lockdowns, shelter in place orders, and social distancing mandated around the world, people are working from home now more than ever. 

In fact, Owl Lab’s annual State of Remote Work report found that “70% of full-time workers in the United States are working from home during COVID-19.” This unprecedented WFH movement in many cases started as a short-term contingency plan, but, as the effects of the pandemic continue, we’re seeing it evolve into what we now call: the new norm. 

“Before, working from home was just perceived as temporary [and] business would go back to normal within a few weeks,” says Laurel Farrer, remote work expert and CEO of Distribute Consulting. “Now, companies are embracing workplace flexibility as a permanent change and are updating operations, company-wide, to adapt.”

We’ve seen countless companies announcing their new remote work plans for 2021 and beyond. In fact, a Gartner survey found that 74% of CFOs are already planning to make the shift to remote work a permanent one for at least some of their employees. And Owl Labs found that “one in two US workers won’t return to a job that doesn’t offer remote work as an option.”

But we know that “going remote is different than staying remote,” and the sustainability of the current WFH movement is dependant on more than just a working laptop and a Zoom account. So, here are some tips on what to leave behind with 2020 and what to bring into the new year. 

WFH in a pandemic is not the same as remote work pre-pandemic

There has already been a lot of discourse around the differences between WFH during a pandemic and the remote work of the past (and, hopefully, future). One was sudden and unplanned, whereas the other relies on detailed processes, open communication, and continual review and revision. One is controlled by the need to remain in one location, whereas the other is ultimately location independent. There is a lot more choice involved in remote work outside of the pandemic and a lot more access to the external world too.  

“[It seems obvious, but] when you’re in a non-pandemic world, you don’t have to be home all the time,” says Pilar Orti, Director of Virtual not Distant — a coaching, training, and resource service for distributed teams and organizations. “You can do all your social stuff, you can go out, and you can choose how you run your day. You build your life so that it incorporates [everything you need], whereas in this version you haven’t [been able to do so.]” 

Because of the sudden nature of working from home, and the unclear end — it’s meant that organizations and individuals may not have put in the proper planning to make the experience the most healthy and sustainable version it can be. 

When something feels like an anomaly, you’re more likely to let other habits fall by the wayside. Where you may ordinarily have created a fully-fledged home office set up (if you were switching to WFH pre-pandemic) because this felt like a short term thing, you probably ended up just working from the couch, the kitchen table, or even from bed. 

Owl Labs found that only 20-25% of companies pay or share the cost of home office equipment including furniture, cable, chairs and the like. Again, this makes sense in an instance where WFH is short term, but now that it’s clear we’ll be WFH for the long haul organizations need to support their workers in creating functional spaces at home. 

This is particularly necessary as our homes are now full of new distractions. Partners, housemates and children are often home full time as well, so it can be difficult to juggle quiet times for meetings, sharing desk space and getting work done within regular work hours. Not to mention figuring out how to work remotely, in some cases for the first time, without all the usual technology, policy and management support. 

But if we want WFH to work long-term and for workers to thrive, employers need to put intentional effort into designing new policies and processes and communicating effectively for this new way of work. 

“Asking a workforce to start working from home offices is a workplace transformation, but not virtual organizational development,” Laurel says in a recent article for Forbes. “In other words, it is only allowing remote work, not adopting it.” 

And yet, we learned that WFH could work — and we want to keep doing it

“What people learned is that it can be done,” Pilar says. “Even people who thought this is never gonna work.”

By being forced to adapt, a large portion of the workforce has now experienced working from home — including all the pros and cons — which is a huge asset to developing sustainable and functioning WFH practices. 

“The relationship with technology I think has changed, we’re embracing it as something that connects you rather than a thing that separates you,” Pilar says. 

These small changes to the acceptance and experience of WFH mean more workers are interested in the model long-term. 

Owl Labs says one in four US employees would take a pay cut of over 10% to continue WFH to some capacity in the future and 81% think their employer will support it. Another survey stated that in the UK, employers expect the proportion of regular home workers to more than double, from 18% pre-pandemic to 37% post-pandemic

Laurel suggests the uptake from the organizational level is due in part to managers and employers experiencing the benefits alongside workers.

“Because leadership was thrown “into the trenches” of piloting and testing remote work along with the rest of the workforce, they were much more involved in and supportive of the design of a long-term policy,” she says. “So, overall, we’re seeing MUCH faster adoption rates and cycles from organizations than we did pre-COVID because of the first-hand involvement of decision-makers.”

However, you can’t fall into a functioning remote work policy — you have to design it

“Without proper preparation for the adoption of remote work, both leadership and staff are missing the opportunity to design, understand, and agree to the terms of a remote work policy,” Laurel says. 

This makes responsibilities unclear and can create an unhealthy environment full of assumptions and unmet expectations. 

“How will performance and accessibility standards change? Who will be responsible for home office expenses? How often do I still need to come to the office, if ever? Will I be discriminated against if I choose to continue to work remotely?” Laurel questions. 

“Miscommunication is a common barrier to success for new-to-remote teams. So, it’s critical to align on expectations, habits, and responsibilities early and often.”

When planning out how you’ll continue to work into 2021 and beyond there are few key areas to think about across all levels of an organization, from the individual level to specific teams and up to company-wide management. 

Physical set up 

Does your workforce have all of the physical elements they need to be able to work correctly? This is of course where things like a laptop and access to office software fit in, but now may also include things like noise-canceling headphones because not many homes have phone booths or quiet rooms or a lamp to ensure you can see them properly during video calls. Even access to stationary or subsidizing their phone bill could fall under this section as they no longer will head to the office supply closet or be able to use the phones at their desk.

Virtual set up 

As with the physical elements, this one can take a little time to figure out. Sure, you may already have Zoom accounts and email that have been working. But is there a better way to communicate virtually now that you can’t just double-check something with your desk mate, or pop your head into your manager’s office? Do you need different storage solutions or security set up, now that all employees are working off various WIFI networks? Could you use a project management software to centralize and streamline the work timeline to replace multiple video meetings?

“People rushing to remote decided that all the interaction had to be in a video meeting or video all the time,” Pilar says. “And I think this is an opportunity to go back and say, ‘What interactions do we need? And then start designing for that.”

The Owl Labs report backed this up stating, “Video conferencing technology has become the standard form of communication with 60% of respondents using video more than before COVID-19, bringing new considerations for remote employees.”

A platform like Slack may be useful to facilitate open forums and encourage asynchronous communication so that workers have a place to check information rather than calling a meeting just to ask a question. 

“However, we know that we need to have some synchronous conversations, but what are they?” Pilar wonders. “Organizations need to allow teams to have that conversation because teams have a different cadence of interaction, different kinds of interactions, different information that they need to exchange.”

Connection 

This leads to connection points, which now need intentional management rather than allowing them to spontaneously occur through proximity. As with every point, this is an incredibly complex area to manage as there are so many layers of context. However, if teams are catering their communication to their own functional work needs, it’s then maybe organizations’ responsibility to provide points of social interaction between the teams and between individuals within those teams. 

Proximity doesn’t ensure connection, so leadership must intentionally design channels, activities, and engagement expectations that will help unify their teams and create a sense of belonging,” Laurel says. 

Work style 

You then have to make clear how you want your employees to work. Are you ok with them setting their hours, or do you need them available at specific times? You can no longer see them sitting at their desks — are you happy to judge them on their output alone? Or do you want regular check-ins to see how they’re going with their projects? What else is going on for them? Is it possible for them to make meetings at 3pm every day when they have children at home? Would a weekly meeting be more doable? 

“What’s important to us cannot be that we’re all in the same building,” Pilar says. “You have to go back to what is really important to the organization? And given the fact that our values are not visible in the same way, what do we need to do about that?”

Virtual training 

 “In a virtual work environment, monitoring the wellness, output, and engagement is still possible, but requires different tools, habits, and training,” Laurel says. 

This is new for people, and the skills they developed as workers or managers in an office environment may not automatically translate. Do you need to provide training on new technology or apps? Are some managers finding it difficult to connect without face-to-face interaction? Would a set of guidelines or resources help those struggling with motivation levels now that they’re home? 

Create the work experience that you want, not the one that’s easy 

“Anything that can help us to stop and question, ‘Is that really how we want to be doing things?’ That’s an opportunity!” Pilar says. “There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t working [when we were all in offices.]” 

But there is still plenty that we may miss. Pilar suggests asking ourselves what they are. 

“If we can’t find that ideal place, which used to be that office, why? What was that giving us?”

If for one person it was getting out of the house, how can they now make that a part of their reality while WFH?

If for others, it was working alongside colleagues, could they use technology in a way to simulate that presence? Or make time each day to connect with specific work friends over a call or IM platform?

“[We should always avoid] assuming that everyone needs the same thing,” Pilar says. “Assuming that there’s only one way of doing remote work, assuming that we need hyper connection, always. Or assuming that we can all be left alone, always.”

Instead, she encourages designing a culture that covers and addresses needs across a spectrum, rather than implementing one solution per perceived problem.  

“Rather than saying, ‘Oh, we tick the social aspect with our virtual coffee,” she says. “That’s what I’m seeing. Companies know how to do the social stuff in the way that you used to do the social stuff. However, a workshop becomes an opportunity for social interaction. You just need to know how to embed it in. Or asynchronous channels that talk about something serious can become a really good opportunity for informal interaction.”

This translates to technology too. Just because there’s likely an app for that, doesn’t mean the one you already have doesn’t have a similar feature that is going unused. 

“Most organizations already have an ecosystem. But they haven’t looked at how to use it for connection,” Pilar argues.

“You can either change the app, so whether it’s customizing it or getting a new one, or you can change the process, or you can change the behaviour.”

This might mean looking into training your employees on new functionalities or redesigning your process in a way that makes more sense for the current environment. 

Laurel agrees, saying, “The goal is not to create a new operational system for employees that will be offsite. Instead, a company should update all existing processes so that productivity and output aren’t dependent on any location.”

The future of remote work

Whether you were ready for it or not, our lives will be forever changed from COVID-19 and its subsequent societal implications. It seems the time is now to embrace the remote and distributed workforce, which means bringing an intentional mindset into 2021. 

While WFH during 2020 felt like a short-term plan, this year doesn’t have to. Making small changes to the way we work at home can have significant changes to our overall business operations and personal lives.

— Bree Caggiati

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