It took time and money for businesses to shift all of their employees to remote work. Now employees don’t want to shift back. They don’t want to return to the hassles of ‘going to work’ and ‘being at work’. Workplace attire. Commuting. Child care. Parking. Rigid schedules. Going to work and being at work is far more taxing, demanding and expensive for employees than WFH. Remote work saves employees time and money and affords much more flexibility.
Employers, however, view WFH through a different lens. There are several challenges that arise with WFH.
- Employee Engagement. Something that was always a challenge became even harder with employees in different locations and potentially even different time zones. After a year of Covid, employees are already reporting feeling disconnected from their employer, its leadership and coworkers. Companies are realizing that teleconferencing is a far more rigid and less natural tool for connection than old-fashioned hallway chinwags, break room chatter, and water cooler chats. Zoom sessions are far less special and personal vehicles for employee engagement than department celebrations, company luncheons and picnics, and motivational speakers and training sessions.
- Innovation and Collaboration. Besides connection and engagement, WFH makes innovation and collaboration much harder to achieve. While more and more software providers are focused on helping companies increase employee collaboration and spur creativity and innovation for remote workers, leaders are finding that what those SaaS products deliver in organization and structure still does not equal what is lost when colleagues gather in a circle of couches or around a table, face-to-face, to brainstorm the next big idea. Some of the magic is lost across the digital divide. And, really, no one wants to spend hours and hours on Zoom sessions. Burnout is on the rise. As useful as it is, teleconferencing, instant messaging, email, phone calls and other tech products are proving to be less-than-perfect vehicles to spur working together, discussing challenges, and coming up with solutions.
- Productivity, Accountability, Efficiency and Effectiveness. Last but not least, employers are finding it harder to track remote employee productivity, accountability, efficiency and effectiveness. These were areas that were challenging even when every employee reported to the same place at the same time. But remote work is making it much harder to determine if an employee is really bringing their maximum effort, skills and passion to the job every day. Questions arise as to whether project delays are the result of actual difficulties in getting work done or just less effort on the part of the employee. When remote employees cannot be reached, employers question if the employee is just on another call, disconnected from technology in order to really focus on work, or just running errands and doing chores.
Greater disconnection, less collaboration, limited innovation and less accountability are all bad for business. But, ultimately, it is also bad for employees. Employees who don’t bond with bosses are less likely to get included in meetings, be given decision-making power, or be assigned choice projects that can lead to bonuses and promotions. Less trust leads to conflict. In such a scenario, the upward mobility track gets murkier for those working remotely. And, long term, that translates into less loyalty, which was already on the decline long before Covid.
With so many challenges, many employers are pushing back on the WFH demands of employees. Companies want employees back at least a few days a week. In response, many workers are making it clear that they are willing to change jobs if their employer won’t accommodate their desire to continue working from home. Recruiting firms are inundated with jobseekers on an unprecedented scale. The challenge for management now is to figure out how to get workers to come back to the workplace or attract new workers to replace those who quit or retired during the pandemic. And, managers must also make current employees feel engaged, connected, heard, valued, and recognized.
How to Solve the WFH Challenges
How is a company to solve this myriad of challenges? The answers vary.
- Money Talks. Some workplaces are turning to the most obvious solution to bringing workers back to the workplace: money. Raises and bonuses for returning to work are on the rise. So are signing bonuses for people willing to fill vacancies left behind by those who retired early rather than return to the workplace. In some cases, throwing money at the problem works. But given the magnitude of the problem, money alone will not solve the turnover epidemic sweeping companies worldwide.
- Basic Tech Solutions. Another approach to the WFH challenges is to throw even more technology at the problem. SaaS companies like Bluescape, Monday, Miro, Asana, and Clickup offer an assortment of tools including Calendar, Document, Contact and Project Management tools as well as Task Management, Real Time Editing and Video Conferencing to try to increase employee collaboration and help spur creativity and innovation for remote workers. But basic technology solutions such as group video conferencing and organizational tools only go so far in solving some of the challenges of remote work. As a result, many technology companies are taking basic innovations to the next level. The latest explosion of tech startups are focused on the very notion of making WFH more connected, collaborative, personal and engaged.
- Increased Management Activity. The best adapted organizations are ramping up manager activity. Increased outreach by managers across the board to keep teams connected and coordinated is needed. For some companies, having managers run weekly one-on-one meetings with direct reports has increased engagement and bonding. The days of setting strategy for the quarter and letting the team run on auto-pilot is gone. Engaged managers are central to helping organizations effectively navigate WFH and hybrid workplaces.
- Prioritize Cross-Functional Connections. For companies to succeed in this new normal, it is not enough for individual teams or departments to stay connected. Cross-functional collaboration is also key, and is something particularly challenging for mid-sized and large companies. To ensure this vital communication doesn’t disappear, top-performing companies are proactively implementing measures to maintain these connections such as assigning mentors across departments and encouraging cross-functional check-ins.
- Innovative WFH Solutions. The WFH phenomena has spurred a lot of creativity to solve the problems raised by WFH. Here are some that are hitting the bulls-eye.
- Desk Booking Service – For companies that are downsizing their leased space footprint in order to capitalize on WFH, desk space will be yet another challenge for a rotating hybrid WFH workforce. Enter tech startup app Envoy Desks. Envoy Desks allows employees to book desks when they work at the office. No longer will WFH employees need to float like working nomads looking for an empty space to squat for the day.
- ‘What Are You Working On?’ Software - To solve the connectedness and communication issue among coworkers and managers, Tandem has introduced a product that helps colleagues be ‘present’ with one another even when they are remote. The software allows coworkers to know what teammates are working on in real time, even if the worker is working remotely. Tandem’s desktop program ($10 monthly) shows what teammates are working on so an employee knows if someone is available for a spontaneous phone call or video call using their app. User statuses automatically update so everyone on the team knows if a co-worker is on a call, writing in Google Docs or doing some other task. There’s a bit of a ‘Big Brother watching’ feel to this software that companies might like and employees might find intrusive.
- 360% Video Camera – For companies with a Hybrid WFH/Work-in-Office arrangement, attending video conference remotely can be a challenge. In a room full of people, it is hard to know who is speaking and see every person if the video conference screen is at one end of a long table. Enter Owl Labs. This 2017 start-up developed a 360-degree video camera, microphone and speaker that sits in the middle of a conference table and automatically zooms in on the person who is speaking. This ensures that the person speaking is heard. It could also reduce the incidence of one person talking over another during a meeting by ensuring that only one person at a time speaks.
The market for such innovations is primed, and has already generated over $650 Billion in sales.
As workplaces look for ways to keep employees engaged, effective, efficient and eager to work – from wherever – companies will need to get creative in how they deal with an ever-evolving extended workplace. As Stephen Covey once said, “Dispirited, unmotivated, unappreciated workers cannot compete in a highly competitive world. To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.” To that, today, we must add, “…wherever that workplace is.” Businesses that do the best job in solving the WFH challenges will have less turnover, be more profitable and will likely spur ahead of the competition over the next five years. How’s that for motivation?
Quote of the Week
“Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person – not just an employee – are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled. Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.”
© 2021, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.