Should businesses let employees work from home permanently after the pandemic?

Should businesses let employees work from home permanently after the pandemic?

Unlike in-person service businesses that relied on the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy to keep staff on their payrolls, businesses that could let employees work from home survived the early stages of Toronto’s lockdown without financial aid. Those that implemented remote work arrangements were able to sustain sufficient levels of productivity and income while still keeping employees out of harm’s way.

However, as of this writing, Toronto is at Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening — and will undoubtedly reopen fully once a cure and/or vaccine for COVID-19 is approved and made widely available. This begs the question: should companies allow staff return to their offices or let them work from home permanently?

Having the option to work from home (or better yet, work from anywhere) allows staff to avoid stressful commutes, isolate themselves so that they can totally focus on their work, and handle errands or emergencies better. Plus, some individuals are simply more likely to flourish in this arrangement.

For companies, a work from home arrangement can reduce the infrastructure needed in the office environment, cut down on the physical square footage needed, plus open up the work space to enable more physical distancing for those employees who can’t work from home. It can also help retain top talent and attract new staff in a post-pandemic world.

But, nearly 6 months into the health crisis, cracks in the approach are beginning to show, as companies are beginning to study the results and the effects. Here are the two fundamental issues that have companies questioning if remote work should be turned into a permanent arrangement:

1. Remote work can greatly diminish social interactions and connections

While emails, online chat, and video calls help team members connect with one another, tech tools can’t yet capture the full richness of face-to-face interactions. This is unfortunate, because much of human communication is non-verbal. Beyond what someone actually says, their tone of voice, body language such as facial expressions and gestures, and proximity play into the message they are conveying.

The most that remote workers can have are video calls that just put faces in boxes so that they can converse with one another. This limited mode of interaction makes them know less about one another and ultimately sows fear and distrust. A 2017 VitalSmarts survey of over 1,000 employees found this to be true (see table below).

Sentiment Percentage of employees who hold the sentiment
Among remote staff Among on-site staff
Coworkers badmouth me behind my back 41% 31%
Coworkers band together to conspire against me 35% 26%
Coworkers relegate my priorities as ones not worth fighting for 67% 59%
Coworkers implement changes to a project we’re working on without giving me a heads-up first 64% 58%

We do more than just work when we’re in the workplace together
Warm morning greetings along the hallway, nods of understanding during presentations, expressions of encouragement from teammates...all of these spontaneous and positive experiences coalesce into human connections that make our professional lives more than just about work. The stronger this foundation of trust becomes, the more it lends itself to a sense of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a feeling of being accepted and respected to the point that it overcomes the apprehension over revealing and being one’s full self in the workplace. If we’re in a psychologically safe team, we’d feel that we’re allowed to take risks and that we won’t be punished for making mistakes, which ultimately liberates us to fully engage ourselves in our work.

Remote work can reduce us to cogs of a corporate machine
Online communication tools extend our capacity to share and exchange ideas with one another. These are great additions to our tool set, not full replacements for our other modes of communication. If we take face-to-face interactions away from professional settings, we feel less human.

In time, we see ourselves and others as mere inputs whose value solely rests on productivity. Instead of making connections, we start drawing comparisons. Instead of having a mutual purpose, we begin judging shortcomings and faults. And instead of having each other’s backs, we start watching our own backs more.

Related article: What the COVID-19 crisis has taught us about remote work

2. Remote work does not foster the synergy that leads to innovation

In an office setting, it’s second nature to just tap your coworker’s shoulder if you’ve got an idea to share. You don’t need to connect to the internet and log on to a communications app first to do so. It’s also much easier to get others’ attention by speaking up in the middle of a live discussion in a conference room than by “raising your hand” in a virtual one. Additionally, when you want to discuss an urgent problem-solving strategy with your team, it’s much faster and more convenient to call for an impromptu huddle when everyone’s together. When team members are apart, you have to find a common free time and send calendar invites to an online conference call (and pester people to accept the invites).

Because it takes remote staff extra effort to communicate with others, they tend to keep their ideas to themselves. In fact, a study by analytics software provider Humanyze and Harvard Business Review found that team members situated in the same office talked about their assignments 80% more than distributed team members. In short, proximity matters in the exchange of ideas, which in turn helps the growth of knowledge and fosters innovation in companies.

Instead of being a permanent arrangement, remote work should instead be an option that grants staff flexibility

Why fall into the trap of an either-or fallacy when you can let your staff enjoy the benefits of both work arrangements? Having an office to go to grants people the social connections they need and gives teams the proximity required for free-flowing communication. At the same time, having the option to work from home allows staff to make the choice about what works best for their own productivity, physical health, and mental wellness.

By having a dynamic work environment, you position your company as one that enables employees to live their lives as they want to. Keep in mind, however, that it takes more than just the ability to video chat; invest in the tools that will enhance your employees’ collaboration, productivity, and culture — whether they’re in the office or not.

A dynamic work environment requires an IT infrastructure that will be able to support it — and an IT partner that will cost-effectively build that infrastructure for you. Let XBASE be that partner. To learn how our Exponentially Better™ professional services can help your business be steps ahead for the new normal, contact us today.

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