The abrupt shift to remote work supported business continuity but what are the challenges?
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic challenged existing workplace policies and ushered in a paradigm shift to remote work. Many organisations that have danced around the idea of remote work were suddenly forced to embrace it as a prudent working option as businesses struggled to survive the impact of the pandemic and its restrictions. As businesses settled into a virtual work context, leaders who had for long seen remote work as a threat to productivity and profit, saw the gains in having their employees work remotely.
Gartner’s research* showed that remote workers work harder, display higher enterprise contribution and are more likely to be self-directed. Concerns about the remote work environment may also be diminished as employees find the overall quality of their work environment to be good or even excellent (88%).+ Overall, we could say that the remote work experience worked out much better than many had predicted. But, these arrangements have come with their share of challenges for businesses and employees.
Employees in less developed settings grapple with logistical challenges ranging from the lack of appropriate furniture at home, limited space for focused work to internet connectivity or even power shortages. The impact of this varies and makes it harder to design organisational interventions that fully address the diverse needs of employees in such unpredictable settings.
Health and wellness-related challenges are a major downside of remote work. Aside from the immediate and obvious safety concerns relating to the pandemic, there are other issues arising from remote work, not least among them, Zoom fatigue and other concerns related to a sedentary lifestyle. People are suddenly more socially overwhelmed than they were before the pandemic due to the dramatic increase in video calls, in both their professional and personal lives. Extensive video calling has increased physical inactivity which raises the risks for adverse health effects such as high blood pressure, obesity, cardiovascular complications, and diabetes. The long hours of work mean that some employees do not get enough exercise or sleep leading to higher chances of chronic fatigue and burnout. While the commute has been cut out of the employees’ daily work routine, to some, working from home is now more like ‘living at work’ which leaves individuals feeling physically and mentally exhausted.
In a recent Harvard Business review article, WFH Is Corroding Our Trust in Each Other, Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner, cite a regional bank where staff are now increasingly asking: “How do we know if the people who are still working from home are actually working?” This echoes a general concern for some organisations: how do you measure employee productivity of a remote workforce? These uncharted waters require that organisations are thinking ahead and designing ways of mitigating the challenges of the business disruption and inevitable shifts arising from the pandemic.
As businesses and their employees grapple with these life and work challenges, it is becoming increasingly obvious that robust results will mostly come from co-creating these solutions, rather than working in silos. Businesses leaders must endeavour to understand their employees’ experiences, teams must work effectively cross-functionally, and person-to-person support must be enhanced and deliberately pursued. Without this, it would be difficult to maintain a healthy culture, design appropriate performance metrics or build and maintain employee engagement required to maintain business productivity, resilience and continued employment. It may be that many organisations will need to redefine how they measure work. In a virtual work environment, being at work can no longer be measured as physical presence in office nor can it be just the “activity” in the day. It may be that supervisors will need to focus more on outcome metrics.
We may now be more familiar with new ways of working but we still have not yet reached the end of the pandemic nor have we resolved its impact on people and businesses. The vaccine offers some hope in these uncertain times, but we are yet to see how quick access and administration for the vaccine will be across the globe and for all populations. For now, we need to mitigate the challenges of remote work as it appears that many will continue to do virtual work, at least until we have greater certainty for prevention of further infections and safety of employees.
* Managing the Experience of Remote Workers, Published 18 August 2020
+Demystifying 3 HR Leader Concerns About Remote Work, Published 8 January 2021