Many of the discussions about remote work sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic are based on the experience of a relative minority of companies that practiced it even before the crisis, in entirely different circumstances than the ones we’re in now. This is why they’ve become somewhat repetitive, offering little new insights relevant for the “new normal” that is slowly coming into balance.
To avoid over exhausting the issue, it’s perhaps best to put those conversations at rest for the time being.Instead, we should focus on gathering and organizing information about the experience of remote work in the new setting and continue the discussion once its main challenges have been identified. Here are three issues that, I believe, have already come to the fore and will require our attention during this fact-finding period and beyond.
1. Remote work is a source of risk for operationally inefficient organizations
Planning, communicating, monitoring, coordination, execution – every aspect of company operations is much easier to handle when the opportunities to interact with people present themselves regularly, multiple times during the day. If an organization was relying on these opportunities to patch up some operational inefficiencies, they will become more obvious (and less manageable) in a remote environment.
To become truly remote ready, companies need to invest in much more than just the right remote comm tools. The change will have to be much more thorough and affect cultural and structural issues, with the goal to ensure business processes work equally well in on and off-site environments.
To become truly remote ready, companies need to invest in much more than just the right remote comm tools.
2. On-site work cannot be fully abandoned
During prolonged periods of distributed work, team spirit and company culture can begin to erode, and teams risk turning into groups of loosely connected individuals. Re-organizing and building new teams poses an even greater risk in this setting, as new teammates and new hires need to be onboarded without meeting their teams in person. This is why even companies who have had success in the first stages of the crisis do not know whether they can stay successful in the long run.
The bottom line here may be that becoming digitally agile does not require a full transition to remote work, but the right combination of remote and on-site work, depending on the advantages of each modality. It will be interesting to see how those companies who have pledged to go fully remote deal with issues mentioned above and which combinations of approaches will yield optimal results.
Becoming digitally agile does not require a full transition to remote work, but the right combination of remote and on-site work.
3. Working remotely does not necessarily lead to more work-life balance
The effect remote work may have on work-life balance is significantly different during times of crisis than in “normal” times. There are at least two reasons for this. First, members of a person’s household may also be compelled to stay at home due to the lockdown, which makes it more difficult to keep “work” and “life” separate. Second, going to the office is not just a part of “work” – normally, it is also a significant part of “life”. Being forced to stay at home means being forced to give up on many of the social interactions that have become crucial to our well being, which can negatively affect both “work” and “life”.
To use remote work to improve work-life balance, we need to find ways of keeping a clear line between the two and prevent them from bumping into each other. Also, our social life should not be left out in the cold. We need to find creative ways of compensating for the loss of social contact imposed on us by the lockdown. Only after these issues are addressed will we be able to fully appreciate the positive effects of remoting on work-life balance (e.g. saving time normally spent on the commute).
To use remote work to improve work-life balance, we need to find ways of keeping a clear line between the two and prevent them from bumping into each other.
As mentioned earlier, these are just the initial observations meant to facilitate our exploration of remote work in the “new normal”. Thorough discussions on the topic will be possible only after a critical mass of data has been collected and everyone weighs in with their own perspectives. This is how we can make sure these conversations produce insights of real value, capable of guiding us through the coming period dominated by change and uncertainty.
Founder and CEO at Maestral Solutions, Inc.