I’ve had several discussions about remote working practices as we move on from the pandemic.

In this paper, I share some ideas to consider in formulating a response without suggesting any particular policy choices (that’s your job). 

Introduction

Cloud-based systems and collaboration and conferencing platforms have enabled many roles to be done remotely.

This allowed many companies to continue operations during lockdown when Government policy was to stay at home.  

Many employees are now used to working from home and are resistant to a return to normal.

As the pandemic and attendant restrictions come to an end (in theory), the residual question is what to do now?

Should remote working become the norm, and what are the implications?

Benefits all round?

The potential for fixed cost savings is attractive for the company, with reduced occupation costs at the top of the list. There may also be a case for home working having a positive employee retention impact (for little or no cost).

For the employee, the reduction in time lost to commuting, cost savings and the opportunity to reorganise their lives have been huge positives.

Of course, not all employees have this option available to them. Some need to be at the company location to do their jobs. This brings issues of fairness and equity into the mix.

What goes up must come down.

There is no clear evidence that productivity increases with home working, although employees claim this anecdotally in feedback[i].

Motivationally home working is a hygiene factor[ii] , so careful thought needs to be given to including it as a permanent feature of employment.

There is also a price to pay. At first, many Business Leaders were pleased with how well remote working was operating. However, it’s taken a while for the cracks to show.

In many cases, internal relationships are not as strong as they were. For example, the informal ‘coffee machine’ networks have collapsed, and I’ve certainly seen instances where interdepartmental conflict has increased.

Screen-based interactions are nowhere near as effective as face to face conversations. We cannot track the body language, facial expression, tonality and other sensory data that enable nuanced communications often required in business interactions.

Video platform communication is hard work, particularly in group meetings, with evidence suggesting that we are limited to a maximum of 90 minutes before concentration and focus disappears.

Truncated messages sent online through chat functionality are often misinterpreted and damaging.

Sophie’s Choice

Your decision about what to do in the long term will be influenced by your thinking about two things:

  • The pandemic itself
  • Your fundamental beliefs about people

The confusion of pandemic

The government advice has been ambiguous and widespread dissemination of theories and beliefs about the pandemic (and the handling of it) has confused the picture and polarised opinion.

Everyone will have a different perspective on the pandemic in terms of what it means to them personally, what it actually is, what to do about it and how it should affect the pursuit of their outcomes.

I’ve seen some make literal interpretations of guidance coupled with strict enforcement. On the other hand, I’ve seen liberal interpretation and relying on individuals to comply.

I have no idea what the right approach is.

Understanding and managing a pandemic is a complex, multi-disciplinary and continually shifting challenge.

Your own perspectives (along with everyone else’s) will definitely be wrong and heavily filtered through confirmation bias[iii].

How is that for a problem?

PA “Who’s upset you now, Alan?” Alan Partridge: “Just people.”

The single most significant idea affecting your attitude towards the management and supervision of others (and by association your views about remote working) is hidden from view.

It is how you feel about people and whether you think people will make good or bad choices when left to their own devices.

You will have a deep underlying belief about this.[iv]

There is an underlying assumption in the design of most organisations that control and management of people are necessary to get them to do what needs to be done in the way that it needs to be done.

You make judgements about individuals, in specific situations, along a spectrum of trust and control.

At one extreme are people you deeply trust and feel you have a high level of alignment with. You measure their performance principally by outcomes.

At the other end are those you feel need a high level of supervision and control. So you will tend to measure these peoples activities.

There are all flavours between these two extremes, and dangers exist at each end of the spectrum.

Trust people too much, and you’re vulnerable to being let down (after a twenty-year career in Corporate Audit, I am no longer surprised by what people are capable of deliberately or accidentally doing).

On the other end, you risk damaging your relationships by being perceived to be micromanaging them. As a result, you will lose good people who want more responsibility.

About Facing

Employees aren’t static, unchanging objects. For example, I’ve observed significant shifts in individual employees during the pandemic, including a lot of 180-degree performance and attitude shifts (in both good and bad directions).

All of this is in the mix.

So what to do?

You don’t have to make a binding decision now. It is possible to make interim arrangements while you think this through and see how the world settles.

A resourceful and helpful way to think about this is to go back to the pre-pandemic days and ask yourself this question;

What was my attitude to remote working before this happened? Has my position fundamentally changed? What is driving that change?

This is a resourceful question as it forces you to consider your position without getting caught up in thinking about the pandemic.

It’s more important than ever to consult employees and let them be heard, whilst recognising that ultimately, the decision must be grounded in solid commercial sense and is yours alone to make.

The model most are pointing at is a hybrid home/office working arrangement with a two/three split across the week.

Someone’s gonna be pissed…

I often tell people in my leadership programs about the time I shared a flight with a formula one pit crew. So I was excited to hear what these benchmarks of motivation, commitment and teamwork discussed.

 All they did was moan about expenses, hotel quality and time off !!!!

You will not please everyone, whichever side of this decision you land on, so don’t even try.

Instead, focus on what the right balance for your business, customers and people is.

One final thought.

Because this has dragged on for so long, returning to what used to feel normal will involve change for people. Expect resistance, pushback, and expressions of anxious feelings, but don’t let this drive your decision-making.

Our job as Leaders is, more than ever, not to manage away the impact on individuals of change. Instead, it is to develop their levels of resilience and confidence so they can thrive in ambiguity and uncertainty… cos it ain’t ending any time soon.

Dave


[i] In truth this will vary with each employee depending on their conscientiousness, ability to manage distractions and their homeworking setup

[ii] Hygiene factors are things that the absence of can be source of dissatisfaction but the presence of will not necessarily act as a positive motivation force

[iii] We tend to believe ideas and opinions that are similar to our own underlying beliefs.

[iv] I am reading Human Kind by Rutger Bregman, which offers an alternative perspective of human beings to the standard western narrative.