Why permanent work from home may — or may not — work in the long run

This timely blog was recently written by Mark Marone, director of research and thought leadership for Dale Carnegie and Associates. — Terry Siebert

As business reopens across the country, many organizations are facing a choice: Should they allow employees working from home during safer-at-home orders to continue that way, or should they bring them back into the office at least some of the time? There are good arguments on both sides.

How working remotely has helped companies

A number of high-profile tech companies have announced that many employees can continue working from home at least into the fall: Twitter, Google (Alphabet), Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon, as well as many in the financial and insurance industries including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, and Nationwide.

Working from home: Increasing employee satisfaction

Concern about a second wave of infections remains, and many employees are still wary of heading into the office again on a regular basis. On top of that, pre-COVID-19 research shows as the number of hours a person telecommutes rises, job satisfaction increases, up to about 15 hours per week — at which point spending more of the week telecommuting didn’t result in more satisfaction.

People have been happy working from home. According to a McKinsey study, 80% of people questioned report that they enjoy working from home. And, so far, they’ve generally been more productive. Studies done by Harvard Business School and Stanford have shown higher levels of productivity from remote workers, though some of us who have endured forced work-at-home in settings that aren’t ideal for focus and concentration may dispute the findings.

Working from home: Lowering companies’ cost

There may be cost savings, as well. Global Work Analytics, which advocates working from home at least part time, suggests that $11,000 per year in potential savings for each employee who works remotely at least half the time could be possible. That may even be an underestimate given the additional costs employers may face for redesigning offices to maintain social distancing for their entire workforce.

On top of that, employers are genuinely concerned about protecting their employees’ health, and even if they aren’t, a study by the employment law practice Littler finds that 71% of in-house legal counsel are concerned about potential lawsuits related to COVID-19 and bringing employees back.

Potential drawbacks of having a permanent remote workforce

So why isn’t everyone sticking with the work-from-home model? In fact, according to a Littler study, 78% of nonessential businesses say they are ready to return to their physical locations within the next three months, while 34% plan to return within just one month.

Extroverts and those craving social interaction cite feelings of isolation as their reason for wanting to return. Some business leaders point to research questioning whether productivity really improves. In a few organizations, it may be a reluctance by leadership to give up control and the ability to see their employees “putting in the hours.” But others may also be sensing that something has been lost in the switch to 100% virtual communication. In fact, now there is data to prove it.

Lack of in-person collaboration may potentially impact productivity

Humanyze, which offers software that helps companies see how information moves through their organization, collected data before and during the COVID-19 lockdown that shows that people working remotely tend to spend more time communicating with a small core group of people, and less time with people they used to talk to infrequently in the office. The company’s founder, Ben Waber, believes that, as time goes on, a company’s culture and creativity will decrease in a 100%-remote environment because it changes the way an organization communicates internally, as he explained in a recent New York Times Magazine article. Those people with whom we infrequently communicate are probably outside of our own departments. When we talk with them — even for a few minutes on occasion — we cut across silos. It’s these types of interactions that often are responsible for true innovation.

The same article lays out the reasons why trust appears harder to build through virtual communication, and we know that trust is key for psychological safety, effective teamwork, and collaboration. Working remotely with a team that has physically been together for some time is far different from creating new teams or onboarding new team members remotely. That social capital built up through countless hours of meetings, social engagements, and water cooler conversations before the crisis may explain why employees have been satisfied and productive working from home. But perhaps it has succeeded only because it’s been perceived as temporary and not permanent.

A potential compromise between permanently working from home and returning to the office

Of course, remote work doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.” As suggested in the statistics cited earlier, many of the benefits are available to employees who are given the flexibility to work from home just two to three days a week.

So, if you won’t be asking employees to return to work in the office every day, why should you ask them to come back at all? Here are two reasons to consider:

  1. To build social capital. Social capital refers to the resources available to people and entities because of their networks. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, recently warned that perceived productivity gains may be unsustainable, saying “One of the things I feel is, hey, maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?”
  2. To give teams an opportunity to share experiences, especially those that evoke positive emotions. Research has shown that when teams experience positive emotions together, they become stronger.

Prior work by Dale Carnegie has identified specific emotions that drive engagement and resilience, including making people feel connected, valued, and empowered. Getting people together to share those emotions pays dividends.

While organizations might accomplish those two objectives in any number of ways including rotating schedules for individual departments, alternating shifts, or regular all-company meetings, one area that may provide a particularly valuable win-win situation is in bringing people together for training sessions on interpersonal skills.

Companies should continue to focus on their employees’ professional development

Training and development may well have fallen from the list of immediate priorities for many organization leaders, but it’s sure to return. Research shows that top talent won’t stay if they don’t feel they are getting the chance to grow their professional skills at work, and interpersonal or soft skills continue to be identified as among the most valuable since they underpin employee engagement, resilience, and organizational agility. Leaders require good interpersonal skills that engage and inspire their teams.

While there are certainly elements of the learning journey that can be accomplished in digital formats, instructor-led training remains the best method for deeper discussions of key concepts and the demonstration and coaching of soft skills. Either live, online classroom or in-person training is ideal because of the opportunities for collaborative learning, social interaction, and dialogue. Training people together gives them a shared language, shared experiences, and — when the classroom experience is as it should be — helps people gain confidence and feel connected.

The issues facing leaders when it comes to planning a return to the office are significant but they can’t be put off forever. As your organization makes decisions about the who, how, and when of returning to work, you may find that deciding to bring people together when it’s time for face-to-face interpersonal skills training — with full adherence to health and safety guidelines — may end up being one of the few easy decisions you have.

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