Desperate for stability, our society keeps talking about “the new normal” — how our personal and professional lives will be permanently altered by the coronavirus pandemic — and understandably, work-from-home policies are a cornerstone of that conversation. Remote work was a critical enabler of business and economic continuity during the original shelter-in-place regulations, and may continue to be for future emergencies, especially now that it’s been proven to be possible. So, now our news feeds are innudated with reports and projections about where knowledge workers that were able to work remotely during lockdowns will be commuting to in the future — the cubicle or the kitchen table.
For knowledge workers whose roles rely on mobile tools (such as computers, software, and wifi … [+]
Based on a recent report from Gartner, it looks like many workers will continue to have the option to work from home permanently. Even amidst a global crisis, employees are reporting greater productivity and higher job satisfaction, which is translating into enormous profitability for their employers. By permitting offsite work, the businesses then get to access even more overhead savings, like lower real estate, equipment, and supply expenses. Global Workplace Analytics reports an average savings of $11,000 per part-time role that is converted from physical to virtual. With such incredible corporate and interpersonal rewards at stake, it’s easy to see why remote work may be the foundation of the future of work.
But isn’t saying that home offices are the ideal alternative to colocated offices a bit, well, hypocritical? Remote work advocates, including myself, tout that “work is somewhere you go, not something you do” and therefore, one’s professional success shouldn’t be dependent on a location. But if we’re saying that home offices are superior, then aren’t we still saying that success is still dependent on a location?
In 2019, OwlLabs promoted a tagline for their annual Work from Anywhere campaign that summarized the true telework advocacy goals best: “Location is Irrelevant.” We don’t need to be anywhere specific to fulfill our scope of work. Some days we might choose to go to the office, others we might go to a coworking space, library, or just our living room. The point is that no matter where we are, we’re trusted and enabled to do our best work. Period. For knowledge workers whose roles rely on mobile tools (such as computers, software, and internet connections), location should be a daily choice, not a lifestyle commitment.
So, perhaps the conversation that we should be having as a society isn’t about where we are going to work after the post-covid dust settles, it should be how we are going to work. What have we learned from the abrupt transition to virtual collaboration that we want to adopt in the future, regardless of our workplace choice? Based on my decade of work as a remote work consultant and researcher, there are three primary differences between the onsite work that we are traditionally used to, and the organizational behavior of a distributed company, like the dynamics that we experienced while quarantined in early 2020. They are virtual workplace accessibility, asynchronous communication, and results-based tracking. These elements are what define and enable remote work, and therefore may define the “new normal” of location-independent business operations.
Virtual Workplace Accessibility
If work is something that we do, and not somewhere that we go, then that means we shouldn’t have the need to go somewhere to get the things we need, in order to do what we do. That’s a crazy sentence, so in more simple terms, we just need to be able to access the resources of our workplace outside of the office, and virtual workplaces are how we get that. When information management is facilitated with software instead of file cabinets, there’s no more waiting to do a certain task or have a certain conversation until you’re back in the office. Workers can have equal access to documents, people, and decisions whether they’re at a client’s office or a home office. True business continuity can only be achieved with uninhibited workplace access.
When teams are geographically distributed, their work can’t be dependent on a location or time. We’re not working in controlled environments, so we need to be flexible enough to account for conflicting meeting schedules, time zone gaps, or household interruptions. Embracing asynchronous communication channels like email, Slack, google doc comments, and recorded videos converts team dynamics into a transparent, continuous flow of information sharing, so you can pick up right where you left off, 5 minutes or 5 days later.
Traditional management methods for office environments are subsciously sensory-based. For example, productivity is often confirmed when seeing an employee “heads down” at their desk or hearing a sea of voices and ringing phones, and over-achievement is signified by an employee arriving early and leaving late. So when many leaders don’t have access to these visual checks, they’re at a loss on how to measure productivity. The good news is that sensory criteria measures activity, not true accomplishment. To remedy, managers should instead focus on results, such as deliverables, learnings, and reports. This enables workers to prove their productivity, with or without local supervision.
The “new normal” isn’t necessarily a business world without working in an office, it’s just a world where we focus on work instead of the office. As our teams adopt new ways of working via virtual workplaces, asynchronous communication, and results-based tracking, we’ll be able to focus much less on where we’re working, and instead celebrate the immense contributions that we’re making to our companies and industries.