While there are still many public-facing and manufacturing jobs that require an on-site presence, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how easy it has become for people to telecommute effectively—if their companies adopt the right systems and tools and modify their processes. Pew Research estimates that 40% of American workers are employed in occupations that could plausibly be performed remotely.
There’s no question that this is an enormous cultural shift we’re experiencing. A survey by Robert Half International found that nearly 80% of U.S. workers normally employed in office environments would like their employers to allow more flexibility for telecommuting in the future. Globally, these percentages vary and are highly dependent on local infrastructure. The sentiment of employees and managers will likely continue to evolve, leading to what I think is a “better” normal.
My advice is to embrace teleworking. Look back to determine how you can make the new workplace one that is dynamic and allows talent to flourish regardless of physical location. Employees have now had a taste of its benefits, such as flexibility, protecting health, and saving time and money related to commutes, office wear, lunches, and other expenses. And what used to be one of the biggest challenges to overcome—convincing the boss—has evaporated thanks to the virus. This will set the foundation for a new workplace culture.
Human Resources professionals have often struggled to find the right telecommuting policy that satisfies employees’ desire for flexibility, as well as their managers’ need for control and consistency. But the pandemic has tested the model and provided the factual evidence to support its viability.
That’s why Nemertes Research found that nearly 71% of the companies it surveyed with employees working from home said they’re likely to continue doing so, especially in digital-heavy industries. Some of the largest companies in finance, media, and technology, including my own, have already given permission to employees to “work from anywhere” through the end of the year.
The following are three common fears typically shared by companies that hadn’t previously embraced remote working—and suggested approaches to overcome them:
1. Loss of culture. You can allay this fear if you build the right cultural values and have a strong team approach whereby you really empower and trust your people. Frequent, targeted communication is instrumental here. And this communication has to be two-way because active listening will be just as important as or more important than just talking.
Communicating with empathy will drive employees to want to make this way of working successful—55% in a LinkedIn survey think it can work for their industry, and that rises to 75% in digital fields. But it’s crucial that a virtual workforce feel tied to the company mission, understand everyone has a part to play, know what their role is, be able to be heard, and empathize with others in fulfilling the objectives of their position.
2. Reduced productivity. Plenty of companies adhere to the old-school activity paradigm that employees are only working if the boss can see them working. Yet a shared office doesn’t guarantee productivity, as demonstrated by open-floor office plans that positively promote distractions. Changing from an activity metric to an outcome-based productivity metric will be to everyone’s advantage. And so far, companies haven’t seen their fears about productivity loss realized; federal agencies have found employees are even more productive, with less time spent commuting, attending in-person meetings, and traveling to events.
In fact, by analyzing data in cloud-based business tools, chat applications, and e-mail, an employee productivity tracking company found that U.S. workers were 47% more productive in March and April this year than in the same period in 2019. Only 10% of respondents in a CNBC Technology Executive Council survey said workplace productivity had declined during the migration to majority remote work.
3. Concerns about data security. In my company’s industry, the contact center world, employees may not even be allowed to bring pen or paper to their desks for fear of violating confidentiality of private data or sensitive records. But now managers are seeing that employees can be trusted without physical supervision, and they don’t have to lay eyes on the hardware team members use to do their jobs.
However, data security will still be an ongoing issue, as employees have been downloading tools, apps, and games to their work-issued devices and using personal phones and tablets for business. Those devices must be clean and free of malware. Companies need to take extra precautions and provide employees with security training to heighten their awareness to prevent accidental breaches.
Once freed of these key fears, businesses can embrace a huge advantage of teleworking: a more diverse talent pool and flexible workforce scheduling. Human Resources leaders can redesign employee recruiting and onboarding processes to encourage hiring the most qualified candidates regardless of the geographic region where they sit.
It will also make the transition much easier during the next emergency if there are plans and ingrained practices in place. For example, it’s a good idea to keep cross-training people within the business to acquire new skills so they can be quickly redeployed (virtually) to support activity surges.
I know this from experience. In our North American employee base, which is the largest among our 60 sites worldwide, nearly 25% of our more than 5,500 employees were already working remotely before COVID-19 hit. Our “business anywhere” attitude made for a much less turbulent shift.
There will always be the other side of teleworking to address, which is that a pure work-from-home model has ramifications around burnout, performance evaluation, and boundaries between personal and professional lives that we cannot underestimate.
Decentralizing the Future
Accompanying the new decentralized workplace is the diminishing importance of corporate headquarters (HQ). A physical HQ site may continue to exist for legal reasons, but with most activities based in the cloud, you’ll see more companies building up multiple key sites and cluster offices supporting remote workers.
Will this new normal last? Some changes were driven simply by safety and necessity, so once the immediate virus challenge is removed, companies may revert to old patterns. But they—and their employees—have now seen the possibilities of ongoing teleworking. While I believe this will come down to the individual culture of a company, my hope is that this will lead to a new way of working, where innovation can thrive regardless of location.
The key takeaway from this experience is the new confidence many company leaders have that the appropriate infrastructure, tools, and resources are in place to enable employees across every department to work from anywhere. Human Resources professionals have seen the future of how companies and talent can thrive, and it is upon us to create a culture that makes it last.
Eva Majercsik is the Chief People Officer for Genesys, a global customer experience and contact center solutions provider. She is based in the company’s HQ in Daly City, California (San Francisco Bay Area), and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through @genesys on Twitter.