Learning & Development

Leading From Home: How to Set Up Remote-First Work for Success

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed how people work. In October 2020, 71% of Americans who could work from home did so at least some of the time, according to Pew research. Since then, many organizations have adopted a remote or hybrid work model, allowing employees flexibility in their physical work location.

While many employers are still figuring out how to build hybrid work models (and some are doubting if they work at all), my employer, Formstack, has been a successful remote-first company since long before the pandemic lockdowns began. And, as the chief human resources officer (CHRO), I’ve learned valuable lessons about cultivating a happy, healthy, remote-first culture and an efficient work model.

In-Office Obstacles

Half of companies want to bring employees back to work full time. But this desire is directly opposed to what most employees want. In fact, a hefty 91% of workers report they want a fully remote or hybrid work option, according to Gallup research.

The most obvious consequence of pushing workers back into the office is increased turnover. As a matter of fact, a majority (64%) of workers say they will quit if expected to go back into an office full time.

As most HR leaders know, this is not the time for companies to risk losing workers. With the Great Resignation still affecting many companies’ staffing levels, maintaining talent should be a top priority for organizations. Another priority must be increasing the talent pool for future employees. Companies must recognize that prospective employees increasingly look for remote or hybrid work, and not offering this flexibility will attract fewer qualified candidates.

Turnover is not the only negative side effect of in-person work. In-office work can result in more mental health problems for employees, especially employees of color, who are more likely to feel mistreated in the office than in a remote environment. Consequently, forcing employees back into the office has the potential to tank your organization’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives.

Companies considering back-to-work initiatives should also consider that people are more productive when they work from home versus in the office. As a result, employers insisting on in-person work could risk reduced productivity and performance, negatively impacting the bottom line.

Welcoming the New Normal

Many employers already have remote work protocols due to the 2020 lockdowns, but those policies and procedures must be frequently updated to accommodate evolving workplace changes.

One of the most important changes an organization can make is improving its online work culture. Leaders and managers can create a centralized system to give shout outs and encourage other employees to do the same. This recognition system helps solidify a team mentality while ensuring employees are rewarded for going above and beyond—regardless of their physical location.

Additionally, leaders and managers can set up simple avenues for cross-team collaboration. The simpler the avenue, the easier it is for teams to communicate effectively. Workplace collaboration tools like Slack or Teams enable quick messages that increase employee happiness and encourage more collaboration. Furthermore, companies should implement employee resource groups (ERGs) that provide support for all employees, whether they are in-office or fully remote. ERGs can enhance career and personal development and create a sense of belonging that increases employee retention.

Finally, to further encourage a sense of community, organize events that unite employees in person on an ongoing basis. Meeting up in person a few times per year, whether companywide or in smaller teams, fosters the human touch that nurtures relationships. Being able to connect face-to-face brings even the best remote teams closer together.

Preventing Proximity Bias in Hybrid Environments

Employers open to providing employees with remote and hybrid flexibility should look out for proximity bias, which is when leadership treats employees differently based on where they work. Examples of this include at-home workers being inaccurately perceived as less productive than their in-office counterparts and on-site workers being more likely to receive promotions instead of the most qualified candidate. Leaders who don’t think this is a problem should consider that two-thirds of supervisors said they saw remote employees as more expendable than employees who work on-site.

To eliminate pervasive proximity bias, all employees—and leadership teams in particular—must be aware of what proximity bias is, what it looks like in practice, and why it is so harmful. HR teams can offer training and ongoing education to teams to ensure proximity bias is recognized and avoided.

Beyond just understanding what proximity bias is, organizations should have hiring protocols in place that ensure fair, unbiased hiring processes. This ensures the most qualified person, not just the most visible person, gets the job, which is critical because leadership is less likely to promote remote employees than their in-office peers.

The quickest way to happy employees is to listen to them, and most say they want flexible work options. Take it from a veteran remote CHRO: It’s possible for companies to build a successful hybrid work model that gives workers the flexibility they crave. Organizations can attract and retain a productive, dispersed workforce by promoting a healthy online culture, giving employees the collaboration tools they need, and relentlessly combating proximity bias.

Tammy Polk is CHRO at Formstack, a software-as-a-service (SaaS)-based workflow platform helping organizations streamline data collection and management without coding. Founded in 2006, Formstack is a remote-first company with more than 300 employees worldwide.

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