Does Remote Working Work?

Everyone is talking about remote working but few have really experienced it outside a pandemic. And that is a problem! Over the last 10 years we have helped organisations get to grips with more flexible ways of working and, as a business, we have been working remotely for a long time. So, I thought it would be useful to share a few observations I’ve made along the way.

Striking the right balance

I should say from the outset I am a firm believer that there are some massive upsides to people working from home (at least part of the time). However, I also believe there is a lot to consider.

There is evidence that, as a general rule, the ability to work from home is seen positively by employees. However, there is also evidence that spending all of your work life at home can be detrimental. For example, a large scale Gallup poll on this subject found people who worked from home and the office were much happier with their working arrangements than people who worked 100% from home or 100% from the office. This makes sense as people find a freedom and autonomy that comes with being able to choose where and when to work, and being able to do so depending on what it is they are trying to achieve at the time. Personally, I work really well from home on intense pieces of work but crave human interaction when it comes to planning and scoping new assignments. It’s likely that some of your team will also feel this way, therefore a key question arises as we continue to unlock the workplace – are people striking the right balance for them and is that in line with what their colleagues need from them? For example, imagine you go to the office to collaborate but none of your team are in that day, your journey will feel like a waste of time and you will start to feel disconnected from your colleagues.

Human behaviour is unpredictable

And what about the effect on the organisation? I have seen businesses make very quick and dramatic moves into the flexible working space, especially during the pandemic, without thinking about the long-term effects on their business and on their employees’ engagement. They seem to have romanticised all the positives and believe they are doing the right thing by their people without really thinking through the consequences.

To start with, if you give people the choice to work from home or an office, you have to accept that they will make arrangements that they think works for them. But this is new territory and people’s needs change. Are you prepared for people to experiment, and are you ready for what they might choose, and are you ready for them to change their mind?

Secondly, you also have to accept that people will look to see what can be achieved from more flexible ways of working, particularly working from home. So, for example, they might think, ‘My organisation says I only need to be in the office 2 days a week – this is great, my partner can drop the kids off to school, I can pick them up and one of the grandparents have offered to step in on a Wednesday and Thursday so those are the days I will choose to go to the office.’ People will quickly find a way of working that suits the lifestyle they wish to create, their childcare, their relationship with their partners etc. Once they have created this balance, and put systems in place, they won’t want to change things. The more these patterns become cemented the more people feel that for a boss or team to ask them to change or adapt is no longer their privilege. They could even argue there is almost an implied contract in place.

Just to highlight this, I was recently came across a case study where an organisation had recently consulted with a cross section of their workers and found that people really valued coming to the office to be involved in three things:

1. Carrying out planning activities with their team
2. Having time with their managers for reviews and coaching
3. Holding informal team activities and formal group learning.

Most of the rest of their activities could just as easily be carried out at home or in the office and it made little difference where the person carried out them out.

On the back of this the organisation worked out that people only really needed to be in the office for 2 days a week and started to shut down some of their offices or substitute them for smaller ones.

The consultation seemed very sound. However, let’s consider what happens next: People will adjust to working from home and they will organise their social and family obligations around this pattern. In the consultation, more than one person asked whether this meant that they could move a long distance from the office, or even abroad. The answer back from the CEO was, ‘Yes, if you can get to the office for 2 days a week, I don’t see that being a problem.’ But to me there is a problem, and I believe it’s a hidden and ticking bomb.

Collective availability is a threat

The problem is that over time, trying to organise meetings around everyone’s needs becomes more and more difficult, especially if you haven’t started getting these things cemented into people’s working patterns early on.

Imagine a team of 5 people who had been quite happily working from home during the pandemic, they have tried to balance their work-life with their home-life and feel they have coped well. The manager decides to get everyone together to do some forecasting, but 2 of the team have allocated Tuesday to come to the office, another can’t do Tuesday but can do Thursday and another is coming to the office on Wednesday so wants to make the best of that day.

What does the manager do now?! They could demand that everyone sorts themselves out to come in on [Tuesday] but that might lead to resentment. They could carry out a Moodle and see what suits everyone over the next 4 weeks, which is painful! The one who can’t come in on Tuesday could ask to join by VC (otherwise they have to pay another train fare), which is awkward and defeats the purpose of getting together. Or they might decide to forget the meeting, again, only to watch communication issues start to set in.

You might think this is far-fetched and wouldn’t happen in practice, but it does, regularly, and it is the most likely scenario unless managers act earlier. Managers need to work with their teams to allocate regular team days (once a fortnight, once a month etc.) and get them locked into the diary. It doesn’t then matter if those team days aren’t necessary – things are much easier to cancel than they are to book.

Regularity or frequency?

I’ve also found that the regularity of meetings is more important than their frequency. Teams tend to like having meetings built in once a [week, month, qtr etc] at the same time on the same day of the week – and have it booked in the diary for eternity (rather than spending 20 minutes of the meeting trying to work out when to meet next). This way of assisting people with the structuring of their diaries is really welcomed by people as it provides a regular pulse of interaction that people can look forward to. It also means people know a long time in advance when they have a need to come to the office so they can book their other meetings around that.

To support this regularity of getting together, and the pulse it creates, great care also needs to be taken to keep the agenda ‘alive’. Meetings need to have a clear purpose e.g. what are we trying to achieve today and why?’. Agendas should then be built around achieving this aim and not simply constructed using the old cut and paste method. This keeps the pulse strong – people look forward to getting together, they feel a sense of achievement when they do come together and therefore look forward to doing it again. You can imagine how you would feel if the opposite was true!

Diverse teams need diverse solutions

Lastly, leaders need to think through the demographics of their workforce and what might work for different groups. It could be for example that less experienced and early- career workers want to be in the office and around people to pick up knowledge and skills and develop their network. Late-career and more experienced workers may feel different and feel they have a good home working environment, they have a solid network and have little need to come into the office.

On the one hand, we could say, that’s ok, that’s a personal choice. But to do so ignores two likely consequences. What happens when an early-career worker arrives at the office hoping to get guidance and informal learning from their more experienced colleagues, only to find they are not there? This can create resentment on two fronts. Firstly, those in the office, who are more visible, pick up those extra tasks that always get dished out to those closest to hand. This doesn’t feel good when you believe that your colleagues who are not present seem to be ‘getting away with it’. Secondly, the less experienced workers stop trying to learn from their more experienced colleagues that aren’t there. In these circumstances people start to question the relevance of the people who work from home. Soon it becomes a dangerous career move to work from home.

What do you need to do to make remote working work for you?

I set out my beliefs at the beginning that remote working can have very positive consequences, and some unintended ones. Are you aware of the consequences your business is likely to face and are you ready for them?

A good place to start is by looking at representative groups of employees (and contractors) and ask yourself:

• ‘What are you expecting these groups to come to the office for, and how often?’ For example, is it for team planning, meeting their stakeholders, working together with the team etc.
• How many days on average per week will this mean they will probably need to be in the office?
• What consultation should you undertake to engage people and check your assumptions?
• What are the possible consequences of your actions? And what boundaries do you need to put in place?
• Also, don’t forget to consult and train your team leaders – they will need to get to grips with this faster than anyone.

As you can see, the most important thing is to start the dialogue now, so everyone feels included from the start and before things start to spiral.

If you would like to know more, please join the many clients talking to us now about this very important issue.