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The future of work is remote – and it will require new ways for employees to connect

This article is the first of 7 articles in our series about the challenges of remote work for both team leaders and employees. The second article can be read here. A complete overview of the articles in this series is shown at the end of this page.

In 2020, the world was hit hard by the Coronavirus. In more ways than we would have hoped, our lives changed forever. In our personal lives we have had to restrict in-person activities to protect ourselves and our communities. We needed to rethink how to stay in touch with the people we love and how to maintain social interactions in a safe and responsible way. To adapt to the new normal, each and everyone of us has had to demonstrate strong resilience and adaptability to cope with the new and everchanging circumstances. And whether we like it or not, despite the promising perspectives of mass vaccination, many experts believe that the change is here to last.  

Outside of the personal sphere, many organisations were completely disrupted as well. Schools closed, sports games were held without fans, conferences and events were cancelled. From one day to the other offices closed, and millions of people who had never known anything else than to commute to work on a daily basis, sit in meetings with colleagues, and chat with co-workers suddenly were stranded at home staring at their screens all day, with kids playing in the background. 

Initially many of us were planning to spend only a few weeks at home. But as the virus spread, it became clear that we will have to brace ourselves for months, if not years of work from home. Mass remote work was born.

Why do we believe remote work is here to stay?

We have spent hours reading papers about the future of work, employer and employee surveys, and press clippings. In conclusion of all that research, we believe that remote work is here to stay across the 20s for at least three reasons.

Reason 1: The stigma is overcome

Mass remote work was definitely not in the cards of most employers who had been fighting work from home for decades. In the US, only around 8% of all employees worked from home at least one day per week before COVID-19.  Companies claimed that employees would work less hours and that distractions at home would decrease productivity.

But as 2020 progressed, more and more scientific research was done on the topic to distinguish inuition from facts. And interestingly, results of recent studies seem to point in the other direction:

  • On individual tasks, 75% of employees seem to have been able to maintain or improve their productivity, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
  • With savings in commuting time, remote workers work 1.4 more days every month (out of the 34 hours saved), or 16.8 more days every year than people who worked in an office, according to an Airtasker study
  • 56% of office workers report finding ways to avoid working when screen time or mouse movement is tracked, for “only” 39% of remote workers, still according to Airtasker

Reason 2: Investments have been made

Both employers and employees have invested important amounts to make working from home possible and more pleasant.

Employers have invested in new and faster communication technology, collaboration tools, and redesigning their floor plans for social distancing. Additionally, many employers are already have taken action to get rid of unused floor space in their offices to decrease rent costs, now that all offices are running empty.

Employees have invested in setting up comfortable home offices and  in telecommunication technology at home.  

Now that the initial cost is made, it is easier to continue.

Reason 3: Employees don’t want to come back full time

According to a BCG survey, thirty-seven percent of companies expect that more than 25% of employees will work in hybrid models that combine remote and onsite work. According to another survey, the Survey of Business Uncertainty, this jump in remote work is expected across all sectors.

One of the main drivers behind hybrid work environments are employees themselves. In a survey by Slack, 83% of respondents stated that they do not want to return to the office full time. Yet, only 20% want to work remotely full time. That means that 80% believes that there is still a benefit of occasionally going to the office in person. This is for events, meetings, creative kick-offs. All activities for which informal information exchange are invaluable, but have not yet been solved by existing videoconferencing and collaboration tools.

Without adequate tools to build connections with their coworkers, most believe that they need to continue to go to the office occasionally to stay socially connected.

But it’s not all green. The challenges ahead are carried be individuals

Despite positive numbers around productivity, remote work does bring its important set of challenges. Especially employees in highly collaborative environments have been struggling to adapt to the new normal:

  • We mentioned that 75% felt more productive for individual tasks. But on collaborative tasks, only 51% of employees seem to have been able to maintain or improve their productivity (still according to the Boston Consulting Group). Zooming into this,
    • When employees are satisfied with social connectivity, 63% is as or more productive than before, 37% less productive
    • When employees are NOT satisfied with social connectivity, only 20% is as or more productive than before, and a worrisome 80% is less productive!
  • The mental burden for employees seems to be harder remote than in the office. 54% of remote workers and 49% of office workers said they felt “overly stressed during the workday”, 45% of remote workers and 42% of office workers “experienced high levels of anxiety during the workday”, according to the Airtasker study

From this data, it appears that the real struggle of remote work is not carried by the firms, but rather by their employees who struggle to cope with the increased pressure, and by their team leaders who need to keep morale and engagement high. And most of the struggle is coming from a lack of social connection.

So for remote work to be successful, both employers and employees need to overcome a series of challenges gravitating around lack of social connection in a remote environment. And if organizations want to help their teams to adapt, they should provide employees with ways to meet and stay connected with co-workers.

We have identified 6 challenges around social connectivity that organizations will need to address to survive in a remote or hybrid environment. Three are challenges that team leaders are faced with, and 3 are challenges employess are faced with.

In this series of articles, we will explore how these challenges can be pro-actively addressed and turned into a competitive advantage.

For team leaders:

For employees:

  • Challenge 4: How to get to know new colleagues?
  • Challenge 5: How to stay in touch with colleagues?
  • Challenge 6: How to build deeper connections with colleagues?

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