By Vikram Kolar, VP, Software Development, Sabre GCC, Bengaluru
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting adoption of Work From Home (WFH) for a vast majority of the work-force who work in industries where such work is possible, has thrown up an interesting question for companies and their work-force. The question is whether WFH or, more broadly, Work From Anywhere (WFA) (or remote working) could become a “New Normal” for such a workforce in a post-COVID-19 world. Not a week appears to be pass without discussions on WFA, both in leading organisations around the world as well as Human Resources (HR) strategy consultants and economic bodies.
There are a growing number of organisations who are looking to or are moving to WFA in a large way. These include tech companies like Walmart, IBM, Facebook, TCS, Twitter as well as non-tech companies like Mondelez, Nationwide and Barclays. New-age companies like Buffer and Zapier have gone 100% remote-work, while ditching their real estate in the process.
This article looks at the case for WFA, looks at the challenges, presents some solutions to overcome the challenges and a resultant work model for ensuring the success of WFA.
The Case for WFA
The case for WFA becoming the new normal is indeed strong. A recent Gartner survey of 317 CFOs and Finance leaders, revealed that 74% will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID 19. A post from the World Economic Forum states “98% of people surveyed said they would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers” and goes on to state that “according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one-third of the U.S. workforce, and half of all “information workers”, are able to work from home.” A 2017 Gallup poll reported that “43% of employed Americans had spent at least some time working remotely”.
The benefits to both companies and the workforce are significant: benefits to employers include the ability to hire talent outside of their home bases, better productivity resulting from savings in commute times, reduced absenteeism and the ability to attract and retain top employees. Studies by leading academicians have revealed a 4.4% increase in productivity and a further 3% productivity boost when employees are provided technology tools to WFA.
Companies can also benefit significantly from reduced operating expenses by not allocating assigned seating to employees who choose to WFA; they can provide “hoteling” seats to such employees, seats which can be reserved on demand. For many companies, the biggest recurring expense, after payroll, is real estate. As companies mature in their WFA adoption, companies could consider asking all employees who can perform their work functions remotely, to work from their homes, and being asked to only come into the office periodically and for key work events, which are elaborated below.
For employees, the flexibility to WFH/WFA allows them to achieve better work-life balance, ability to better take care of their families, achieve better health by way of reduced exposure to the stress and pollution during commuting, as well as leveraging the saved time to invest in their physical and mental well-being. WFA could also increase savings in expenses for families who are able to relocate from higher cost of living locations to lower cost locations.
However, before companies and their employees charge into adopting WFH/WFA they need to be aware of some critical challenges that they need to overcome. Per the Weforum article referenced earlier, a significant majority of managers fear a drop in employee productivity, focus and cohesiveness, worry about maintaining company culture, ability to help employees grow and their team members overworking. But the key hurdle is one of company culture – whether managers are able to build trust in their employees to a degree that they are willing to let go of a command and control management model, a model that is prevalent in many industries and parts of the world.
The 2020 State of Remote Work report put together by Buffer and AngelList, lists many of the challenges of remote working. Remote employees are wary about their ability to unplug from work, loneliness, their ability to productively collaborate and communicate and being looked over for challenging work assignments, and career growth opportunities. They also worry about working from smaller homes with potentially large families and how they might be perceived by their colleagues during video conversations. Women, in certain cultures, worry about increased stress due to responsibilities at home, swelling.
Ingredients for Success
But given the significant benefits of WFA, these challenges can be overcome by companies by
acknowledging these challenges and systematically working to address these challenges referenced above. Now, let’s look at some key ingredients and accompanying actions to address the above challenges and ensure the success of a WFA program.
Address the company culture
If the company culture fundamentally distrusts remote workers, then this concern needs to be forcefully addressed, before WFA is adopted. Company-wide discussions need to be held to discuss why the company is adopting WFA; forums need to be organized to understand the concerns from both managers and the employees and action plans need to be drawn-up to address them. Company leaders need to actively communicate the reasons, benefits and plans for adoption. They should consider leading by example by having remote team members in their direct reports.
A key aspect of addressing culture is to build trust between managers and employees as well amongst the team members. Ways to build trust include high levels of transparency in communications, investing in activities to socialize and get to know one another as people, managers and employees setting clear expectations and sticking them and most importantly, to focus on output and outcomes rather than “hours in seat”.
Ensure bonding between team members and connection to the company
This is indeed a key area for companies to address as they implement WFA in their organisations. Companies should, by policy, ensure that key work events are conducted at the office and employees are required (within reason) to be available at the office for these events. These key work events need to be defined by the organization, but could include events like “All Hands”, team/company celebrations, yearly / quarterly kickoffs and retrospectives, key program events (product launches, key customer implementation milestones), important brainstorming processes (design thinking events, product design discussions), employee goal-setting and performance review discussions.
A key work event also occurs when companies onboarding new employees. Ensuring a smooth onboarding experience and getting the employee acquainted with the company’s business, people, processes and culture will help the new employee settle in well into the company. Managers should be in the office to welcome the new employee and should ensure that the initial set of conversations around the company, its people, processes and culture occur in the office, face to face.
Ensure employee well-being
For employees who are going to work from home and willing to give up their assigned office seating, employers should consider providing ergonomic work-equipment at home and subsidizing broadband connectivity. They can fund these expenses by plowing some of the savings from reduced real-estate leasing and operational expenses. They should institute support groups for employee groups who might face stress working from home. Teams, in turn, should institute “no meeting hours” and companies, in turn, should institute policies to ensure that employees can “unplug from work”. Managers, along with their HR partners, should have periodic check-ins with their team members to enquire into their wellbeing. Companies would do well to institute budgets for celebrations and engagement activities to ensure employee wellbeing, activities that are held in the office and designed to promote socializing.
While enabling work from home, companies should, at the same time, not mandate it. They should provide “hoteling” spaces for employees who prefer to come into the office to work.
Ensure productivity levels are maintained
As this article from Sococo suggests, maintaining “Accountability from home” may be the biggest obstacle that leaders now face, when moving large workforces into a WFA model. Leaders will need to find ways to replicate the visibility and accountability that exists in a work from office model.
As noted in the WEF article, productivity is one of the top concerns about managers when asked about WFA. Companies need to acknowledge this concern and work to address this area. Teams should commit to measuring and rigorously tracking productivity and quality measures. They should take appropriate actions if sustained drops are observed on these metrics. Additionally, while each person’s schedule and optimal work hours might vary, teams should consider agreeing to “core working hours” every day, during which time they will commit to being available to each other.
Employees can also do their part in ensuring productivity – by ensuring availability during pre-agreed meetings, by turning on video that can ensure better flow of information and aiding the discussion with the benefits of body-language. They should therefore commit to securing the requisite broadband infrastructure, that is necessary for them to collaborate productively.
Employers can also help boost employee productivity levels by providing tools and technology to facilitate collaboration.
Protect company’s intellectual property
Protecting the company’s intellectual property and data is one of the top concerns for a company where employees work remotely. Companies should conduct holistic assessments of their IT policies and data practices and take requisite actions to ensure that any risks are mitigated. They should consider investing in technology infrastructure and computing equipment that can tighten data protection. One set of technologies to consider in this area is adopting Virtual Desktop Instance (VDI) and physical thin clients to decrease the risk of data theft or infrastructure break-ins.
A model for success
Considering the challenges and the above mentioned ingredients, a model that could work better than 100% WFA arrangements, could therefore be a hybrid work model – employees in roles that can be performed from anywhere, would work principally (60-80%) in their homes, while coming into the office on set days of the week/month which are pre-agreed with their teams and for key work events elaborated earlier. Such a work model would promote strong connections to the company and to each other while reaping the benefits of WFA.
This hybrid work model implies that team members should be residing in a reasonable commuting distance from their workplace. As the remote work model takes root in the companies and kinks are ironed out, companies can evaluate whether this requirement (to stay within a reasonable commuting distance from the workplace) can be relaxed and, progressively, the number of employees that could work from actually “anywhere”, could be increased. These, truly remote, working from anywhere employees, could come in less often into their workplace.
Companies could do well to conduct WFA pilots in certain groups of the organization where roles lend themselves to WFA, analyze the successes and issues, refine the model and then extend WFA to the broader organization.
WFA has significant benefits to bring to both employers and employees. But there are significant challenges which need to be acknowledged. By recognizing that each organization is different, companies should systematically understand their challenges and prepare comprehensive action plans to address them, perhaps by drawing from the ingredients for success elaborated earlier as well as the insights gained from companies like Buffer and Zapier. But the most important ingredient for success of a WFA strategy is winning the heart and minds of both the managers and the employees and taking them along through the process of crafting and executing the strategy.
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