March 14, 2024
16.2.21

Navigating the Challenges of Remote and Hybrid Work

 A photograph of a working from home set-up with a laptop on the desk surrounded by lots of houseplants.
“We went thorugh a secular or even structural shift in our working environment. To navigate this well, we needed to really understand the human factors involved.”    

Having regained some sort of normality since the pandemic, companies had to deal with the huge challenge of a secular or even systemic shift in working practices. Many of the changes we saw were underway before the pandemic hit, but the crisis has accelerated the process. The pace of change has been exacerbated by a conflicting body of commentary about the pros and cons of remote and flexible work mostly fuelled by parties with a vested interest in one solution or the other, i.e. either promoting a return to the traditional office-based environment or advocating a full migration to remote technology based working solutions. Yet, has the change process gone well? What are the questions companies still grapple with?

The reality is that while intelligent evolution in the way we work is to be celebrated, there have been both advantages and disadvantages in moving away from centralised work locations. To effect change in a beneficial way, companies need to be able to measure and track the behavioural implications for employee wellbeing, motivation, and teamwork.

Before the pandemic, working from home was a privilege given to those who were trusted to do their work to a high standard, unsupervised. Now, it has become the norm for most of the workforce. This leaves managers with a tricky problem. In a survey of 441 global HR leaders, many indicated that keeping their remote employees engaged, productive, and connected was among their top concerns (Sull et al., 2020).

Remote work comes with many benefits. The company may profit from reduced overheads and, in some cases, there has been a reported increase in productivity. Employees can enjoy a reduced commute which means that time can be spent with family or pursuing other activities, flexible working times, and increased autonomy and privacy. However, it is rapidly becoming clear that it also comes with some significant challenges:

“Shifting to more remote working will bring huge challenges in terms of employee wellbeing, motivation and trust.”    

Firstly, remote works means that the size of our networks has reduced dramatically (Kings & Kovacs, 2021). People still interact with those they feel close to but less with those they do not consider to be close colleagues or friends. Consequently, we brainstorm less with those that might have a different perspective, so there is less diversity in the knowledge that is contributed to a problem (Kane et al., 2021; Hooijberg & Watkins, 2021). The result is a greater risk of groupthink and a reduction in creativity and innovation.

Second, the lack of physical space in which people can interact has an impact on organisational culture. It is harder for members of the organisation to build rapport and to assimilate the behavioural norms that define the company’s culture (Kings & Kovacs, 2021). This reduces the sense of belonging and loyalty, leading to higher turnover, with the associated social and financial costs.

Third, remote working reduces passive learning and knowledge sharing as well as active mentoring and coaching, which may hinder career progression of those employees who have less experience (Kane et al., 2021).

Fourth, remote working can erode trust. At the start of the pandemic, employees gave each other the benefit of the doubt when deadlines were missed, or work delivered was at compromised quality. There are signs that this tolerance and trust is waning. Trust comes in two forms, trust in competence and interpersonal trust, which is a belief in each other’s good intentions and high integrity (Mortensen & Gardner, 2021). A virtual environment gives fewer cues about people’s actions and motivations. Miscommunications are more common due to low-bandwidth communication tools (such as chat and emails) so it is difficult to be sure that taking the risk of trusting someone will not be punished.

Finally, there are questions around the reported increases in productivity. Certainly, the lack of time wasted on commuting and travel has, for some, led to more targets being hit on time. However, the source of these gains is unclear. If it is driven by fear of unemployment or loss of earnings, it is not sustainable. Couple this with the loneliness due to social and the potential for burnout is magnified many times (Grant et al., 2013).

“We should not aspire to return to the past, nor to abandon everything we have learned. The future brings us an opportunity to achieve the best of both worlds.”    

It is unlikely that we will go back to traditional pre-Covid working ways, and nor should we aspire to. But getting the future right is going to be one of the great challenges of the next few years. Many commentators, cognizant of the pros and cons of both location based and remote working, advocate a flexible approach, but even that is not without its challenges.

Recent surveys conducted by MindAlpha showed that employees currently working “flexibly” actually showed lower levels of motivation, wellbeing and life satisfaction than those still working at onsite locations or those working from home, reportedly due to increased uncertainty. We like autonomy and freedom of choice, but we also want to know the rules of engagement.

Kristine Dery, a Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, stresses the importance of paying attention to the employee experience to create the right work environment to mitigate the risks that stem from remote work. This requires experimentation and careful balancing of policies. Accurate measurement and proactive dialogue are pivotal when assessing which measures are successful. The MindAlpha MotivationMetrics programme provides organisations with the insights they need to understand what they may be missing and the tools to fill these gaps to ensure employee wellbeing, motivation, and cohesion and to build an optimal 21st century working environment. 

References

Grant, C. A., Wallace, L. M., & Spurgeon, P. (2013). An exploration of the psychological factors affecting remote e-worker’s job effectiveness, well-being and work-life balance. Employee Relations, 35(5), 527-546. DOI: 10.1108/ER-08-2012-0059

Hooijberg, R., & Watkins, M. (2021, February 9). The future of team leadership is multimodal. MIT Sloan Management Review.

Kane, G. C., Nanda, R., Phillips, A., & Copulsky, J. (2021, February 10). Redesigning the post-pandemic workplace. MIT Sloan Management Review.

King, M., & Kovacs, B. (2021, February 12). Research: We’re losing touch with our networks. Harvard Business Review.

Mortensen, M., & Gardner, H. K. (2021, February 10). WFH is corroding our trust in each other. Harvard Business Review.

Sull, D., Sull, C., & Bersin, J. (2020, June 3). Five ways leaders can support remote work. MIT Sloan Management Review.

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