'Some people are wired better for remote work than others'
Many terms have been thrown around lately to describe the sudden onslaught of employees working from home and one alternative is distributed workplaces.
“A distributed workplace is where people aren’t working together face-to-face on a daily basis, they’re no longer co-located on a daily basis,” says Laura Hambley, workplace psychologist and president of Work EvOHlution in Calgary. “Before COVID, there was still degrees of this going on; you had what we call distributed or dispersed teams where people went into different offices, across geographies, and they work together from a distance with one another.”
“Before COVID hit, we always used to say one strategic advantage to having a distributed workplace is if there’s a pandemic that comes, and here we are. We’ve seen the biggest distributed work pilot in history all of a sudden happen.”
Once the lockdown is lifted, some employers may have trouble luring remote workers back to the home office, she says.
“Some people are saying that they are more productive than they thought they would be; they’re saving the commute time, they’re having a better wellness than they did before COVID hit because they’re having this ability to balance work and life.”
Benefits to remote work
For employers, cost savings are among the great dividends of switching to a distributed model, says Hambley. Commercial real estate expenses would see a big monthly drop with a switch to more employees working permanently from home.
“You can even cut your workforce by 40 per cent a day [and] you can re-architect your entire workplace and make a big savings. We’ve seen a lot of concrete examples of organizations that end up saving by creating more shared workspaces and concepts in their design that don’t assume everyone needs to be a butt in the seat at the same seat every day,” she says.
There are also gains when it comes to recruitment, engagement and retention of talent, says Hambley.
“Prior to COVID, a lot of people wanted flexibility,” she says. “We used to talk about how generation Y, the millennials and generation Z, the newest generation who have entered the workforce, they both really value flexibility.”
“Because they work wherever they need to work, all they need is their devices. And then they’re being told, all of a sudden, arrive at a cubicle the same time every day. It is actually quite archaic when you’re dealing with knowledge workers and professionals especially.”
And some employees may crave a return to the communal workspace.
“Other people are saying they’re having trouble turning off, that they’re working all the time, that they’re really stressed [working at home]. It really depends on the person, on their home office, on their home situation. Some people are wired better for remote work than others. The best balance for the majority is a balance between remote and in the office,” says Hambley.
For HR departments, fully embracing the new normal of distributed workplaces starts at the top, she says. “100 per cent you have to start with your leadership.”
Top leaders also have to ask some questions about front-line supervisors and managers, says Hambley.
“Are your managers equipped to be strong and effective leaders of distributed workers? Are your leaders trained to manage remote teams? We like to say [it’s about] assessing your leaders for what are their strengths and what are their gaps when it comes to leading remote teams: It’s a skill set, it’s a skill set that can be developed. There are ways that you can train and develop leaders to be better at this.”
Another idea to encourage employee engagement and connection is the use of online communities as a virtual “water cooler,” while a survey showed that about 20 per cent of employees would work from home full-time if offered the option.