What do CEOs really think about remote work?

‘Organizations seem to have wishful thinking that everything is just going to be great’

What do CEOs really think about remote work?
People are more appreciative of being able to work from home, so they just want to give it back, says one expert.

With the transition to millions who work from home during the pandemic, many CEOs have changed their response to the seismic shift in their workforce.

So says one Canadian academic in looking at the frank and honest responses of 3,762 CEOs from Canada, the U.S., China and U.K. during their quarterly earnings calls.

“It was really interesting just to see the progression in a lot of CEOs when they’re announcing in a very neutral manner that during Q1 or Q2, that they’re going into the switch to remote work. But then they went from Q2 basically saying, ‘This is a joke, people are going to come back, don’t worry,’ to Q3 saying, ‘OK, we realize that maybe we have to make adjustments to our business model,’” says Jean-Nicolas Reyt, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University in Montreal.

By the third quarter, there’s been a switch, he says.

“You have a lot of mainstream CEOs saying, ‘I was skeptical, but it’s actually a lot better than I thought it would be.'"

Productivity has risen for many people working from home, according to Reyt, and this has flown in the face of what many leaders felt pre-pandemic.

“One of the things that you see among CEOs, they don’t say it but they betray themselves [by] saying it a lot of times in my data set, which is they believe that if you send your employees home, and you don’t see your employees working, it means they’re not working. And so that’s very, very distressing to them,” he says.

“But the reality is it’s a bias. If you look at the studies that have been conducted over the past 40 years on people who work virtually, the advantages to the company are undeniable: People are more productive, people work longer hours because they’re very appreciative of the gesture made and so they just want to give it back.”

Questions remain as to how productive employees really are in working from home, according to one survey.

Warning signs

However, one of the areas that hasn’t been discussed enough by CEOs is employee engagement, which is in danger of eroding without some consideration given to it, says Reyt.

“Work culture is going to be very different if more people work from home. What do you do about collaboration and stigma in the organization? Are they going to feel part of the team or are they just going to be slowly rejected by the team?” he says.

“Organizations seem to have that wishful thinking that everything is just going to be great.”

Jean-Nicolas Reyt

As well, promotions and performance management may slip due to the new reality of remote work, says Reyt.

“There is going to be a lot of issues in terms of how do you decide who to promote? Because if some people are always on-site, and then some people are always at home, there is a bias there. If you only promote people you see, that’s a big issue. People who telework tend to have issues being promoted because they’re not there.”

Recently, we looked at how to best handle performance management online, and found that many companies are simplifying their appraisal processes in 2020.

It’s important to think about these remote-work issues, says Reyt, but not a lot of CEOs are doing so, according to his research.

“I don’t see a lot of leaders giving a lot of thought about it and it’s too bad because we know for a fact cultures are going to erode if nothing is done because if people are not together, it’s really hard to keep the culture.”

Many CEOs are not fully imagining the future of work with many employees remaining at home, he says.

“When I look at this data, the big crisis that’s going on right now is a leadership crisis. We have a medical crisis, that’s for sure but in addition to that we have a leadership crisis. Organizations are trying to figure it out on their own and employees are being very nice and very cooperative.”

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