In the wake of the pandemic, employers rushed to enable a remote workforce that was unable to gather in person. Technology and management routines were established, and many companies saw good results in terms of productivity and worker satisfaction in the early months. As time went on, the cracks started to show as productivity suffered and employee growth slowed. Today, there are two camps emerging – one focused on a return-to-office environment and one that seeks to keep the remote work environment permanent. As with everything, the reality is likely to fall somewhere between these two positions. Effective collaboration, networking, and relationship development all require a level of in-person interaction, while there are significant cost and lifestyle benefits afforded by remote work. We encourage companies to explore the costs, risks, and benefits that hybrid work environments can offer. Years of literature have been produced on the in-office work environment – all of which will continue to apply to at least half of the hybrid model- so, we will focus our attention on the remote components.
How the pandemic changed the work environment
The obvious changes to work environment – remote work and limitations on in-person interaction – are only the most visible aspects and often hide the more nuanced changes. This environment had wide ranging impacts on:
Getting help: employees typically get help from peers and colleagues first and look to reference materials only after they have exhausted these more convenient sources. This approach was disrupted with the remote work environment and, while not immediately apparent, is a significant impediment to effective and efficient information sharing. Items which took only a few minutes to resolve, could now take several hours or even days, creating significant downtime and loss of productivity. This impacts a wide range of quick questions, escalations, job assistance, and short-term job coverage that used to be simple to resolve with colleagues and supervisors that were co-located and easily accessible.
Coaching: effective supervisors and managers spend a good deal of time providing pointers, advice, and situational guidance to their teams, and observe those teams to determine the best time to provide this coaching. In the remote work environment, it is much more difficult to observe a struggling or frustrated employee, reducing the ability to provide proactive support and guidance.
Oversight: observing employee progress has been a hallmark of good management forever, and increasingly distributed workforces have complicated this through the years. With the transition to a fully remote work environment, some of the last traditional techniques were lost, including peer feedback. The use of video conferences, frequent team meetings, and enhanced metrics help to address the lost interaction, but the formality of scheduled meetings and limitations on data capture allow struggling employees to go unrecognized for longer periods of time. Ultimately, regular observation of employee activity and interaction remain a key technique for effective career development.
Relationship development: teams that have worked together for long periods can often transition to remote work environments very successfully, as relationships have been built over time and the strengths, weaknesses, and other characteristics of the individuals are well known to the team. This success, however, begins to break down when attrition occurs, and new members must be integrated into the team. These new team members will not have the same ability to develop interpersonal relationships, hold private one-on-one discussions, or get the normal color commentary that the rest of the team has enjoyed over the years due to proximity. Significantly more outreach by the new team member and responsiveness of the team is required to make the integration process successful.
Each of these items impacted workers and managers in different ways, but often impacted the least seasoned or recent organization joiners the most.
Managing in the new environment
It is important to continually evaluate and adjust as organizations gain experience working in this new hybrid environment. As a starting point, there are several areas that should be reviewed and enhanced to enable a remote or hybrid team:
Coaching: the vast majority of professional development comes from on-the-job training and coaching. In a remote work environment, special attention must be given to mechanisms which will allow this crucial aspect of the employee experience to flourish. Coaching includes the myriad of informal advice, organizational awareness, real-time instruction, and long-term career development guidance.
Escalation: in many operations, the vast majority of transactions follow a smooth process with relative efficiency, but the exceptions consume a significant portion of resource time. This is normal, but also highlights a reality, that a significant portion of resource time will be consumed processing exceptions that may require additional review, or escalation, by other resources or supervisors. In the in-person environment, these escalations can often be resolved through a quick conversation with a nearby peer or supervisor, and creating a similar mechanism in the remote environment is critical to rapid issue resolution.
Communications: remote teams face unique challenges in communicating with each other in a practical and productive manner. Informal discussions are more difficult to arrange and relationship building is constrained by distance and the limitations of collaboration platforms. Chat applications can help provide a means for resources to interact in an informal manner, but can also be a source of liability and should be properly managed. Teams should be encouraged to call each other or use other real-time communication channels to quickly resolve issues, rather than waiting for pre-scheduled forums. Finally, one-off communications must be balanced against focus time needed for each resource to accomplish their activities.
Collaboration: several tools have been created to assist with remote team collaboration, including virtual whiteboards, planning spaces, and Kanban boards, but this activity always benefits from in-person participation. In addition to events with a broad in-person audience, smaller huddle groups can be beneficial, as it encourages side discussions and allows individuals to ask questions of peers they may not be comfortable asking in a broader setting. Where possible, organizations should find ways to have critical discussions in-person to build both knowledge networks and inclusive solutions.
Procedures and training: as noted previously, written procedures and training tend to fall to the end of the list of resources that teams use, but are effective tools that can be made more useful through accuracy, ease of use, and greater coverage of exception scenarios. If greater reliance is placed on written or multi-media materials, appropriate effort must be expended to make them as usable as possible.
The initial transition to remote and hybrid work environments happened quickly and worked well for experienced and familiar teams. As turnover took place and employees migrated to new roles and new organizations, the structural challenges began to emerge. Organizations must enhance several aspects of their operations and management routines to maintain productivity and create a successful employee experience, starting with a focus on the key elements noted above.
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