Remote work has had a main character moment for a while now, but is the golden age of working from home coming to an end?
The pandemic triggered a steep rise in remote workers, but today companies are debating whether hybrid or fully remote arrangements are really here to stay.
It seems that the future of remote work hangs in the balance.
2023 Saw a pushback against remote working, with tech giants like Amazon and Apple weighing in with RTO (return to work) mandates, and President Biden claiming it was time for workers “to get back to work.”
In this article, we’re going to assess the pros and cons of the remote work revolution, best practices, and what its future could look like for your business.
Understanding the sonic-fast rise of remote work
For the past decade, there has been an incremental interest in alternatives to traditional 9-5 office jobs, with ideas surrounding the four-day work week and hybrid work models gaining momentum.
The pandemic caused a meteoric rise in home working setups, and now few of us can imagine a world without it.
Come back to the office you say? But, how will I do my laundry? Tech advancements facilitated the jump to online work.
Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform, was downloaded 2.13 million times on Monday 23rd March 2020, the first of many #wfhMondays, and has since enabled thousands of employees to maintain contact with each other and their employers.
Yet this remote work enabler has been among the tech giants calling employees back to office!
It’s fair to say we’re getting mixed messages. For almost three years now, employees have had more of a say about when and where they work, dubbed the three-year “mass workplace experiment.”
In fact, at the end of 2022, almost three-quarters of employers offered hybrid work arrangements as part of their remote work policies.
The majority of employees welcomed this opportunity to choose, with 68% expressing a preference for hybrid work.
Hybrid work arrangements are no longer the exception to the rule. In fact, some even expect it, as the majority of Gen Zers say they only want hybrid or remote working options in the workplace.
Plus, 57% of workers would look for a new job if their current company didn’t allow remote work.
Unraveling the fall of remote work
The effect of remote working on employee work-life balance has been debated.
While some say it does wonders for employee mental health, others claim that it’s difficult to ‘switch off’ if working from home.
In fact, 47% of leaders who intend to not offer remote work options say it’s because remote work is bad for employee well-being.
Blurred lines with a work-life balance are certainly a risk, but they can be managed.
Many employees have found ways around this pain point by setting up clear work hours, simulating a ‘commute’ to work, and ensuring consistent yet noninvasive communication with colleagues.
The 2023 battle for juggling mental health when work is sitting at the kitchen table with us saw an overall decrease in the number of fully remote workers:
Despite the potential drawbacks, there are plenty of positives. Let’s dive into some of the biggest benefits of remote teams for budding businesses.
The benefits of remote work still ring true
Plenty of good things have come out of the global embrace of remote work, for employers and employees alike.
Here are three key advantages of remote work for employers, and benefits you can consider when deciding whether to implement a remote work policy for your SMB.
Equal opportunities for employees
The remote work revolution has leveled the playing field. Before the pandemic, remote workers were far less likely to be promoted and enjoy access to training opportunities.
Now, they’re on an equal footing.
Access to a wider talent pool
Remote work opens up a company’s access to a bigger, often more affordable talent pool, hiring outside common talent hubs and decreasing recruitment costs.
By removing many employment barriers, recruits can choose from a pool of candidates who join a team from almost anywhere (time zones aside).
At the same time, this also removes radius restrictions for employees, meaning they can choose to work for a company that aligns with their purpose, rather than one that aligns with their subway line.
From renting office space to electricity bills to going paper-free. Running a busy office space can add up fast.
Research shows that employers can save up to $11,000 per employee when switching to remote work!
Even with all of these benefits on the table, many companies are starting to wonder quite how beneficial flexible working arrangements are in the long term, and why the 2023 pushback (led by some of the most influential businesses in the game) was so rough.
Understanding the remote work pushback: reasons behind the resistance
We saw a lot of big discussions about the future of remote work in the last year.
Many were high-profile, particularly the group of Amazon workers who walked out in protest against the company’s RTO policy.
These public controversies highlighted emerging rifts between employers and employees who failed to come up with a mutually beneficial solution.
Let’s look at some of the challenges to remote work issues raised by these top companies:
Managerial oversight and a lack of trust
Building relationships and maintaining cohesion without face-to-face interaction requires heightened effort from managers, especially teams that span generational gaps with analog leaders vs. a native digital workforce.
Effective remote work hinges on robust communication, transparency, and trust.
Trust can be nurtured through regular check-ins, facilitating accessibility, and emphasizing reliability in communications.
However, research indicates that nearly half of managers overseeing hybrid teams struggle to trust remote employees, leading to what Microsoft researchers label as “productivity paranoia,” where doubts arise regarding work output alignment between employers and employees.
It begs the question: were employers looking at the wrong people? Did they set up their managers for success?
Faltering collaborations and team dynamics
Team dynamics directly affect how engaged and productive your team is, and there are far more variables when group members are working from home.
Without the opportunity for face-to-face interaction, it can be more difficult for colleagues to stay in sync and build strong relationships.
While there’s evidence to suggest that video calls are as effective at communicating as face-to-face meetings, remote working reduces the chances of spontaneous interactions, therefore reducing the opportunities for on-the-spot communication and collaboration.
The relationship between remote work and productivity is still debated.
There are statistics supporting each side of the argument, but what is clear is that workers who have a choice, with full schedule flexibility, report 29% higher productivity and 53% greater ability to focus than workers with no ability to shift their schedule.
Are we biased? Perhaps a little.
The question is less about remote/in-person work, but rather about giving employees a say in the matter.
It’s also clear that remote productivity levels depend on good management practices.
Given the range of countries, industries, and company sizes, there are no clear data patterns.
How to make remote work work: three strategies to consider
As thousands of companies have shown over the last few years, it is possible to make remote work work.
In fact, 16% of companies are currently operating fully remotely.
“We’ve been fully remote since launch, close to three years ago now. I can’t imagine operating any other way. Sure, I love having face time with my team, but the pros far outweigh the cons for me.
Remote work enables me to reach people who believe and are passionate about the dslx mission.
I also get incredible joy knowing I’m able to support them in living their best lives: whether that’s traveling the world or just being able to spend more time with loved ones; remote work is the great enabler for freedom.”Ray Slater Berry, founder at dslx
When it comes to keeping employees engaged and productive, the bottom line is consistent communication, collaboration, and adaptability.
Here are some best practices to keep in mind.
Implement effective communication tools
The shift to remote work has triggered an increase in remote collaboration tools, from popular platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams to innovative new software.
- ProofHub is an all-in-one work management software with a built-in time tracker, project management features like Gantt charts and calendar integration, and a secure file-sharing system.
- Miro is a collaborative online whiteboard specifically for UX designers, with over 15 million users, it’s doing something right!
- Shift is also a popular communication streamlining tool, centralizing accounts, applications, and workflows. Exceptionally useful for scrappy teams.
Employers can use these tools to their advantage, keeping in touch with employees and enabling regular check-ins.
What’s more, it’s essential they train managers on these tools first, in turn, they become the enablers to ensure teams are truly benefiting from all these tools have to offer.
Build a remote-friendly company culture
A remote-friendly workplace requires a proactive approach.
From monitoring how often your remote employees take time off or request vacation time to creating an outstanding onboarding process, it’s about promoting active participation, and encouraging disconnection too!
One of the best ways to do this is to ensure each employee feels valued and integrated while working remotely.
Employee recognition schemes, whether through awards or even consistent positive feedback loops, help keep employees engaged and motivated while they’re not in the ‘digital’ office.
Establish clear goals and performance metrics
If reduced productivity is a concern, setting clear goals and encouraging employees to meet performance metrics will help keep employees motivated, and demonstrate that remote work can be just as productive as in-office work.
You can leverage these results by benchmarking them against each other (in-office vs. remote) to compare performance levels.
Additionally, goal setting helps teams focus on priorities and can play an important role in keeping remote teams on track.
The SMART goal-setting system is a popular framework for setting employee goals.
Goals should be:
- Specific: clear enough to provide clear direction
- Measurable: progress can be tracked cleary
- Achievable: realistic goals are set
- Relevant: aligning with the company and team’s overall mission and vision
- Time-bound: a definitive timeline is key, whether within a week or a quarter
With those three strategies on the table, perhaps you’re realizing implementing a fully-remote work setup is easier than you think?
Or, perhaps it’s drifted further from you? If you’re still on the fence, then a hybrid model could be exactly what you’re looking for.
Is a hybrid model the happy middle ground founders need?
The hybrid work model is a compromise. In theory, it brings about the best of both worlds by offering both remote and in-person work options.
Not long ago, hybrid work was considered to be the undisputed future of work, but now many businesses are having second thoughts.
“The issue that I’m seeing with hybrid work models is the wasted space and broken team cohesion. Why? Businesses are forking out thousands for an office space that no-one is using.
Or, if they are, then their teams are all coming in on different days, and aren’t actually getting the in-office experience they’d hoped for.
X is working from home, while Y is in the office, Z is on the third floor, and their call at 12 ends up being online regardless.
This can be fixed with in-office day guidelines, but then you’re taking away from your team’s benefit of flexibility. Does that mean your workplace becomes less attractive to them?”—Ray, dslx
Many believe hybrid work systems actually offer the worst of both worlds, given the split that emerges between in-person and remote colleagues.
When the whole office is working remotely, everyone is in the same boat.
In-person connections are much more organic, so when the office is divided, those working remotely are automatically excluded from impromptu office discussions.
Remote employees also run the risk of losing both information and power, as well as managers feeling out of the loop.
The company focus inevitably shifts back to office culture and ‘normal’ social activities: and remote employees feel increasingly disconnected.
How companies can go hybrid
It’s not all doom and gloom though! The key to making hybrid work work is to maintain consistent communication with all individuals and make sure everyone feels included and comfortable.
Laying out a strong set of ground rules from the start can help create a sense of routine—for example kicking off each day with a team video call, or scheduling weekly feedback loops between each employee and their manager.
You’ll just need to define which meetings can be taken online, and which are best-suited for an in-office experience.
A popular tactic is to encourage employees to work from home one day a week, usually on Fridays.
This way, the majority of employees will be working remotely on the same day, and fewer workers will be excluded.
This creates a more sustainable hybrid work ecosystem. Many companies have also opted to rent co-working seats or offices on a needs basis.
For example, you might offer your employees the opportunity to work from a co-working hot desk two days a week.
This is a common alternative to buying office space: it’s more cost-effective and offers employees the chance to connect in person without the pressure of needing to come in.
The future of work: keeping everyone happy
Overall, it looks like remote work is down, in-office work is up and hybrid appears to be a popular but not championing option.
There are ways to balance employee preferences with organizational needs, and companies will need to be open to flexibility, discussion, and compromise depending on their team’s asks.
Increasingly adaptable work environments have shown that working an office-based, Monday-Friday, 9-5 job is not the only way to work, and employees are seeking out more flexibility than ever.
What you’ll need to decide is how much of that flexibility you want to grant. Will it work for you, or against you?
The decision is in your hands.