We began 2021 with a second coronavirus wave. For many companies it meant going back to working remotely, with the opening of offices and human interaction in the near term again uncertain. Companies are, clearly, better prepared now in terms of how to cope and what to expect from remote working, but there is still lots to learn and reflect on.
Back in March 2020, executives were understandably anxious.
Then, 63% of business leaders surveyed by PwC were concerned that remote working would result in lost productivity. But the results were surprising — in PwC’s "Remote Work Survey" conducted three months later, three-quarters of executives judged the shift to remote working to have been a success.
Productivity, despite an initial drop, had improved and even exceeded earlier measures. By June, only 26% of CFOs were still concerned about a loss of productivity.
In May 2020 we conducted an internal survey at EOH relating to the impact of working remotely. When asked whether productivity had been negatively affected by the lack of physical connection with colleagues, just over two-thirds of respondents said no. About 8% said yes, and the remainder reported a minimal, manageable effect. Despite all the distractions of home life, it seemed we were able to continue to do our jobs at least as well as before.
But the PwC "Remote Work Survey" also identified a potential complication: despite the overall increase in productivity, there was a greater variation in performance after lockdown than before.
We’ve lost what Vaibhav Gujral, partner at McKinsey & Company, calls the ‘heartbeat’ of the office
The increase in productivity overall was driven by employees (PwC calls them "superachievers") who thrived in the remote work environment, while productivity among other segments of the workforce decreased.
It has become clear that remote working isn’t for everyone. Sometimes there are practical reasons: insufficient space for a home office, poor internet connections, demands from family. Sometimes the reasons are emotional, psychological or cognitive: some people feed off the energy of interpersonal contact, and some struggle with the increase in written communication. For many, Microsoft Teams/Google Meet/Zoom fatigue has set in.
We have also begun to realise what we are giving up by never setting foot in an office. Being online only, we start to lose our emotional, subconscious connections with one another. Many of us took for granted the value of the myriad, often unregistered, meetings and interactions that take place every day among groups of people.
We’ve lost what Vaibhav Gujral, partner at McKinsey & Company, calls the "heartbeat" of the office: "the energy that comes from serendipitous encounters that aren’t boxed into Zoom screens; the creativity that comes from spontaneous collaboration; the trust and relationships that are built through countless and unsaid small gestures and interactions".
We’ve also had to battle to remain focused in the midst of more, shorter meetings and rapid demands on our time and attention. A study by Harvard and New York University economists of the way work had changed in 2020 noted "increases in the number of meetings per person (+12.9%) and the number of attendees per meeting (+13.5%), but decreases in the average length of meetings (-20.1%)".
Remote working suits particular categories of workers better than others. Stewart Butterfield, CEO and co-founder of Slack, reported that Slack’s Future Forum research showed "the majority [of knowledge workers] never want to go back to the old way of working. Only 12% want to return to full-time office work, and 72% want a hybrid remote-office model."
So, what is the solution? What does an organisation that thrives in the new normal look like? We can’t say exactly. But it does seem to make sense — both for public safety and organisational efficiency — that it will encompass a hybrid model.
Chats over coffee
As GitHub COO Erica Brescia puts it: "Those organisations that are able to segment workers and work effectively will have the advantage. It won’t be a simple task. It needs effective performance management, empathetic leaders, organisational purpose and trust, and supportive, capable HR and IT functions."
In my team we began to encourage physical, informal gatherings over coffee once a week so we could chat and catch up with each other.
Those who were uncomfortable about coming into the office could join in online, but video was required: we mustn’t disregard the value of nonverbal communication. Facial gestures — even the most subtle — trigger a range of subconscious cognitive responses.
As for those leading remote or hybrid teams, there needs to be an emphasis on empathy, the ability to foster a sense of mutual purpose and an enhanced understanding of technology.
- Pydigadu is CFO at EOH
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