If you’re tired of hearing brands talk about “the new normal” and “these uncertain times,” we get it. Phrases like these have been overused to the point of becoming hackneyed. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t accurate.
There’s little uncertainty around one of the most fundamental impacts this global health crisis will have on the world of business: distributed teams and remote work are here to stay. Overwhelming evidence suggests the inflection of this rising trend — already well in motion before the coronavirus pandemic — will permanently alter operational dynamics for those organizations firmly steeped in the tradition of “butts in seats” at the office .
Failing to prepare and build an infrastructure to support flexible work culture risks putting your business at a severe competitive disadvantage in the years ahead.
Why Distributed Teams Will Be the New Standard
A few tidbits from our recent rundown of remote work trends, analyzed critically, make it difficult to believe we’ll ever go back to a world where working from home was considered a special perk or circumstantial allowance.
- Work flexibility was already one of the biggest global work trends, with the number of remote workers rising by an estimated 400% in the decade of the 2010s. Fast Company, among others, was already calling remote work “the new normal” long before using that term relentlessly was the new normal.
- 98 percent of remote workers surveyed by Buffer said they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.
- Netskope, a cloud security company that tracks the number of remote workers globally based on routable IP addresses, reported that the rate of remote work in March was “increasing at an exponential rate” and “the total number of remote workers is the highest we have ever observed.” An MIT report in early April found that 34% of those who previously commuted were now working from home.
Connecting the dots on these data points, we can surmise that:
- Work flexibility was already emerging prominently as a key offering in the eyes of employees.
- Many who might’ve fancied the idea from afar (so to speak) are now experiencing remote work and its many benefits for the first time.
- Those who get the opportunity to work remotely don’t want to lose that option.
There’s an old idiom about how you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, and it seems to apply here. Workers around the world are sampling WFH, learning to navigate the challenges, and building out their fully-fledged home offices. These experiences and acclimations won’t be forgotten once the restrictions on sheltering and social distancing ease.
With millennials and younger generations of talent valuing work flexibility to a heightened degree, the writing isn’t so much on the wall as it is scribbled across every surface in the room.
“Once they’ve done it, they’re going to want to continue,” asserts Kate Lister, president of consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, who predicts that 30 percent of people will work from home multiple days per week within a couple of years, according to Vox. (That figure was about 4 percent prior to the pandemic.) Gartner reports that 74% of companies plan to permanently shift to remote work following COVID-19.
To be clear, we’re not headed toward a scenario where offices and physical coworking cease to exist — many employees will forever prefer the routine of getting up and going to work, collaborating directly with their colleagues, at least some of the time. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think a huge number of workers aren’t doing their jobs productively at home right now and wondering, “Why haven’t I been doing this before?”
On the flip side, plenty of businesses are having a similar revelation.
A Crash Course in Managing Distributed Teams
There are of course some business types that just aren’t conducive to distributed work. But many companies and corporations have adhered to a traditional “come to the office everyday” requirement simply because it’s the longstanding status quo. The comfort of habit looms large, and there’s a (largely misguided) perception among some managers and supervisors that if you can’t see an employee at their desk or in their workspace plugging away, productivity and accountability will suffer.
Many of these business leaders now have no choice but to set aside their reservations and create systems that facilitate distributed teamwork. They’re equipping people with tools and techniques to do their jobs effectively from home. They’re building out processes to support this style of operation. And after a while — if it hasn’t already — managing distributed teams will start to feel more natural for those who found it foreign initially.
In other words, while employee expectations and preferences may be evolving during this period, so too are business capabilities and managerial skill sets. The most proactive and future-focused organizations are leaning fully into this shift so as to position themselves optimally for a new world in which they’ll be able to recruit the best talent and maximize it.
Leading in the New Era of Flexible Work
There are many employer benefits to offering remote work as an option: larger talent pools unrestricted by geography, lower overhead costs, happier and more loyal employees, less work time lost to commutes, etc. So while the current disruption is unwelcome for many reasons, it is bringing some positives to light that will resonate going forward.
This moment presents a key opportunity for organizations to get up to speed and even ahead of the curve in enabling flexible work. Lay groundwork for hybrid settings where folks that are in-office can collaborate with remote colleagues seamlessly. Here are a few recommended actions to get the ball rolling:
- Create a culture that makes employees feel included, valued, and engaged no matter where they are. Remote employee disengagement can be a challenge but there are definitely ways to address it.
- Begin documenting your successes and failures with remote work, so that you’ll eventually have a strong organizational blueprint for best practices.
- Scrutinize legacy technology and determine what needs to be updated, added, or replaced. VPNs, remote software suites, and security measures are good areas to focus on.
- Rethink accountability and incentives. The way managers check in on progress, delegate responsibilities, and recognize success may look different going forward. Now is a good time to experiment with and refine new processes.
If your organization is blindsided by this shakeup, you are far from alone. But if we go beyond adapting, and instead use this time to proactively optimize our operations for the altered state of work that lies ahead, we can move forward with eyes fully open.