The global pandemic forced companies everywhere to finally accept teleworking, and guess what? It hasn’t created the productivity loss many businesses feared. In fact, 90 percent of companies surveyed by HR consulting firm Mercer say that employee productivity has remained the same or actually improved with a distributed workforce.
For employees, there are benefits to working from home: avoidance of long commutes, less money spent on work attire and lunches out, and an improved work-life balance among them. Employers, too, have recognized that a reduction in their office footprint can sharply reduce operating costs.
Given those factors, should we make the world’s largest work-from-home experiment a permanent situation even after the current crisis has passed? After all, it’s 2020—we have laptops, secure VPNs, and high-speed broadband networks to support working from practically anywhere.
Like many organizations, our venture capital firm noticed a productivity boost during those first few months of teleworking. Less time spent in perhaps unnecessary meetings or just hanging out in the hallway meant more time to get things done. We also had the adrenaline and determination needed to “make it work.”
Is There A Downside?
Now that we’re eight-plus months into the crisis, some potential shortcomings of remote working are becoming apparent, especially when it’s taking place 100 percent of the time. For one, it takes longer to do some things that used to happen relatively quickly when the team could get together in person to talk things through. With everyone in the office, it was easy to have an impromptu discussion when choices had to be made—six or seven decisions could be reached on a myriad of initiatives in a half hour or so.
Group discussions are now a more protracted process when having to rely only on conference calls, email, or Zoom. While technology tools are helpful, in many cases they still cannot replace the simple efficiency of being face to face. There is significant value in being able to just walk into someone else’s office and say, “Here’s what I’m thinking. What do you think?”
Another consideration is the potential erosion of corporate culture, particularly as new workers are brought in who haven’t had the organization’s mission, vision, and values instilled in them. Much about corporate culture is absorbed by witnessing the actions and attitudes of those with whom you work. In contrast, remote workers often must operate in something of a vacuum.
Perhaps most important, it can also be difficult to establish the same level of connection and bonding when co-workers aren’t together regularly. Humans seek personal interaction with others, which is harder to come by when working from home.
Will The Pendulum Swing Back?
Our firm is currently practicing a fully voluntary return-to-office plan that incorporates strict safety protocols. As time has passed, more and more employees have decided to come back to the office at least two days a week. This has helped us maintain a high level of productivity as well as a connection to one another.
The pandemic violently swung a pendulum that has forever changed our work environments. For decades, the expectation and mandate were that everyone had to be rigidly confined to a “nine to five” office in order to get things done. As ingrained as they were, those barriers were broken down overnight out of necessity.
When the global crisis is over, it will be interesting to see how far the pendulum swings back toward the more traditional workplace. My personal belief is that for most of us, it will come to rest somewhere in the middle, with options for employees to have more flexibility around where they work. Finding the right balance to create the ideal environment for workers and companies alike will be key.
Those organizations that find a way to adjust their practices to accommodate remote working, at least in part, will gain something tremendous: reduced overhead and a happier, healthier, and perhaps more productive, workforce.