A review of critical lessons learned from remote and hybrid work to outline key opportunities for improvement.
The last two and a half years have upended work as we once knew it. The proliferation of remote and hybrid work models came as a necessity due to ongoing shelter in place orders—but as the nation has returned to a semi-status quo, employees have held on to the notion of working from home.
A number of studies show a majority of companies around the world are now operating with a fully remote or hybrid workforce. While many employers were resistant to the initial transition to a remote workforce, there were clear benefits to be gained for their employees. Whether it is increased employee retention and job satisfaction, or increased work production.
The positives do not come without drawbacks though, like learning how to work as a remote team or dealing with new distractions at home like dirty dishes, children, pets, or the occasional delivery. Yet, with 60% of the workforce enjoying the positive aspects of working from home and not looking to come back into the office full time, one thing is for sure—the remote or hybrid office is not going away anytime soon.
In this article, we’ll check in on the enduring lessons learned from remote and hybrid work thus far and outline key opportunities for improvement.
The pros of remote and hybrid work
Researchers have discovered a multitude of positives resulting from a remote or hybrid workforce. Let’s take a look at the improvements.
Employees are getting more done
According to a recent survey of CIOs, about 72% of their companies’ total global workforce is currently working remotely. One valuable outcome of remote work is increased employee productivity. Of the more than 1,000 CIOs interviewed for the survey, 48.6% reported that productivity has improved since workers began working remotely, with only 28.7% of respondents indicating a decline in productivity.
While information is mixed and additional research has to be conducted, according to the Microsoft Future of Work Report 2022, a large number of employees reported being as or more productive since moving to a remote workspace. This increase is largely due to the flexibility of individual employees to shape their own workdays. Some people work best in the morning, while others gain inspiration late in the afternoon. Working from home allows some ability to create focus times that work best for the employee.
Increased control over environmental factors
Environmental factors such as reduced noise, better air quality, lighting, and temperature, may also be adding to employees’ overall productivity when working remotely. Studies have shown that environmental factors such as noise pollution, poor air quality, and warmer temperatures have all affected individuals’ performance. In a remote environment, individual employees are better able to control environmental factors, creating a comfortable space and limiting distractions.
It has been found that these distracting factors can be exacerbated by office open floor plans where employees have limited abilities to block out the conversations of those around them or control the thermostat.
Employee well-being takes center stage
Some studies also show that remote and hybrid work has increased the overall well-being of employees.
Time saved commuting
In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the average American spent over 27 minutes commuting one-way to work—up 20 more minutes a week from the previous decade. Over a years time, these numbers add up and can have serious implications on physical and mental health among other potentially negative outcomes. Less time commuting offers employees more time to spend with family and friends, to take care of themselves, and—as the studies above show—the ability to get straight to work, without spending time in traffic or on public transport.
Conversations about employee well-being
The transition to remote and hybrid work has also elevated discussions about employee well-being, what that means to the workplace and productivity, and how to maintain a healthy work-life balance. After all, when your office is your home, that means work is always there and for some makes it harder to walk away. This can lead to employee burnout, due to the inability to shut down and unwind for the night or weekend.
Employers and employees alike have had to deal with this struggle, knowing when to shut the computer and understanding the difference between an immediate need and one that can wait until tomorrow.
Many employers have come up with clever ways to deal with employee burnout and time management whether it is flexible time off, encouraging employees to join company-sponsored Zoom yoga or meditation blocks, or simply having team meetings to discuss employee needs and concerns, providing much-needed social support.
Mental health benefits and outcomes
Employers have also started to realize that an employee’s well-being, contentment, and comfort all factor into employee performance and longevity, benefiting not just the employee, but the company as a whole. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2021 Employer Health Benefits Survey, about 39% of employers updated their health plans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to expand access to mental health services. And those companies who offer or have expanded mental health services have seen the benefits. A 2022 study found that a comprehensive, employer-sponsored online mental health benefit results in 25% fewer missed work days and a 24% increase in productivity.
Issues to be addressed in remote and hybrid work
Improved employee productivity and satisfaction, plus widespread recognition of the importance of employee well-being, are all enduring positives from the seismic shift to remote and hybrid work. However, this is a new era—and there are many opportunities to improve on our new normal. Let’s discuss some of the issues to be addressed in remote and hybrid work.
What we lack in remote work settings is the ability to grow interpersonal relationships with colleagues. Before the pandemic, employees could walk down the hall to their boss’s office or chat with coworkers over coffee or lunch. Not only does this loss of spontaneous talk reduce the ability to form connections, employees also lose valuable opportunities to share knowledge, build trust, and boost morale. It’s worth noting that for many—this kind of serendipitous interaction can be distracting and time-consuming. Still, social rituals are critical to building high-performing teams.
Similarly, remote work has led organizational communication to become more siloed. Microsoft’s Future of Work Report 2022 cites a study that found firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with a 40% drop in the share of collaboration time spent with bridging ties. In a similar study, 42% surveyed reported lower connection to colleagues as a key barrier of remote work.
Lack of small talk has serious implications
Lack of small talk could also be a factor in the silos developing at work—which has wide-reaching implications, from lowering a company’s ability to innovate to a growing lack of cross-department trust.
To combat these issues, many offices have employed tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams to schedule face-to-face meetings and keep their workforce in touch. However, these are not without their drawbacks, with many employees complaining of “Zoom Burnout,” or issues managing time around a constant onslaught of meetings.
The Microsoft Future of Work Report cites a study that found 76% of survey respondents are interested in technological advancements to facilitate connection at work. There’s an opportunity to leverage technology to bridge social gaps in the remote and hybrid workplace in order foster stronger social ties.
Successful remote and hybrid work requires a strong tech stack
Another issue that is plaguing many companies in the shift from office to remote is technology. Many companies were not prepared for the challenges that remote work creates from an IT perspective whether it is supporting office setup, cyber security, or simply having the devices needed to work remotely. Due to these issues, many companies have had to invest additional capital to bolster IT infrastructure, with new hardware, additional personnel, or better information security.
While this may be an initial large lift, it is a necessary one to have a workforce that can function properly in a remote environment. Clearly, there’s also the opportunity to introduce new technologies to foster better communication and connection among employees in remote and hybrid environments.
How to improve remote and hybrid work
Remote and hybrid work is the new reality, and companies must find ways to adapt. The development of interpersonal relationships and trust is key to success. This does not mean scheduling excess meetings. Some studies actually show that scheduling meeting-free days enable self-reliance and cooperation, allowing employees to focus and perform deep work without the disruption of constant task switching.
Even in a fully remote workforce, sponsoring in-person corporate social events can have a major impact on improving employee retention while breaking down communication silos. Connecting with employees whether through local happy hour meet-ups, team-wide meetings at HQ once a year, or individual team-building events are great ways to reinforce culture and improve collaboration.
Companies must also adopt technology and processes that assist teams in the development of relationships and make it easier to function in a remote environment. It is nearly impossible for a team to thrive in a remote environment if employers and employees do not have access to adequate technology and IT assistance. This may require auditing and assessing your current tech stack and identifying gaps in organizational design.
While much remains unknown for the future of remote and hybrid work, now is not the time to let uncertainty stop you from moving forward and experimenting with different solutions to issues that arise in this omnichannel environment. There are ways that we can ease the transition, increase productivity, and still make people feel included in the day to day.
We must not let remote or hybrid workforces create a feeling of isolation, but rather a unity, where we can break down obstacles, and increase opportunities. Diversify, try new things, and constantly iterate to find what works best for your organization and its teams.