It has been nearly a year since the sudden shift to remote work began for many organizations. Now that we’ve navigated the new COVID world for a while, we’ve learned our way around Zoom meetings and Teams messaging. But there are still quite a few challenges involved with the remote workforce and finding factors of success for remote workspaces.
One survey after another reveals employees would prefer to continue working from home at least some of the time after the pandemic is over. Consequently, many companies are making plans to shift their workplace strategy to support permanent remote or hybrid work models.
Recently, FM:Systems’ VP of Strategy, Brian Haines, partnered with Kayley Allen, Senior Workplace Experience Specialist for GrubHub to moderate a Future Offices roundtable discussing how organizations across the globe have implemented formal work from home (WFH) strategies. Facility experts from many industries related their experiences and tips for aligning functions for people and workplaces in fast-paced, remote environments. Here are some of the top challenges identified and solutions shared.
Challenge: Helping employees establish a productive remote work space
Though the remote work trend had been growing for years, COVID-19 suddenly shifted it into warp drive. Companies all over the planet simply told their people to pack up and go home. At the time, most business leaders did not know it would last so long or have such lasting impacts. Although some organizations were able to pivot seamlessly, the first challenge for most companies involved technology. They struggled to source laptops and get employees remote access to business systems. Moreover, this new way of working required new cybersecurity considerations.
Then there was the practical matter of communication and collaboration. Platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom were adopted and employees trained to use them. It was a bumpy start, but for most companies, the major technology challenges are in the rear-view mirror.
Sequestered in their homes, employees were facing a unique set of challenges of their own. Since they worked in an office normally, most did not have a dedicated work space at home. Many lacked a proper desk and chair and were working at their kitchen tables. Where they may have had dual monitors in the office, they were lucky to have one at home.
Over the long term, poor ergonomics will negatively impact employee productivity and physical health. To counter these issues, some employers are offering stipends for office furniture and teaching online classes about ergonomics and how to set up a healthy workspace.
Challenge: Employees share their remote work spaces with kids
Employees with children have been uniquely challenged during the pandemic. At various times throughout the last year, most school-aged children have been attending remote school from home. They need their own device and draw from household internet bandwidth. For people who need quiet concentration in order to perform their work, sharing a space with kids means extra noise and interruptions.
For many parents—mothers especially—the distractions became unmanageable. The U.S. workforce had 2.2 million fewer women in October 2020 than in October 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To make things easier for working parents, many of the roundtable participants’ employers have offered extra flexible around schedules. As long as work is getting done, it’s ok if it is taking place outside normal operating hours. As the WFH trend continues, employers will develop better ways to measure employee performance based on outcomes rather than “presenteeism.”
Challenge: Maintaining company culture and overcoming isolation
The majority of employees like working from home, but working in isolation can lead to loneliness. The office also serves as the center of corporate culture. When no one comes in, how can employees lean into that culture and enjoy the camaraderie of colleagues. Employee experience professionals and facilities managers have been working hard to figure this out. Here are some of the strategies they’re using to reach out to employees and reinforce culture:
- Most organizations conduct some type of formal or informal one-on-one check-ins with employees.
- Team leaders are expected to communicate regularly with remote workers.
- Many companies use surveys to gauge employee WFH preferences and obstacles. At the end of these surveys, most include a question or two to ask ‘are you doing ok?’
- Some companies have set up reach out campaigns to encourage employees to make more casual contact with each other, outside of meetings.
- One company uses the Donut app for Slack to create random pairings for casual virtual connections, simulating the effect of gathering around the water cooler.
Challenge: Avoiding burnout in an always-on world
In many ways, the pandemic has created a workaholic’s dream but a nightmare for those seeking a balanced life. Although many businesses have reported surprise at finding increased productivity in a WFH business model, it’s obvious where the gains are coming from: employees never unplug from work anymore.
Today, the office is home and home is the office. Having saved the time usually needed for commuting, many managers and employees simply plowed that time into extra remote work hours. Everyone knows when you’re online by the green dots in your real-time collaboration apps. Anxious about the economy and being perceived as valuable, employees are logging more hours than they did at the office. They answer emails, texts, and team messages at all hours. Managers face long days with back-to-back Zoom meetings. All of this is taking a toll on mental health.
Most roundtable participants agreed that the solution for burnout is to establish healthier boundaries for work/life balance. And they noted that this needs to be led from the highest levels of leadership. Here are a few ideas shared by participants for combatting burnout:
- Address Zoom burnout by conducting “walking meetings” where participants leave their screens and take the meeting by phone while enjoying exercise in the outdoors.
- Give all employees a day off and require they do zero work and send zero communications for the entire day.
- Develop anti-burnout training around stress management, time management, and work/life balance.
Everyone agreed that much more work needs to be done around organizational boundaries and helping employees unplug.
Reimagining the post-COVID-19 office
As the pandemic comes under control, the majority of roundtable participants expect their organizations to pursue a hybrid model of WFH on a more permanent basis. The office may be used by some employees but not others, depending on employee preferences. The office hub and spoke model uses the headquarters office primarily for specific purposes like collaboration, training and development, onboarding and company culture. The HQ hub then supports a network of distributed offices (the spokes), many of which will end up being home offices.
A larger proportion of WFH employees will make a big impact on corporate real estate usage. Many organizations will need a smaller footprint. Further, they will need different layouts for their hub office(s). Additionally, companies will reexamine office locations as more of their employees move out of metro centers to take advantage of lower home prices and rents in the suburbs or rural areas.
Learn how organizations across the globe have adopted and implemented formal work from home strategies. Watch the full webcast recording.