Since last year, much has been reported about both the benefits and drawbacks of remote work as Covid-19 ushered in the world’s largest work-from-home (WFH) experiment.
There seems to be a general impression that top performers are enjoying the sense of independence that comes with working from home.
Among the advantages cited by employees are flexibility, reduced commuting time/cost, and increased time with family. Employers on their part report how remote work has reduced the costs of renting office space. It has also eliminated location barriers and as such, presented unlimited hiring options across borders.
But, let’s not forget that both employees and employers are reporting challenges as well.
Employees report a feeling of social isolation, distractions from children or family members, and longer working hours among other things. Meanwhile, employers are concerned about how remote work arrangements could limit spontaneous collaboration in the long run. They’re also concerned about the long-term sustainability of employee productivity.
Based on our conversations with HR leaders and mid/senior-level executives, a few common threads have emerged, indicating that in spite of the advantages of remote work, top performers have misgivings that need to be addressed.
1. The Absence of “Learning by Osmosis”
This is severely curtailed in a WFH setting. In the office environment, overhearing conversations can help employees pick up ideas, news and opportunities in an informal and spontaneous manner.
This is especially important for knowledge workers who learn through observation.
In a recent interview with PeopleSearch, Chief Technology Officer of real estate conglomerate, City Developments Limited, Ivan Ng raised this issue.
He also emphasised the challenges remote work poses in terms of exercising effective leadership.
“Empathy and effective listening have always been crucial to being an effective leader. It’s just much harder to do all of this via a video call. We will most certainly be able to adapt over time, but leaders will need to learn how to leverage different channels based on context and content,” he said.
In general, CEOs and senior leaders also feel that remote communication limits their ability to “read the room” and get an accurate sense of employee engagement, energy and sentiment on a day-to-day basis.
2. Can Managers Sustain Greatness Remotely?
To make remote work a success, managers need to have superior communication and relationship-building skills. Creating bonds within teams to drive engagement and loyalty, spotting early signs of stress, and reading between the lines without the benefit of observing body language when things are not going well have become more challenging.
Top talent are concerned about whether they and their managers will receive the necessary support to develop their capabilities in order to be effective remote managers.
3. Can Productivity Be Sustained?
Some research has revealed higher productivity in WFH settings, however note that this has been mostly self-reported amid a crisis. During such upheavals, job security is on the line. As such, employees generally feel compelled to put more effort into their work. Whether this will continue in a less tumultuous economic environment in the long run remains to be seen.
4. Some Personalities Thrive in an Office Environment
Research has shown that certain personality types thrive in the office environment where they are surrounded by others working towards the same goals. Many also value the social element of work which is diluted in remote work settings.
Others struggle with working from home, not necessarily because of physical isolation, but due to other factors such as not having a conducive work area within their home or distractions posed by family members or roommates.
In light of these concerns, let’s not assume, based on a few surveys, that high-performing professionals would opt for WFH arrangements. Offering employees the option to work from home is a good idea, but it needs to be applied in a highly individualised manner.