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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
Every day, we hear new announcements about which organizations are opting to work remotely and which ones are requiring their employees to return to the office. Airbnb, for example, told employees “they can work remotely forever,” according to the New York Times. However, many other leaders still want employees in the office full-time.
At first, it might seem that some employees and employers are at odds with regard to their preference for returning to work, with remote work often seen as a win for employees. Many employers have allowed for full or partial work-from-home arrangements. In addition, most organizations looking to fill new positions, especially in areas such as IT, are facing an impossible task unless they agree with employees’ desires for telecommuting policies. Like it or not, working from home is here to stay.
My first job as an engineer was at a power company and required long hours in the computer room, as well as a week of on-call duty each month. This meant you’d sometimes need to make the necessary 45-minute trip to the office in the middle of the night if and when a computer model would stop running. The idea that I might have been able to address the computing issues from the comfort of my home was something I couldn’t have imagined. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why I pursued an academic career instead. I fully appreciate the appeal and made good use of a hybrid work arrangement decades ago. As a young working mother, I was beyond grateful for the flexibility and convenience occasionally working from home afforded me as a busy university professor.
But the decision to work remotely or not has inherent complexities, and often, employees and employers both just don’t know what they don’t know. While remote and hybrid work offers many benefits, you might also face a few challenges. What are some of these considerations, both from the employer and employee perspective, that could help inform this decision?
- Not all remote employees have access to an environment that supports productivity.
Recent increases in the cost of living have left many professionals in major cities without the luxury of a functional home office. While I had ample room to spread my research papers when I first worked from home, this is not the case for many employees today. We have all seen the occasional partner’s foot peeking in a video call, or who can forget the barking dogs in need of attention during a corporate webinar? Basic tasks can be challenging when a small workspace doubles as a dining room. In fact, many of my employees actually expressed gratitude over being able to return to the office post-shutdown in 2020.
- Fostering innovation could be a challenge without a few best practices.
Remote employees rely heavily on video meetings to stay connected with colleagues and clients. One study published in Nature found that virtual communication can curb creative idea generation. In my experience, the more structured and focused the discussions on the video call, the greater the risk of the digital meeting stifling employee creativity. Leaders must adapt to modalities better suited for a remote setting if they want to foster innovation.
You might also find that video meetings can feel overwhelming for more introverted employees, while for extroverts, they lack in-person interaction. Another significant issue I’ve observed in video meetings is that team members are more likely to multitask during the call, which can reduce the quality of the group discussion.
- Effectively engaging and mentoring new talent can be challenging in a remote environment.
Among employees, there might be an expertise divide when it comes to their preference for remote work. More seasoned employees, for instance, are able to be productive independently, whereas younger employees might need more onboarding and mentoring. Without the regular interaction that comes from working in close proximity, it can be tricky to develop the trust and rapport essential for relationship building and mentorship. As a result, companies that encourage employees to work from home might find it difficult to promote a culture of collaboration. When employees work remotely, they could miss the traditional “watercooler” conversations that provide opportunities for meaningful exchange.
What does this mean for your company?
Employees working remotely or adopting a hybrid schedule is not necessarily a bad thing. In many situations, such arrangements can greatly benefit the employees and the organization. However, I believe leaders should still consider the potential challenges associated with remote work before adopting an organization-wide remote-work policy.
To decide whether remote work is right for your company or organization, ask your employees what their preference is, and keep the following questions in mind:
- Are there effective communication channels in place? Without clear communication, employees might feel uncertain about their roles and responsibilities, which could be frustrating.
- Would your employees have everything they need to remain productive and innovative while working remotely? Would they have access to the necessary tools and resources, including a reliable computer, internet and space for work?
- How will you train new hires? Further, how will you monitor their progress or lack thereof? Mentoring new hires in remote work environments can be challenging, so you want to make sure you and your team are up for the task.
If you choose to implement a remote-work or hybrid policy, ensure your expectations are clearly defined for all employees, including those in the office and those who are remote. Keep in mind that you will also need to double down on creating engagement experiences during in-office days. In doing so, you can help set your team up for success.