Navigating The New Remote Work Reality: What Do Leaders Need To Do To Prepare?

Even before the COVID-19 crisis sparked a move to the virtual office, the adoption of remote work had already been escalating. In fact, the share of the full-time labor force that works from home tripled in the past 15 years, according to the Federal Reserve.

What’s driving this trend? First, living in the metro areas with the highest density of knowledge workers comes with astronomical costs and extensive commutes. Case in point: one survey found that an astonishing two-thirds of the workers in the San Francisco Bay Area would consider relocating if they were able to work remotely. Also, the advent of technology channels like Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams has moved collaboration and communication online, bolstered by the extensive network of high-speed internet connections needed to support them.

But in recent months, COVID-19 has catapulted workforces around the world into the realm of virtual work, ready or not. In fact, a Gallup poll revealed that 61% of full-time employees were working from home due to COVID-19 closures, up from 33% before.

And they are liking what they see: In one survey, 85% of employees reported they enjoy working from home, with more than three-quarters saying they’re more productive. This enthusiasm means we are likely to see a dramatic rise in flexible work arrangements, even after the crisis is over.

What does that mean for the future? Here are three truths leaders must embrace to better navigate this new remote reality.

Truth 1: Business resilience will become a key driver for remote work.

We often move at light speed when we are forced to change, and such was the case with remote work. As offices closed, business leaders had no choice but to pivot to remote teams, and to the surprise of many, they realized that remote working, well, works and that employees can be productive and engaged when working from home. Our recent report, The Future of Remote Workfound that over half of hiring managers (56%) felt the shift to remote work had gone better than expected with some of the top perceived benefits including no commutes, fewer unnecessary meetings, and reduced office distractions. Additionally, a third of hiring managers found that productivity had actually increased as a result of remote work.

The next step for leaders: In order to reap the full benefits of a virtual team, you need to make resilience a business priority. Consider whether your companies’ business growth strategies are properly accounting for risk. As the practice reaches a tipping point, take the initiative to assemble a cross-functional group of leaders and craft a business resiliency strategy. When analyzing future outlook, it’s crucial to be realistic and not just rely on the probability that everything will align according to expectations.

Truth 2: Workforce models will increasingly become more agile.

Everyone around the world has been suddenly forced to work differently–to adopt a new normal. This pivot has accelerated the acceptance of workforce strategies that many initially resisted. And while cultural adoption had previously been a barrier, now, an entire global workforce has been thrust into adopting remote work and more flexible talent models.

The next step for leaders: Leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to transform their organizational philosophy and structure and re-align it toward growth. Now more than ever, businesses with flexible models and strong digital infrastructures have an advantage. Every business will need to evaluate where it sits in the ecosystem, then accelerate its own model and infrastructure moving forward.

Truth 3: Work-life balance will be redefined.

As workers quickly pivoted to working from home, many experienced a blurring of the boundary between work and private life. For some, that was schedule-related—when the work day has no ending, sometimes we forget to quit working. For others, it was their physical workspace—just ask “BBC dad,” or anyone who forgot to camouflage their messy kitchen with a virtual Zoom background.

The next step for leaders: In most cases, teams enjoyed this glimpse at the “humanization” of their colleagues and the chance to meet kids, pets, and even parents during the pandemic. And as their team coped with kids or other duties, managers saw firsthand that workers can’t function well without accommodation for their family responsibilities. Post-pandemic, companies will need to determine how to create a system that fits real workers, not just idealized ones. After all, why should work always take place between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. if some people believe they produce their best quality work on the 8 p.m. shift, once their home quiets?

The next step: seizing the promise of remote work

This ‘great remote work experiment’ produced fascinating results about the future of remote work, and provided a new prism through which to view it.

As workers and organizations alike realized the benefits, it’s clear that the virtual workplace will present an opportunity for companies to create a more sustainable workforce model.

In fact, 62% of hiring managers say their workforce will be more remote going forward as a result of COVID-19. That will help fuel the expected growth rate of full-time remote work to more than double over the next five years, from 30% before COVID-19 to 65% now.

Remote working on a larger scale also offers companies the flexibility to deal with unexpected events in the future, from a global crisis like COVID-19 to an unexpected snowstorm that snarls a city.

Once the crisis eases, we’ll have vast opportunities to parse the consequences and determine what new attitudes and habits will stick. While it’s too early to predict with assurance the extent to which companies may return to previous work models, now is the time for business leaders to reflect on their successful beginning and take the steps needed to accelerate investments that will contribute to a robust remote work model.

Want to learn more about the long-term impacts of the “great remote experiment” and what to anticipate in the future? You can find an analysis in our new “Future of Remote Work” report.

February 4, 2019