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08 Aug 2023

The New Reality of Working Remotely: How HR Can Address the Complexities

Latest data underscores a clear trend: remote working isn't just a passing phenomenon, but rather, the new norm for a significant portion of the workforce. But is that a good thing?

Today's labor market is evolving rapidly, and so is the way we work. McKinsey's recent American Opportunity Survey provides a glimpse into the shift, revealing that 58% of people now work from home at least once a week, and 35% can do so full-time. 

As more teams go virtual, companies are looking at ways to prioritize reinforcing organizational culture, values, and a sense of belonging among remote and hybrid workers.

Navigating the complexities of a remote workforce requires a balance of individual effort and organizational support. Let's have a look at some of the challenges and how to overcome them:

Presenteeism and Absenteeism Due To Stress

In 2015, a research study from Stanford University and the Harvard Business School estimated that workplace stress contributes to roughly 120,000 deaths yearly and USD 190 billion in healthcare costs. The study showed that stress from work can lead to an increase in risk factors including high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, which can lead to heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

We know that workplace stress causes people to take more sick days, leading to lost productivity for companies but less available is the data on 'presenteeism'— when workers are on the job but, not fully functioning.

Absenteeism—with employees not showing up for work—leads to a direct productivity loss, while presenteeism represents a hidden cost that is harder to quantify but potentially more damaging. While it's evident when an employee is absent, discerning reduced productivity or compromised performance due to stress or mental health concerns is far more challenging.

A shift to remote or hybrid work not only caters to the logistical and work-life balance preferences directly addresses and potentially mitigates the factors leading to on-site presenteeism and absenteeism. Researchers from Stanford University discovered that remote work for two or three days a week was considered akin to a 6.7% salary bump for those employed in the public sector. In the tech and finance industries, this percentage rose to more than 10%.

One reason for this number was how employees perceived the cost-saving element of telecommuting, which eliminates expenses like daily commuting and childcare. Vut beyond the financial perks, the flexibility of partial remote work also enhances employees' overall quality of life—a benefit many are willing to invest in.

In a study by FlexJobs 70 percent of respondents reported that working remotely would significantly improve their mental health, and already 74 percent of millennial and Gen Z managers have team members who primarily work from home.

These younger employees will make up 58 percent of the workforce by the end of this decade. Meaning they will effectively reshape how we work and where it will take place. This paradigm shift comes with unique challenges though. Companies offering remote contracts often need to adjust their management styles to better suit the needs of their workforce and find ways to nurture and retain the skills of those looking for more flexibility.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The line between work and leisure has blurred more than ever as a result of remote work, with some people feeling heightened feelings of detachment and anxiety due to lack of human interaction.

Rather than just missing casual office chatter, a sense of detachment from an organization's culture results because of the absence of in-person contact and proximity to co-workers every day. It is a bit like how we lose touch with friends that move away - proximity is often the glue that bonds us to our colleagues, and without it, workers can quickly feel isolated.

Proactive measures such as frequent video calls, virtual team-building activities, and even digital "happy hours" or wellbeing programs can mitigate this challenge. 

The 'out of sight, out of mind' adage may also hold true for some remote workers feeling left behind in their career trajectory. To combat this, employers may need to ensure more obvious visibility of non-office-based staff, and ensure they provide equal opportunities for all. Employees should also be encouraged engage in virtual networking sessions, conferences and continuous learning.

Mastering Time Management

Flexibility, while a perk of remote work, can sometimes become a pitfall for those struggling with time management.

Proven strategies like the Eisenhower Matrix or the Pomodoro technique can be potent tools in structuring one's day effectively.

Having the latest technology at one's disposal is a boon, but it's equally essential to be adept at using it. Regular tech training sessions and help ensuring a robust internet connection can help bridge this gap.

A Balancing Act

The absence of a physical boundary between work and home often translates to no boundary at all - and this overlap can result in draining workdays, where employees find it difficult to 'log off' at the end of the day.

Microsoft 365 data indicates that employees are more engaged than ever, with meeting having surged by 153% since the onset of the pandemic, with the trend showing no signs of reversal.

However, this rise in digital engagement doesn't seem to translate into trust. With the majority of leaders (85%) admitting that the transition to remote and hybrid work poses challenges in being confident about employee productivity.

While 87% of employees say they are productive in the remote elements of their jobs; management is not convinced that their team members are getting enough work done. 

This lack of trust in employee productivity is magnified by the absence of traditional visual cues. In the past, leaders could gauge productivity by physically observing their teams at work. Now, with 49% of hybrid managers struggling to trust their remote employees compared to 36% of in-person managers, it's clear that the dynamics have shifted. This anxiety has furthered the digital overload, as employees scramble to demonstrate their commitment and efficiency - and end up over-working themselves and struggling to 'log off'. 

One of the most effective prevention strategies for this is for organizational leadership to champion a culture of setting clear working hours, taking genuine breaks, and unplugging after work.

Clear Communication: A Must

The digital workspace, while convenient, brings its own communication challenges. Emails can be misinterpreted, and virtual meetings lack the nuance of in-person conversations. To combat this, it's crucial to clarify expectations, utilize visual aids, and leverage digital tools that facilitate clearer, more effective communication.

Remote work demands personal motivation and discipline. This calls for structured routines, goal setting, and leveraging digital tools to stay focused and productive. Working from home can be difficult for some people because of the lack of external structure and oversight.

Without this, it can be difficult to stay focused and on task. Establishing routines, setting goals, and using digital tools can help to create structure and keep the remote worker motivated and productive.

Collaborative Synergies

Collaboration can be tricky in virtual worlds. It demands more than just shared documents; it requires a mindset shift from management.

Regular video interactions, designated communication channels, and clarity in collaborative objectives can streamline team efforts - but more than anything, workers ask for trust and an end to what Microsoft has labeled '“productivity paranoia'.

In the Microsoft report, remote employees expressed the need for managerial assistance in setting work priorities - yet a mere 31% have so far received such direction. The correlation between support, clarity and job satisfaction is evident. Employees with clear work priorities are nearly four times more likely to commit to their company for at least two more years, and significantly less likely to consider job-hopping.

But, clarity alone isn't the silver bullet. An organization's empathy towards its employees is also paramount. Leaders need to check in on their employees' well-being as well as their productivity, and take actionable steps based on the feedback they receive.

To bridge the trust gap, leaders should set clear objectives, ensuring alignment with company goals, and emphasizing outcomes over mere activity. Furthermore, continuous feedback loops, both at the organizational and departmental levels, are indispensable. Only through these concerted efforts can we combat productivity paranoia and create a healthy, trusting, and productive work environment in the age of remote and hybrid work.


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