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The New Normal: Working from Home and Remote Management

According to a new survey from research firm Gartner, about 74 percent of CFOs expect some of their employees who worked from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic to continue working remotely after the pandemic ends. Working remotely was a challenge that suddenly hundreds of thousands of Americans faces last March when social distancing made it impossible for people to return to their offices. It became a well documented struggle for those who weren't used to responding to emails on a laptop balanced on a coffee table or for those working in a shared space with spouses or children. Despite these initial setbacks, routine and necessity have made working from home a very viable option for a lot of employees even after the pandemic has ended. 


In the past, companies have been reticent about letting their employees work remotely. In 2013, Yahoo famously abolished it's work from home policy the Best Buy following suit not long after. 


Organizational psychologist Frederick Morgeson, of Michigan State University, editor of the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior stated, “Managers don’t trust their employees. They’re afraid that if they’re untethered, they’ll be out on the golf course or going to a movie or sitting on the sofa eating bonbons.” (Eryn Brown, Knowable Magazine)


Are these still legitimate concerns for companies? All research indicates that as of now, it's hard to say. Data is still new enough that there aren't quite enough metrics for corporations to determine productivity levels.

“There’s so much noise right now,” says Bradford Bell, an organizational psychologist at Cornell University who has studied companies’ transitions to permitting mobile work. “How would you evaluate the effectiveness?”

A survey that came out in early April stated that while people in general loved working from home (no commute times was a big reason) they also stated that they felt less productive and more lonely. Workers felt like projects were slowing down due to longer wait times in communicating with colleagues and they felt cut off from networking and professional growth opportunities. Even still, a reported three-fifths of people working from home said they’d like to keep doing so once the crisis is over.

So what are corporations and their employees to do? What does remote working look like going forward?

Otema Yirenkyi, VP Global Engagement and Managing Director Africa, Project Management Institute (PMI) has some sage advice: “When it comes to virtual teams, the biggest mistake managers make is operating like it’s business as usual.” 

This seems to be common sense but it can be too often forgotten in the rush to maintain deadlines and keep the team intact. The way team members report their daily work looks different, team meetings feel different and communication is definitely different. The difference even extends into how a company hires its employees in the first place. Certain characteristics like communication, humility, discipline and adaptability are far more important in a remote setting than in a cubicle. 

As well, the communication sent by managers to their teams must also be different. In a remote setting, there is no such thing as over communication. 

“We don’t realize how much we rely on informal communication until it’s gone,” says Executive coach Mikaela Kiner. “You can no longer drop by or rely on hallway conversations.” 

Instead, companies are relying on video conferencing. "Zoom" has now become synonymous with how most businesses have conducted meetings the past couple months. This is a great way for employers to check in with their employees and to make sure collaboration stays up to date and fresh.  Most experts also recommend a tool like Asana for telecommunication and goal setting. Even Facebook has it's own version now. 

Harvard Business Review wrote a really great article about managing remote workers that many businesses have seem to taken to heart. However, at the onset of the pandemic, most businesses and corporations probably imagined that working remotely was a necessary but not permanent solution. However, two months after most companies went remote, the bigger tech companies are planning on keeping their workers remote at least until the end of the year-- if not later. Tech giants Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook have all said they'll be keeping their workers away from the office as much as possible until the end of the year. Companies like Zillow and Microsoft have followed suit. 

So what does this look like going forward? For starters, the use of Private Investigators and software that can track employees is on the rise. While tracking software has grown exponentially (companies that offer these services say there was a 40% increase in requests for licences) they have also come under fire as being too much like "Big Brother" and demoralizing workers. 

The use of Private Investigators, however, doesn't have the stigma or far reaching consequences of spying software. When PIs are used, it is usually because the company already suspects that the employee is neglecting their work by substantial measures. An Investigator is then hired to document the activities, such as golfing or boating instead of working. That evidence is then used in the employee's termination.  

Andrew Macmillan, head of employment at Boyce Hatton Solicitors, stated that while most employees were hard working and conscientious, spotting the “rotten apples” can be difficult when employ.

“It is pretty easy to establish which are the bad apples when you can see or smell them, but not quite so easy when you can’t,” said Macmillan. “It isn’t always easy to know if someone is slacking or not when they are working alone and/or remotely.”

Either way, it seems remote working has become far more commonplace thanks to the pandemic and isn't about to go anywhere. It'll be interesting to see what other companies follow the lead of the Tech giants and extend their work from home orders until the end of the year or even indefinitely. In the meantime, experts are still trying to find ways of tracking productivity, managing teams and keeping employees motivated and happy.