Remote work post-coronavirus:How to prepare teams for a more digital workplace

Many businesses started moving to a digital workplace due to the COVID-19 crisis. For some, it was a matter of expanding their existing remote work policies. However, for many traditionally-structured and operated businesses, it has required a lot more effort: adjusting to new ways of managing remote teams and existing work processes.

The adjustment has required shifting to a more trust-based, collaborative management style and adopting new digital collaboration tools, which are better suited for a distributed and digital workplace than spreadsheets and post-it notes. In addition, managers and employees had to find a new routine, which would allow them to work from home without interruptions.

As countries emerge from lockdowns and offices reopen, questions about working remotely remain. What is the future of remote work post-coronavirus? Should it be implemented when life is back to normal? If so, how can teams prepare for a more digital workplace?

Short answer: the workplace after COVID-19 may never be the same.

The future of remote work post-coronavirus: here to stay

Remote work is often associated with cutting-edge startups and tech companies. In fact, Facebook recently announced that its employees could work remotely until the end of 2020. Twitter went a step further, implementing permanent remote work policies.

But the trend goes beyond that. A recent poll by research firm Gartner found that 48% of employees are likely to work remotely at least part time post-coronavirus, compared to 30% before the outbreak. According to a US survey by remote talent platform Upwork, 61.9% of hiring managers say their workforce will be more remote in the future.

While remote working was economically essential during the lockdown, it is here to stay post-coronavirus due to a number of factors, productivity being key. The aforementioned Upwork survey found that one third of managers noticed an increase in productivity as a result of remote work. This is echoed by Stanford University research, which shows that the stigma associated with remote work that existed before COVID-19 has largely disappeared.

Other benefits of remote work for companies include: lowered business expenses (office space, equipment, travel and relocation costs), the ability to recruit top candidates regardless of their geographic location, as well as improved employee satisfaction and retention rates. A joint report by TV station CNBC and polling platform SurveyMonkey found that the Workplace Happiness Index for remote workers measures 73 out of 100, while research by videoconferencing company Owl Labs indicates that remote workers are 13% more likely than onsite employees to stay in their jobs long term.

Preparing for a more digital and distributed workplace

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the shift to remote work that was already present before the outbreak. However, successfully implementing remote work long-term will require new operating models and the right digital tools for collaboration and work management.

First, employees need to be empowered to manage projects on their own terms. This calls for a new operating model based on increased flexibility, agile processes and focus on outcomes, as opposed to imposing fixed ways of working already decided by upper management. In other words: less micromanaging, more autonomy and collaboration.

And second, an integral part of working with partially or fully remote teams is providing them with a mix of digital tools: asynchronous (email, message boards) where communication does not take place at the same time, synchronous (chat, video conference) for real-time interactions, and work management software for keeping track of projects and files.

The physical office is unlikely to disappear, but the remote office will be more common post-coronavirus than ever before. We’ve been shown that remote work is not reserved for tech companies only, but can benefit more businesses than previously believed, if done right.

Don’t fear remote work, but get ready to address its challenges

With research pointing to higher efficiency rates and employee satisfaction, remote working shouldn’t be feared by leadership. However, in order to successfully migrate to remote work — especially full remote — it is important for companies and individual managers to recognize its challenges and devise a structured approach to address them.

Some things to consider both on the business and societal side:

  1. Introduction of new digital tools: Adopting these tools will require clear guidelines and commitment from leadership in order to make sure that they are used to their full potential and to avoid any employee frustration resulting in decreased productivity.
  2. Building team togetherness: With some or all team members not occupying the same physical space, sometimes living in different timezones, team leaders should consider introducing activities that would give people a chance to connect (e.g. virtual happy hours) and talk about other topics besides work.
  3. Employee well-being: There needs to be an active investment in workers’ well-being. With remote work, the boundaries between private and work lives may be blurred, and some team members may find the switch to remote work challenging. It is then important to check in with them and offer guidance or support when needed.
  4. Hiring globally: Even if country borders disappear thanks to remote work and the ability to run recruiting processes virtually, how do you measure up on the global scale? Will you be able to compete with regions that have higher salaries and more robust benefits packages, including the number of vacation days? There is also the ethical question of hiring people from regions with lower salaries or recruiting contractors on a freelance basis (i.e. without benefits) to cut costs.
  5. Security: Another ethical consideration is the surveillance software, deployed by some companies to monitor employees. Additionally, companies need to take into consideration the security of their remote infrastructure to avoid cybercrime.

Remote work is here to stay, whether companies go fully remote or adopt a flexible, hybrid workplace model. In order to succeed in the new normal, the best thing to do right now is to plan for the long-term instead of waiting to see how things unfold.

About the author: Pola Henderson is the Content & Community Manager at Digicoop, a remote-first cooperative (employee-owned) company in France that develops collaborative online tools for teams, including the work management and team collaboration platform Kantree.