Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute
Working Together But Apart
This special COVID-19 issue of Briefings is available online and at selected newsstands.
It was expected to become the norm someday—vast numbers, not just handfuls, of employees working remotely. Now, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has vastly accelerated that change and focused attention on the crucial role of digital transformation across the globe.
Indeed, there are certainly plenty of issues on the technological end, such as improving bandwidth for remote employees and securing data sent from home computers. But corporate leaders face another, far more human dilemma: a remote staff can be the farthest thing from a cohesive staff. “One of the things we tend to skip is how interdependent many employees need to be,” says Michael Wesson, a professor at the Harbert College of Business at Auburn University.
To be sure, the world of flexible work has been gaining momentum in recent years, with the number of Americans working exclusively away from the office already up 20 percent in the five years before the crisis. More companies and governments were rolling out four-day workweek schedules and expanding paid family leave. Still, none of that prepared the world for the enormous difficulties—beyond the human toll—that the outbreak has created for firms and managers trying to operate.
It began, of course, with the trauma that occurred when thousands of workers were sent home to work in isolation—or at least isolated away from the office. Stripped of face-to-face meetings and watercooler chats—and surrounded by scary outbreak headlines from one news channel after another—managers could see many workers struggling emotionally. “Self-isolation can be scary if you don’t have the support network to help,” says Margot Zielinska, Korn Ferry’s head of diversity and inclusion for EMEA.
Productivity often has also been an issue among remote staffs. The spark of creativity can vanish, as can the energy and will to go the extra mile together. “You can lose productivity not knowing your teammates well,” says Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry and leader of the firm’s Human Resources Center of Expertise. Studies show that even well-designed remote work and four-day plans can depress productivity in the short run.
That’s why managers have to help their employees form a connection, regardless of what hours they’re working or where they’re working from. That way, employees can get a sense of how their colleagues work best, something they might naturally pick up on if they were sitting in the same office. Getting remote workers to collaborate on a small project can be a good start; then have the employees follow up, talking about what worked best and what could be improved.
Naturally, managers also need to juggle all this with customer needs. It can be as simple as making sure not all the homebound employees take time to handle household chores at the exact same time. Another structural change that’s needed is pay. “If I want people to cooperate, I want to offer team or group rewards that are based on team performance,” Wesson says. Experts say that knowing a significant portion of compensation is tied to working well together can help.
Millions of employees will return to their respective offices once the pandemic subsides. But experts say many of those workers will find that they liked the flexibility of working remotely. In that regard, the coronavirus has only accelerated a trend. “Our technology and our lifestyles are at the point where it’s hard to turn back,” Porter says. Technology will make it easier to work remotely, but it’ll still be up to managers to have their offices humming even when no one is actually at the office.