After millions of workers have been forced to work remotely, nothing will ever be the same again. If technology had already made robust strides in democratising working from home, the pandemic caused by COVID-19 was undoubtedly one of the biggest culprits behind the change we are witnessing in the world of work.
Business services are no exception, and, like many other sectors of the economy, they had already embarked on the digital transformation journey that allowed them to move the majority of their workforce to remote working. In fact, even before the pandemic, research showed that most workers in developed countries could work effectively from home, and that approximately 80% of them would like to do so with some regularity.
There is no doubt that remote work brings several advantages to workers and companies. For the employee, it allows freedom to live anywhere in the world, flexibility to manage working hours and family closeness. These benefits translate into a higher quality of life and an easier balance between a personal and professional life. On the other hand, for organisations, it allows them to reduce building costs (since it reduces office occupation), to use a global talent pool and to benefit from the increased productivity of employees due to a better work-life balance.
The outlook might seem encouraging, but after a few months, even the most optimistic have become convinced of the drawbacks of 100% remote working. Difficulties in establishing transparent communication, in sharing knowledge, in assessing performance or even concerns about the teams' mental health have become part of leaders' daily lives.
Studies in the field of cognitive psychology show that human cognition relies not only on the way the human brain processes signals, but also on the environment in which these signals are received. This is the reason why, due to the limited body language provided in virtual meetings, we easily witness lack of empathy, difficulty in establishing a close connection with the other and miscommunication/misinterpretation.
However, is technology not capable of keeping the human connection at a distance? According to what Tom Allen (organisational psychologist at MIT) has shown, a distance of 50 metres between two people is enough for the quality of communication (physical or remote) to decrease. Undoubtedly, technology helps by providing tools and technological platforms that allow communication between the two sides of the globe, but the truth is that the cognitive subconscious of the intervening parties plays a preponderant role in the quality and availability of that communication.
These are the reasons proving the difficulties in establishing clear and empathetic communication that were reported by teams in a 100% remote working model. One of the most relevant consequences of this fatigue is the reduction of creativity - it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in creative exercises and brainstorming.
Another drawback of this model is the absence of informal moments of communication and the exchange of information. As a result, the number of meetings is estimated to have increased by approximately 150%. In fact, according to a Microsoft survey of its employees, the number of meetings required to solve a problem has increased substantially. And at the same time, the duration of these meetings has reduced. This trend is explained by the fact that, at a distance, it is not possible to solve small problems with informal meetings, for example during a coffee or lunch break. Therefore, all interactions are transformed into formal moments in which a conscious information exchange takes place.
The lack of moments of informal communication strongly affects the younger members of teams as it means they experience greater difficulty in grasping the culture and principles of the organisation. Most of the knowledge gained on the job comes not only from what is explicitly taught, but also from the new team members’ observations of the rest of the organisation. Constraining these interactions brings serious consequences to the onboarding and acculturation process of the teams. In the fully remote model, knowledge sharing, socialisation and mentoring are also affected. The CEO of JP Morgan Chase mentioned at a conference that after six months of remote working, newer employees started to lose the benefit of socialising with other generations. Despite the technical training the company has offered, there is no longer access to informal, intangible information that helps, for example, a portfolio manager choose one stock over another.
Assessing the teams' performance in remote working is another issue that concerns leaders. The most objective way of doing this is to consider the outputs or deliverables, but this fails to assess the soft skills that are so relevant in the current work context.
If, according to the Harvard Business Review, today about 40% of employees feel burned out with the remote model, and simultaneously 40% of workers want a future that provides flexibility in working hours and workplace, then it is urgent to redefine work formats. With the possibility of returning to the office becoming ever closer, it is urgent to unravel the best way to capture the benefits of remote working without the disadvantages of the virtual model and integrate it seamlessly with face-to-face moments.
In order to design a new model, it is necessary to change some paradigms in the way you lead, how you organise teams and how you approach work. It is essential not to give up offices, but to make them hybrid working spaces, which allow you to alternate effortlessly between face-to-face work in the office and working remotely from home. As a matter of fact, most technology companies, despite being the pioneers in 100% digital operations, maintain physical offices. This is because studies prove that frequent personal interactions lead to greater commitment, creativity, and cooperation among teams.
Accordingly, it is essential to design hybrid offices with the following principles:
- Promote informal interactions by creating a space that fosters culture, learning, creativity, and collaboration.
- Practise hotelling, that is, the flexible location of each employee's workstation. In addition to reducing the total space occupied, it encourages communication and connection between areas/teams that would not otherwise communicate. In 2020, when renewing the remote working policy, Microsoft implemented this technique with promising results.
Leverage the use of technology to collect data to optimise the organisation of the office layout based on employee movements, interactions, and rest areas.
In addition, remote and flexible working will be part of the future of organisations, and therefore strategies to be efficient remotely should be applied, namely:
- Taking advantage of digital developments to facilitate interaction and communication between remote employees and employees in the office.
- Use smart goal-based planning strategies and frequent and structured communication across teams.
- Increase flexible working with the possibility of enhancing the level of services provided. For example, in a customer service team, the fact that employees choose to work at different times means that the team is able to provide services with longer opening hours.
Despite technological developments and support infrastructures, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact when it comes to successful collaboration between teams. In business services, new technologies have simplified and automated most of the low value-added tasks, and it is therefore increasingly necessary to stimulate the creative spirit of employees.
In this regard, it is necessary to leverage experiences with human contact that allow clarifying rules, aligning expectations, and establishing trust. With remote working spreading indiscriminately, business service leaders must face this challenge and this requires organisational transformation.