Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been reading plenty, along with everyone else, about how the world of work is changing for good by going virtual. The question that intrigues everyone is whether organizations will remain highly virtual when the pandemic recedes or whether hordes of workers will restart their commutes to corporate offices and headquarters. Having worked remotely on two continents over the past 20 years, I know what my vote is. But it’s a valid question worth some reflection.
I have long thought that virtual work was the wave of the future. I just read a blog post by Mike Walsh titled There Is No Remote Work, Only Work which makes interesting observations about the reasons for organizations to stay virtual. But working remotely isn’t necessarily easy for everyone. Some people are much more productive when they work from home. They are diligent, start earlier, and “stay” later because they don’t have to spend long hours commuting, and they thrive in jobs with fewer interruptions from co-workers throughout the day.
Others, however, find it much harder to stay focused without colleagues around and/or find plenty of distractions and reasons to take long breaks that subtract from their productivity. Some highly extroverted people find it too lonely and quiet to work from home. (Note: I’m highly extroverted but have always found the phone to be a good substitute for collaboration; plus, getting plugged into my community provides an outlet for face-to-face interaction.) And some people in marketing, engineering, and science (for example) find it hard to collaborate with others without an in-person whiteboard experience.
Many executives dislike virtual workforces and require their employees to work from corporate locations by policy (often seen by restless employees as establishing policy by edict or fiat.) I once worked for a company that limited working from home to the extent that interviewers had to stress the policy when screening applicants. Once the pandemic subsides, it’s questionable whether these executives will loosen the constraints that restrict large numbers of employees from telecommuting. On the other hand, it may be hard to satisfy employees that have experienced a virtual work experience if the policies requiring them to work from a physical location are enforced.
For virtual working to succeed, managers, employees, HR specialists, training coaches, consultants and change management practitioners will all need training on how to make remote working productive and rewarding for people with different personalities and varied workstyles across the organization. And without question, managers and executives will need a lot of help learning how to motivate and manage virtual workers. It won’t be as simple as directing people to Box, Microsoft Team, Slack, and Zoom and expecting them to thrive as they start working permanently from home. Across the board, people will need guidance on how to make remote work styles and work tools applicable to their personalities, preferences, and corporate culture.
A few other tricky questions to consider on the road to a virtual workforce that you don’t typically read about in the “rah-rah, let’s go virtual” press:
- • How will new employees learn the corporate culture in a virtual organization? How will they observe and understand the corporate norms and expectations that aren’t always communicated officially but rather are picked up by interacting face-to-face with others throughout the day?
- • How will new college grads learn a company’s culture in a virtual world? Will something different than today’s norm be needed to convey and model the culture? Will new employees need mentors who teach them the corporate way of doing things—in a manner that organizations don’t do today? And if everyone is virtual, how will that work? Where will they meet up?
- • How will female employees across the board be mentored, particularly in science, engineering, and technology jobs and companies? Women already find it difficult to climb the corporate ladder, and working remotely could only compound the challenge. Will the organization double down on finding mentors for junior women inside the company and, if so, what will that look like?
I’m very happy that the world is discovering something good out of this horrible pandemic. Working virtually will cost less, reduce burnout from long commutes, and help the planet to heal from our polluting impact. But working remotely isn’t problem-free and there will be challenges. It will be crucial to find a way to nurture young employees, new hires, and women. That will be one of our get-back-to-normal challenges.
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