Almost as soon as the pivot to remote work happened at the start of the pandemic, people began speculating that the change might be here to stay. This gave way to differing opinions on whether remote work is really the best way forward. Some companies fully embraced the switch as a permanent change early on, foreseeing benefits to cash flow and talent acquisition, while others held firm that it kills culture, harms productivity, and stalls innovation.
The reality is that widespread remote work is complex, and likely inevitable. At a time when many businesses are grappling with uncertainty – not just from the pandemic but also due to rapid change driven by digital transformation – having employees work remotely frees up capital that’s tied up in real estate, allowing firms to invest it elsewhere. It helps reduce the long commutes that frustrate and burn out employees, and gives them greater flexibility, improving retention. It opens up a wider pool of job candidates, helping companies address the skills gap. However, despite all these benefits, it can certainly negatively impact company culture and productivity if allowed to.
Some combination of remote and on-site work is the most likely scenario for the future of work. According to a study by PwC, the majority of financial services companies (69%) expect to have 60% of their workforce working from home at least once a week going forward. And Gartner shows a similar finding in a cross-industry study, with 82% of respondents indicating that they plan to allow remote working some of the time on a permanent basis. That means if your firm doesn’t allow remote work, you could lose talent to organisations that do.
So what’s really in question isn’t whether or not to embrace remote work, but, rather, how to minimise the potential negative impacts on your workforce and business. For example, let’s say your firm sees remote work as the answer to the struggle to find the right people with the right skills. While you’ll now have access to more talent, how will you handle the significantly more nebulous tax and compliance scenarios that arise from having people in multiple jurisdictions? Or maybe your company decides not to renew the leases on some of its buildings and put the additional influx of cash into marketing and business development to support expansion into new markets. How will leadership foster a strong culture and align everyone to those new growth goals if the workforce is decentralised?
Here’s my three-part playbook for how to minimise the negative impact of remote work, while simultaneously strengthening your workforce against uncertainty.
Many leaders have homed in on the importance of offering employees more support during the pandemic. This is often interpreted as flexibility in work hours for parents who are trying to juggle the needs of their families with job demands, or employee assistance programs (EAPs). While these are certainly important to continue, leaders should try to go even deeper to understand their people and give them what they need.
There are five generations in the workforce today, and each individual within them is experiencing different stressors and possessing varying levels of tolerance for uncertainty depending on their financial, social, and family situation. This is especially true of Gen Z (those born after 1996), which has been touted as particularly diverse in their values and preferences. An EY study even described Gen Z as “a generation of contradictions”. Given this high degree of diverse mindsets that make up today’s workforce, we need to broaden our definition of what it means to support employees and offer them a great experience.
Ceridian’s latest Pulse of Talent survey found that employees were less happy with their work-life balance, benefits, and perks in 2020. For example, in 2020, only 63% of full-time employees surveyed from North America were happy with the benefits their company offers compared with 72% of the same group in 2018. To help improve retention and engagement, employers should make it a priority – and part of their talent strategy – to understand their people. Employee needs are not fixed; they are influenced by the same external change drivers that are causing companies to pivot. Understanding your people can’t be a one-and-done survey once a year. It has to be an exercise in continuous listening.
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Organisations that had already invested in digital transformation found that their efforts paid off at the start of the pandemic. Many firms scrambled to figure out how to enable remote work almost overnight, while ensuring compliance, privacy, and security would be maintained without the protocols and protection layers built around the physical workplace. This was a major lesson learned the hard way for those organisations that had delayed upgrading their legacy systems, and should now be a top priority.
There is, however, a difference between simply updating technology to something newer, and building an agile system that supports rather than hinders your organisation’s efforts to move quickly. For starters, in the movement from reactive to proactive behavior, data is king. In a highly uncertain, fast-changing business context like we’re facing today, you need to have access to real-time workforce data to make informed decisions regarding labor planning, workforce management, and pay. What makes this possible is having a single source of employee data that’s accessible across the organisation, right when you need it. This can help minimise any negative impact to productivity from remote work, such as increased absenteeism or overtime, waning employee engagement, and the effects of labor planning decisions.
Additionally, transforming the technologies that support the day-to-day activities of your employees into agile systems is also important. For example, a learning platform where you can create pathways for different roles can easily be updated with new content as things change, keeping employees aligned in the same direction and building valuable skills. Self-serve tools for tasks like booking time off or swapping shifts can free up time for managers to focus on higher-value strategic initiatives. And onboarding platforms can help organisations bring on new talent seamlessly, even in a virtual environment, giving them a taste of the culture from day one.
One of the biggest challenges that can arise from widespread remote work is employees feeling disconnected from each other, and the impact of that on culture, collaboration, and innovation. Transitioning to a world of video calls and online chats means losing some of the opportunities for relationship-building, creativity, problem-solving, and informal learning that happen organically inside a physical workspace.
Organisations need to realise that while indispensable to remote work, tools like Zoom and Slack aren’t going to exactly replicate the onsite conditions that lead to organic collaboration. For these tools to serve as efficient channels for organic interactions, companies first need to ensure their people have the right ingredients to leverage them – information, alignment, and clarity. When these elements can be digitised, that can help to enable more organic interactions to take place in the new digital work world.
Information is power during times of uncertainty and constant change – especially with employees physically separated from each other. Yet, nearly three-quarters (74%) of employees feel they’re missing out on company news and information. Online information hubs can help to create a central place for all employees to access important information curated from across the organisation, helping to connect people together. The result is even better if these can be personalised.
Alignment and clarity are also critically important to ensure everyone is focused on what matters to the business, and working together to reach goals. This is largely driven by managers, and achieving it with everyone working remotely requires a different mindset and leadership style than in an in-person office.
The remote work dilemma is just one instance of a bigger challenge organisations are facing right now. The context in which we do business is changing faster than ever, it’s more uncertain than ever, and it’s more complex than ever. What we need to do is move away from either/or thinking and embrace the grey area. We need to prepare our organisations to be agile and resilient, while strengthening our tolerance and responsiveness to those “unknown unknowns” that will inevitably emerge.
Patrick Luther is Vice President and Principal, Financial Services at Ceridian. He has over 10 years of experience in product management and marketing of enterprise software, and 10+ years in consulting for the financial services sector. Patrick is a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant, and has held leadership roles at IBM, Rational, Infosys, Deloitte, and various SaaS startups. Patrick holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Rochester and an MBA from Yale.View Collection