According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 3% of US employees worked remotely in 2019. However, the coronavirus outbreak saw a massive shift, with more than 80% of the US workforce working from home since the start of the pandemic. On the global stage, nearly 90% of businesses moved to work-from-home setups.
As employees adjust to working outside the traditional office, business organizations must likewise grapple with new issues and challenges brought by remote operations.
Remote Work is Here to Stay
In case you think working remotely is only a passing trend that will expire with the coronavirus, think again. Statistics show that many companies across different industries do not plan on returning to the office environment, even after the pandemic.
- Global Workplace Analytics estimates that more than a quarter of the US workforce will work from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.
- A Gallup poll found that half of respondents prefer to work from home if given a choice.
- 70% of business executives surveyed by Salesforce believe that Covid-19 has permanently changed the way we work.
- Google, Microsoft, Reuters, Salesforce, and Uber have extended remote operations through 2021.
- Facebook and Mastercard have given employees the option to work from home indefinitely, while Coinbase, Slack, Square, Twitter, and Zillow will provide a permanent work-from-home option.
The Challenges of Remote Operations
The transition to telecommuting caught many organizations flat-footed at the start of the pandemic. Some of the biggest hurdles that businesses face are:
- Secure connections needed to be established, and employees educated about new log-on procedures.
- Some employees have trouble maintaining stable connections with their ISPs.
- IT issues may not be resolved as quickly or clearly as they would have in the office.
- IT teams faced an overwhelming workload in terms of network security, endpoint protection, and traditional IT tickets that must now be handled remotely.
- Employees who use their own devices and businesses that allow BYOD are at greater risk of network intrusion.
- Remote devices are more vulnerable to loss or theft.
- Communication and collaboration can be impacted, especially for employees who are unfamiliar with collaboration tools or who reside in different time zones.
- Time tracking and performance monitoring are trickier.
- Team leaders may find project management to be harder.
- Employees experience more distractions at home than in an office environment.
- Productivity and efficiency can take a hit.
- Team spirit and motivation become more challenging.
- It’s harder to maintain work-life balance and unplug after office hours.
Overcoming Challenges for Employees Transitioning to Remote Work
According to the Labor Bureau, the average remote worker saves almost $500 on gas and spends roughly 50% on lunches. But while most people would have dreamed of a work-anywhere setup during the pre-pandemic days, the reality of working from home indefinitely now may not be how they dreamed it would be. Loneliness, distractions, and the struggle to stay productive and motivated can take their toll.
Here’s how to overcome the challenges commonly faced by remote workers.
Loneliness and motivation
Even before the pandemic, the feeling of isolation was the biggest issue for remote employees. The 2018 State of Remote Work found that loneliness was the biggest complaint among remote workers.
- Establish an “in-office” day. A Gallup poll of nearly 10,000 remote employees found that those who come in to work at least once a week are the happiest.
- Support in-office collaboration. This is particularly true for senior employees who struggle to learn collaborative tools that hamper their productivity. As an example, Nielsen transformed its NYC offices into meeting spaces for staff.
Organize virtual team-building sessions. Team building activities can still be done virtually, it just takes a little creativity. For example, there’s a wide range of social games, from classic whodunits like Among Us to games that require team coordination like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.
Maintaining productivity and keeping distractions at bay are issues that anyone working at home commonly faces. The culprits can be everything from pets and family members to poor connectivity and technology issues. And studies show it can take nearly half an hour to regain focus after being distracted.
- Use a time tracker Ideally, one that is seamless to install and easy to use, so workers can clock in and out with minimum hassle. Some examples include Timecamp and Clockify.
- Gamify. Gamification can increase productivity when people see a progress bar or goal. This makes their projects more tangible and provides a sense of accomplishment upon completion.
- Avoid multitasking. Research shows that multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40%. Switch to single-task goals for efficient time management.
Provide a stipend if possible. This can go towards a co-working space, device upgrade, or coffee shop sessions to get away from a poor working environment. Uber provides a $500 stipend for remote workers to spend on productivity tools or working places.
One of the downsides of telecommuting is unplugging after work. The 2019 State of Remote Work report found that maintaining work/life balance was the biggest problem for remote workers at 22%, followed by loneliness at 19%.
- Mandate separate work and personal accounts. Not only is this critical for security, it creates a tangible border between work and personal time. Logging out is the same as clocking out and heading for the exit.
- Use that status. Put that status bar on Slack and Skype to good use. Green is open for business, and unreachable should be the same as unavailable.
Respect timezones. Time sensitivity should be ingrained in organizations with multicultural or multizone employees. Use world clocks on the Windows status bar, plot overlapping times in project management software for when everyone is available, and make remote teams aware of local holidays.
How Managers Can Support Remote Employees
One survey found that 77% of managers consider it harder to manage their team remotely. These tips aim to lessen those difficulties and form a better bond with remote team members.
1. Take time to engage
- About half of the remote workers polled in a Harvard Business Review survey say that the most successful managers are those who check in frequently with them, instead of leaving them to work on their own.
- The same survey found that workers appreciated awareness of or being asked about their personal life, such as small talk about their family or hobbies.
2. Establish structure and communication
- Bridge the distance with daily check-ins and regular roundtable talks to bring a sense of routine despite having different shifts.
- Use multiple channels of communication, not just one. This is helpful for employees who may experience an outage or slow connection.
- Encourage alternative forms of communication. Today it’s no longer informal to respond with a GIF or meme to non-serious topics, in order to bring levity to the everyday grind.
3. Recognize achievements
- Gamification is one thing, but being recognized for achieving goals is another. Callouts add to the sense of accomplishment, and enables workers to feel satisfaction and being an integral part of the organization.
- According to Slack, ““Daily greetings and regular check-ins over shared communication channels are effective ways to acknowledge remote employees, but the biggest impact comes from celebrating contributions and achievements with specific, purposeful feedback and recognition.”
4. Foster a sense of belonging
- Combat the sense of isolation with group activities. You know how the Apple Watch tells you when it’s time to breathe? Do it but on a group level. Hold a stretching session or group exercise routine.
- Have a regular break session, virtual coffee talk, or Zoom happy hour to replace the watercooler discussion in the office.
- Build a culture of collaboration. If another team member should be part of the chat or videocall, don’t hesitate to say “Let’s get them involved here.”
5. Educate them on cybersecurity
- An IBM study found that almost half of surveyed workers are worried about cyber threats in their home office, and that compromised employee accounts were the most expensive cause of data breaches.
- Promote online security awareness through regular tips, incorporating it in the newsletter, and sharing news about the latest threats or attacks.
Consider holding short courses on cybersecurity (like this helpful resource list from the National Institute of Standards and Technology). A quick one-hour course can teach them the basics, then follow up with a quiz or phishing test to reinforce what they learned and keep them on their toes.
Working Remote Doesn’t Have to Mean Isolated
While the Covid pandemic may end, there’s no denying that the way we work has forever changed. Remote work is here to stay, and organizations must now adapt by building a strong remote culture outside the traditional office. Being able to support remote workers and anticipating their needs is a good step in that direction.