Just a few years ago, corporate leaders dismissed the prospect of remote work as being unrealistic, unproductive, and uncollaborative. But now, those same leaders face a working landscape that has been rewritten to favor flexible working. The Covid-19 pandemic forced companies to crash-test remote work during quarantine -- and the results were far better than anyone expected.
According to recent research from PwC, 83 percent of corporate executives view their organization’s shift to remote as a success. Fewer than one in five want to return to pre-pandemic office norms. This isn’t to say that the office will disappear entirely. Researchers noted that 87 percent of participating leaders described the office as “important for collaborating with team members and building relationships.”
Workers benefit from hybrid models, too. As researchers for Microsoft noted in a recent report, “Employees want the best of both worlds: over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. The data is clear: extreme flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace.”
But adapting to flexible work isn’t as simple as telling employees that they can work from home a few days per week. As corporate America attempts to find its post-pandemic footing, leaders will need to tread carefully to avoid inadvertently disengaging employees during the transition to hybridized working models.
Understanding the Employee Value of Flexible Work
The business and employee benefits of teleworking are well-documented. Research indicates that workers who can sign in remotely often exhibit better performance, less stress, and more autonomy than their in-office peers.
But for some, having a remote work option is more than a stress-reliever -- it's a career booster. Women who sign in virtually experience less bias and have more opportunities to advance professionally. As one Workforce researcher wrote in early 2020, “The data suggest that flexible work options may actually be helping women overcome barriers such as access to career growth and work-life balance.”
For instance, Workforce found that 57 percent of remote women reported having a promotion in the previous year, compared to just 35 percent of onsite women, 51 percent of remote males, and 43 percent of men working on site. Research further noted that 80 percent of remote women felt they had room for growth in their current position, compared to just 60 percent of those in office.
Given these statistics, it’s hardly surprising that female knowledge workers are more likely to list remote work as one of their top-preferred perks than their male peers.
But the boost provided by remote work is not guaranteed -- and if rolled out poorly, flexible policies can inadvertently damage remote worker productivity and female career prospects.
The Consequences of a Thoughtless Remote-Work Policy
Just as teleworking benefits have been extensively documented, so too have the potential consequences of implementing remote work policies without considering how to link remote and in-office employees into a cohesive team. One study found that a full 62 percent of surveyed employees felt isolated when working remotely.
“Unless there is a conscious effort to create opportunities for formal and informal interactions, teleworkers may feel excluded from the workplace community,” management researchers Eric Brunelle and Jo-Annie Fortin wrote for SAGE Open earlier this year.
If left unchecked, this sense of isolation can have a profound and troubling impact on employee stress, communication, satisfaction, innovation, and work relationships in the short term. But short-term problems aren't the only ones at hand. Employers also need to consider the long-term personnel implications of poorly rolled-out flexible work policies.
During quarantine, remote work was the norm for most knowledge workers. Employees contributed via digital channels and were judged for the quality of their virtual work. As we return to the office, employers need to make a concerted effort to ensure that they weigh and welcome contributions equally regardless of where an employee works. Otherwise, businesses risk ostracizing and limiting their remote employees. This eventuality is particularly problematic, given -- as discussed above -- that women often prefer remote work.
“What happens when some team members are in the office or traveling for work while others are WFH?,” researchers Herminia Ibarra, Julia Gillard, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote for the Harvard Business Review in 2020. “Will we see a gender skew, with men disproportionately in the office or on the road, very visibly contributing to the business, while women are out of sight and mind?”
“Unless companies learn to evaluate output, rewarding people for what they actually contribute rather than for the show they put on, a world of mostly remote work may increase organizations’ bias for rewarding those who are present, disproportionately harming women,” the team concluded.
As businesses transition into a hybrid model, proactive thought will need to be given towards inclusionary policies. Leaders will need to establish protocols that explicitly welcome teleworker input via informal and formal means. Similarly, companies should train their managers to avoid unintentional bias against employees who aren’t physically in the office and ensure that review criteria weigh remote and in-person workers equally.
Corporate America is entering a new era of flexible working. If at all possible, leaders should try to start the journey on the right foot.