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Building on the gains made from remote work

Focusing on communication and culture can further boost employee experience and productivity.

As vaccination rates creep up across the country, businesses are working to figure out a new normal. One of the biggest questions many leaders are facing is how much flexibility they’ll give employees to continue working from home.

Though some executives are embracing plans to allow continued flexibility, others have already begun pushing employees to come back to the office. As Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman said, “If you want to get paid New York rates, you work in New York. None of this ‘I’m in Colorado…and getting paid like I’m sitting in New York City.’”

There’s no doubt that there will be benefits to having many employees see one another face-to-face again. For example, new connections and relationships can form, which can help spark serendipitous collaboration, and employees may learn more about what different departments are up to.

But it’s likely that many of these benefits can still be realized by having employees come back to work some days rather than every day, and perhaps setting aside a day each month when everyone is in the office together.

As we move forward, it’s crucial that businesses not lose the gains they’ve made in the past year in permitting employees to work from home. Beyond allowing people to maintain social distance and safety in the midst of a pandemic, remote work has paid dividends for both employers and employees. The ability to work from home gives people the opportunity to build greater work–life balance (or “integration”). And to the surprise of some business leaders, in many instances it has led to an increase in productivity.

A PwC survey published in January found that “business leaders [were] more convinced about the productivity gains achieved” nine months into the shift to working from home. This view was trending in a positive direction, with 83% of employers saying the shift to remote work had been a success, up from 73% who said the same in a survey conducted in June 2020.

These findings build on years of research showing that a great many workers are more productive at home, for all sorts of reasons. To take one example, those working at home are not wasting time, energy, and money on commutes, which can also cause health problems.

But even considering these results, many employers have not yet begun to reap the full extent of the gains that can accrue from embracing remote work in a post-pandemic era. The increases in productivity over the past year have come despite kids being home from school and various loved ones being sick with COVID-19. Parents and other caregivers have been juggling tremendous responsibilities while coping with their own stress. If they can increase their productivity, even amid those very challenging circumstances, imagine how much they’ll get done when kids are back at school and most of the country is vaccinated.

Try building culture remotely

Some of the biggest concerns business leaders raise about the continuation of remote work center on company culture. In the January PwC survey, executives were asked how often employees should be in the office in order to maintain a strong culture. Though their responses represented just about every possibility, the most common response, at 29%, was three days per week. A total of 39% said it should be even more.

If employees can increase their productivity, even amid those very challenging circumstances, imagine how much they’ll get done when kids are back at school and most of the country is vaccinated.

The challenge is that many companies don’t know how to build culture remotely. Until they make active efforts to do so, they won’t know what the right mix of remote and in-person work is.

Jonathan Steiman, CEO of customer-support outsourcing company Peak Support, argues that with some effort, companies can create great cultures with remote staff. In a column for Inc., he writes that by being intentional about communicating regularly, creating virtual communities, sharing stories, and outlining a clear vision and values, organizations can provide the benefits of a strong remote culture.

The collaboration platform Miro has published an extensive 11-step guide for building remote work culture, which includes establishing psychological safety, extending onboarding, implementing regular rituals, and more.

I know from experience that working remotely does not have to mean being left out of company culture. I began my career at NPR, where I spent years working in Atlanta and connecting each day with editors and producers in Washington, DC. I felt like part of the team. And my rare visits up to headquarters always felt like an opportunity for valuable face-to-face time with work friends rather than an entrance into a foreign environment.

These days, many companies have at least some employees who don’t work at headquarters but may work at smaller satellite offices. Efforts to build culture outside of a company’s main offices should be sure to include them as well.

The pressure is on. In the January PwC survey, more than half of employees (55%) said they want to work remotely at least three days a week after the pandemic. If businesses aren’t prepared to embrace this level of telework, some employees may start looking for other jobs. Supporting remote employees could soon be a necessity for attracting talent.

As Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader of PwC’s people and organization practice, wrote in March, it’s crucial to not let a new hybrid workforce become a matter of “us” versus “them”: “Only those businesses that create a shared experience for their entire workforce and build an inclusive culture can realize the benefits of our new ways of working.”

In the post-pandemic era, we have an opportunity to see just how big those benefits are.

Josh Levs

Josh Levs is a business consultant, former journalist for NPR and CNN, and the author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses — and How We Can Fix It Together. He tweets about modern fatherhood and the workplace @JoshLevs.

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