Over the last 6 months, business owners have swung to the opposite end of the office-vs-remote debate pendulum, with a number of agencies and companies going as far as positioning their workplace not just as ‘remote-friendly’ but as ‘remote-first’.
This positive momentum towards remote working has led to a number of CEO’s and publishers to take things a step further and speculate that the office may be a thing of the past.
The office is just as important to flexibility as remote-work is
Despite the favourable light cast on remote-work by the data, the same surveys show that 60% of workers would choose to (and indeed they did) head back to the office as soon as it’s open, available and considered safe. The biggest reasons for going out of home were:
- Working longer hours
- Harder to juggle work and domestic demands and distractions
- Inadequate work environment
- Isolation and disconnection
The largest percentage of those who viewed the experience positively were those who lived alone and those who reported being happy with the space their home provided. The data indicates that remote working is more difficult for people with children, people who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and people living with room-mates.
Without the structure of an office or physical separation of work and home, remote workers can become more stressed, taking fewer breaks and working longer hours – all of which can have serious consequences for their health. In the aforementioned survey carried out by PWC Malta, 51% of respondents said that their ideal way of working would be to split time between working from the office and working remotely. Only 8% saw themselves preferring working only remotely.
You can and should create more flexible work arrangements, but that should not mean eliminating the office from the equation. I believe that, as with any situation involving a pendulum, the correct point of balance is somewhere in the middle.
The key ingredients to a flexible workplace
Remote-work not as a perk or a privilege
Remote employees may believe they’re suffering from a lack of visibility; they can feel as though they’re missing out on opportunities or experiences, and are shut out of the decision-making process. If you’re going to allow remote working, make sure you have the time to monitor and assess output instead of basing your decisions on ‘who’s there’.
Transparent and asynchronous communication
Transparency is vital for flexibility. When information is lost, or distorted in a virtual game of Chinese whispers, it can breed an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. Channel-based communication tools like slack are both free to acquire and simple to use.
Keep your office available
For a number of employees, working remotely from their home is indeed more effective, but for other employees, the space their home provides may be a lot less ideal. Having the option to use your office as their base is as vital to flexibility as having the option to work remotely. One size does not fit all.
Create a code of conduct
Implement conventions that ensure orderly and inclusive communication. For instance, if one or more team members tune in to a meeting via a video conference call, have everyone do the same – even the colleagues present on-site. At the same time, if anything is discussed or decided on site, make sure it is also communicated via online channels, and vice versa. Likewise, make sure that your online communication channels are organised: Leave a channel for general banter and workplace communications, create other channel for specific teams or projects. Most importantly, decide how to order your different channels with the rest of your team, not on your own.
For the majority of workers, a hybrid arrangement that includes both remote work and in-office days seems to work best. Beyond tailoring work arrangements around the needs and situation of your individual employees, consider also marking specific dates during the month or the week when you would want everyone to come in the office.
Both in surveys carried out in Malta and abroad, feeling lonely was amongst the top challenges experienced with working remotely.
Flexible with time, not just space
Offering flexible starting hours is just as crucial an ingredient to flexibility as offering the option to work remotely. Not everyone lives in the same place or has access to the same methods of transport.
Assess deliverables and output
Showing trust does not mean turning a blind eye. Paying attention to the results, progress and output is key to providing constructive feedback and keeping your employees motivated.
Before implementing different alternative work arrangements, first assess whether you’re actually dedicating enough time to assessing and providing feedback about the products and output of your team.
There’s different ways to go about this: You can ask for an email report on a weekly or bi-weekly basis with work materials attached so that you can review the work at your own time. Ideally, you also complement this with regular 1-on-1 meetings with your employee (whether online or in your office) to go over the work produced and give feedback. The most important factor that’s going to decide how well your employee does is attention. If you don’t have the time to review, assess and give true feedback, then it’s time to either delegate more of your other work or hire a manager.
In conclusion, when you consider the challenges small to medium businesses are facing, the idea of doing away with the real estate involved with having an office is understandably appealing. As a business owner who’s navigating the new landscape Covid-19 has created, I’m not going to criticise anyone for trying to mitigate costs; likewise, it’s only rational to want to protect your employees from sickness and offering flexible work arrangements, but there is an important rule to remember about pendulums: The more aggressively it swings to one side, the harder it’ll hit when it inevitably swings back.