When the coronavirus forced millions of people to work from home, senior executives and team leaders worried that keeping their employees engaged and productive might prove difficult. Yet a growing volume of research suggests that productivity hasn’t suffered. In fact, many people now want to continue working remotely even after their offices re-open. They’ve stopped asking, “When can we return to the office?” and now want to know, “Why do we have to return to the office?”
Drew DeSilver, a senior writer at Pew Research Center, summarized this sea change perfectly: “COVID-19 may yet do what years of advocacy have failed to: Make telework a benefit available to more than a relative handful of U.S. workers.”
But is this trend sustainable? Over the long term, can a remote team be as effective, creative and solve problems as effectively as a face-to-face team? How will the home office evolve in the post-COVID world?
The Home Office Is Dead
For many of us, the first month of working from home was filled with a combination of shock and panic as we struggled to figure out a new work-life balance and how to deal with the logistics of working remotely. But as we’ve settled into a routine and the initial panic has subsided, we can now see troubling signs of the emotional pressures facing employees working from home. Our creativity is suffering because it’s difficult to communicate via the standard conference call that sidelines many of us as participants in meetings.
Our Creativity Is Suffering
Research shows that remote work might increase individuals’ productivity, but this fails to address harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators and that team cohesion suffers in remote work arrangements as well. Having to sit through long conference calls where it is difficult to even get a word in forces us to focus on finding the perfect moment to jump into the conversation so much that often we forget what we were going to say. So it’s not just me who dreads the never ending conference call in which I struggle to explain my vision or articulate a solution to a problem that seems obvious to me but can’t be translated to fit into the confines of a video chat.
Are Our Voices Heard in a Conference Call?
As I pointed out in my white paper “The New ‘New Normal,’” even though video conferencing tools like Zoom and WebEx have been indispensable during this unprecedented time, many of the capabilities they offer have been available for years. Basic screen sharing, camera controls, and chat windows are nothing new. In the past, anyone who joined a meeting using a video conference tool did not command the same attention as those who were physically present. The remote participant was just a small little icon or a grainy video image on the corner of a screen, usually sitting there silently on mute. The people that were present in person took precedence.
I can’t emphasize this point enough: for meetings that foster creativity and engagement, one person cannot have a louder voice than others. Suddenly, everyone has been forced to join every meeting virtually and now the host, or the person who controls the screen share, seems to have the voice. We all struggle to find that gap in the conversation where we can unmute and talk without looking like we interrupted. It can be downright impossible to direct the conversation or engage in healthy debate when someone else is in control of the visual image. Our conversations have suddenly become so one-dimensional that there is no flexibility in thought.
Can We Survive the Home Office?
Many of us do not feel that the home office is the extension of our work because it has never been a substitute on equal footing. I personally feel that a large part of the disconnect between the home office and the real deal is due to the lack of engagement between one and the other. The office offers in-person connection and problem solving the other, a virtual video screen that gets incredibly difficult to communicate the more people join the meeting. This introduces the difficulty in bringing creativity to our jobs from elsewhere. The combination of one-dimensional meetings and endless PowerPoint presentations shared over video conferencing makes expressing our views and sharing thoughts creatively difficult. In turn, this forces us to check out more and we fall into a vicious cycle of poor work habits.
What Do We Really Want?
It’s unlikely that employees will fall into two distinct categories: those who want to work at home full time and those who wish to return to the office full time. Instead, the majority will probably belong to a third category. They will want to adopt a hybrid approach that gives them the freedom to split their time between home and the workplace.
Making this the new normal will require buy-in from the C-Suite. The New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller reports that new research shows more employers now support this third option, the hybrid arrangement.
Long Live the Home Boardroom
The pandemic upended the daily work routines of millions of people, but at least everyone faced these challenges together. We were all in the same figurative boat in learning how to use tools like Zoom, Slack, Google Docs, and Trello to communicate, collaborate, and get work done together. As offices reopen and some employees return to making the commute while others stay home, managers and their team members may look back on the lockdown as a simpler time. Embracing the hybrid workplace presents technological and emotional issues that employees and senior executives will have to contend with every day.
If our society is to transition to a post-COVID normal, we will need to rethink the concept of the home office and how we interact with our peers. For me, the home office is dead. Instead, we need to transition to what I call the home boardroom — an extension of the professional corporate environment that maintains the same culture and creativity. More importantly, the home boardroom is a space where everyone feels that they have the ability to contribute and have their voice heard. With the home boardroom, we can close deals and invite customers to feel engaged and energized, just like the office boardroom.
Vizetto, Inc. grew out of a desire to solve the problems caused by the limitations of existing remote work technology by creating a new class of software aimed at changing the way the world communicates, while also disrupting a $60 billion video conferencing market. We knew that fostering a sustainable culture of collaboration would require software that allows anyone to express their visions, visualize and share their ideas, and revise them during the meeting based on input from others. This will help enable people to be as creative remotely as if they were face to face in the same room. Implementing technology tools designed for group meetings and creative brainstorming sessions that include remote participants, such as Vizetto’s Interactive Whiteboards, allows users to connect to their content. These tools can act as a hub for other in-room peripherals like conference phones and projectors that enable teams to easily reconfigure space as required.
We developed our smart board software, Reactiv SUITE, with all of these ideas in mind. Reactiv SUITE is an ecosystem of products designed to make remote collaboration as intuitive as using one’s smartphone is today. On this platform, individuals can focus on really getting their message across as opposed to presenting static data and images through Reactiv STAGE (Digital Table). Additionally, all team members can simplify complex ideas, visually communicate concepts and intent, and help teams to capture decisions on an infinity canvas through Reactiv SCRIBBLE (Digital Wall). And an innovative tool that allows remote employees, partners and customers to collaborate and participate as if they were sitting in the same room through Reactiv HUDDLE (Digital Room).
A segment of the population probably thinks that this situation is temporary and we’ll eventually revert back to our old practices. Maybe we can just wait it out, they think. Of course, there are always corporations and teams that will fall back to old habits. But what if your competitors figure out that there is a way to get the best of both worlds — to leverage the efficiencies of remote teams and not lose out on the creativity and problem-solving capabilities of face-to-face meetings? Can your enterprise afford to be left behind in this revolution?