Prior to this year, many companies had firm rules against working remotely. Work happened only in the office, and remote work wasn’t an option. Marissa Mayer famously put an end to remote work at Yahoo in early 2013, and many other companies followed suit, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Best Buy.
Now, the novel coronavirus has forced companies around the world to allow employees to work outside of the office for their own safety. For those who are still able to work, most are working from home.
Some people have hailed this drastic change as the world’s largest-ever remote work experiment. At the same time, many others who are more established in the remote work world have pointed out that the current situation isn’t true remote work. I agree with the latter opinion.
Right now, people are working from home because of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Unlike true remote work, this situation was sudden, non-voluntary, will likely last for an extended period of time, and doesn’t allow for normal socialization outside of work. Worse, the pandemic means people are experiencing additional stress because of external factors. By contrast, many employees that switch to remote work find it to be less stressful than working in an office, particularly if doing so eliminates a long commute.
True remote work simply means that employees have the option of working from a flexible location that is not an office. That location can be coffee shops, libraries, co-working spaces, or anywhere else that people can get their jobs done. The term remote work also implies that an organization has created systems of communication and collaboration so that employees can work from anywhere in the world and still get their work done without needing to be in the same office. When done properly, remote work has incredible benefits. One TINYpulse survey found that remote workers are not only happier but also more productive.
Although today’s pandemic-induced working from home model isn’t a true remote work experience for many, this is still one of the largest shifts in how work happens in recent history. Not only are more people working from home than ever before, some countries and organizations are even questioning the five-day workweek and testing out a four-day alternative.
Considering all of these shifts, what will the future of work look like?
A Focus on Flexibility
To begin, we should acknowledge that the future of work is very unlikely to be fully remote. After months of working exclusively from home, once people are able to work safely from their offices, many will likely flock there. Companies probably won’t give up office spaces, even if they’re expensive, if employees find them beneficial. Offices are both a significant investment that the company has made on its own behalf as well as a productive work environment for a lot of people. I’ve often spoken to people who have self-identified as not being great at remote working because they feel the office environment motivates them to get work done. They’re likely to be among the first to request access to the office again.
Another factor in working from home is that it can create more expenses. Data from the 2020 State of Remote Work report shows that companies are unlikely to cover the costs of co-working spaces, cell phones, and home internet, which are all necessary for a fully remote employee. These costs add up when someone is working remotely.
So although it’s unlikely that work will become fully remote, one thing that has already changed within organizations is an increase in flexibility. Companies have created the infrastructure to allow people to work from anywhere. At the moment, that place just happens to be home. Now that this new infrastructure exists, though, it opens up even more possibilities for remote work. As a result, many workplaces may choose in the future to embrace the new working options that this time will enable for them.
What Flexibility Looks Like
According to this study of remote workers, 32 percent of those surveyed selected “Ability to have a flexible schedule” as the top benefit of remote work. A flexible schedule means starting and ending work on your own terms, taking breaks when needed, and not automatically falling into a nine-to-five routine. I’ve had teammates that start work at 5:00 a.m. because it works better for their families. Companies that want to give teammates more flexibility in their schedules can start by encouraging their team to reflect on the hours that work best for them and when they are most productive. Companies can also switch to primarily communicating asynchronously (more on that below) so that schedules aren’t filled with hours of meetings, leaving little room for flexibility.
Asynchronous communication is a core part of organizational flexibility. This term means acknowledging on an institutional level that work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone. For example, you might write updates for a teammate so that they have all of the information they need to respond to you or do their work, but you don’t necessarily expect them to reply immediately.
By contrast, synchronous communication consists of regular in-person or video meetings. Right now, many companies have transitioned from traditional office work to trying to replicate that work by packing employees’ schedules with video calls all day. This method simply doesn’t work, especially as many employees are doubling as caretakers for children and other family members who are also at home right now.
Asynchronous communication offers employees much more flexibility and is often used by remote teams for that reason. If, for example, you work with people across multiple time zones, asynchronous communication means that you can update a colleague on a project status at the end of your day, ask for their feedback, and ideally have received that feedback by the time you start work the next morning.
If you’re looking to switch to asynchronous communication, two popular tools are Twist and Threads. Twist offers a full switch to asynchronous communication and replaces both Slack and internal email as a full communications tool. Threads integrates with Slack to allow for quick, urgent, synchronous conversations on Slack and longer, more detailed, asynchronous conversations on Threads.
Flexibility also means embracing results-based performance tracking and reviews. One of the most common things I’ve heard from people who were hesitant to allow their employees to work remotely is, “How will I know if my employees are working if I can’t see them?” Constant monitoring is, quite frankly, an antiquated way to measure productivity. Worse, it’s not inclusive of teammates who might not be able to stay at the office late because they’re also caretakers.
Instead of measuring productivity based on how much time someone spends at the office or in a remote environment, and instead of monitoring what they are doing on their computers, a flexible alternative is to measure employee performance based solely on their results. The way this works for us at Buffer is that an individual will set projects and goals with their manager and have regular check-ins during their one-on-ones to share progress on those projects and goals. Their manager holds them accountable to their deadlines, and managers are able to track a teammate’s performance based on those results. With this method, managers are able to clearly measure a teammate’s output. As a result, they can focus on getting the work done and not just how much time they need to spend being visible at the office.
What Flexibility Does for Employees
All of these examples of flexibility imply trust. Trust is a byproduct of flexibility, and one with incredibly positive repercussions for both employees and employers. According to one piece of research shared by the Harvard Business Review, “The effect of trust on self-reported work performance was powerful. Respondents whose companies were in the top quartile indicated they had 106 percent more energy and were 76 percent more engaged at work than respondents whose firms were in the bottom quartile. They also reported being 50 percent more productive.” These numbers alone should convince workplaces to lean into the trust created through remote infrastructure.
Now that the workplace is adapting to embrace more remote solutions and that many employees and employers are experiencing the benefits of flexibility, the future of work will be able to have an unprecedented focus on flexibility for employees.