The past year has not brought many positives but, for a lot of people, the ability to work from home was one. Louise Rodgers suggests ways to retain the benefits of a remote operation in a hybrid world
As businesses everywhere work out how to switch from having an entirely dispersed workforce to one that, for the most part, will be working from the office on some days and from elsewhere (usually home) on others, it is important not to lose sight of the few good things that have come out of the past year.
One of these is how working remotely has had benefits for inclusion. Before we return to the old ways, it is worth spending some time thinking about why this happened – and what we can do to hold onto it as we move into a hybrid working world.
Over the past 12 months the locus of power has shifted from being office-centred to one that is more fully distributed. For those who have always faced the challenge of balancing the needs of their job with the demands of childcare, mainstream remote working made the field more equal in ways they could not have foreseen. Debates about juggling caring responsibilities and home-schooling moved into the mainstream simply because more of us were doing it – and doing it visibly.
And, with a greater emphasis on the quality of the work being done, and not on where or when it is being done, we have all enjoyed more flexibility to balance our work life with other things that we need, or want, to do. Few of us want to give this up but we need employers to get firmly on board with this new way of working.
Clever employers have taken advantage of access to a greater pool of talent than was available to them before. This includes not only people who have young children or other caring responsibilities but people who are living further away from the office base, even in another city or country. Remote working has also made it easier for people with mobility-limiting issues, physical or otherwise, who can now be fully integrated into office life, even if they cannot physically be present.
Inclusion was also generated by the removal, or at least partial removal, of the “us” and “them” distinction that under-represented members of the workforce may feel when they are sharing a physical space with people who don’t look like them. Being part of a virtual group feels very different.
Much has been said about the opportunities for informal or “osmosis” learning that younger and less-experienced team members have missed out on while their offices have been closed. There is truth in this, but the flip side of the coin is that for some it has also been a positive: all the usual trappings of status and power disappear when everyone is a headshot on a screen.
They have attended meetings that they may otherwise have missed out on and feel less exposed than they would do in an intimidating boardroom, and perhaps more able to speak up.
Online meetings are intense, and timekeeping tends to be tighter. Everyone gets on with the business to hand and there is often no time for the social niceties that take place when people gather for a physical meeting. Some of us really missed this but, for others, it was a relief. I am thinking of those who find such interactions banal or awkward or are anxious because they don’t want to participate or lack confidence in such situations.
For them it was liberating. Released from the pressure of having to make small talk, they found that more focused meetings suited them.
With many employers looking to downsize office space in the future, remote working for at least part of the time seems to be here to stay. However, some employees are cautious about the potential impact this may have on their future: feeling that out of sight may come to mean out of mind and they will find themselves overlooked for promotion, training and other career boosting opportunities. We need “presenteeism” to be left where it belongs, which is in the past.
There is now an opportunity and a need for employers to lead from the front, demonstrating in their own daily interactions at work the equal value and importance of those working remotely.