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Sunday, April 18, 2021

C-Suite Advisory

Why remote work doesn’t work for teams long term

Colin D Ellis (Photo: File)

The removal of requirements to work from home forces business leaders into a decision of how they bring office working back into people’s lives. Whilst there have been benefits of remote working during the pandemic, it doesn’t work as a permanent solution for most teams long-term and many have already seen a decline in engagement as a result of continued disconnection from colleagues and culture. Culture always will be the number reason for organisation success, and careful thought needs to be given on how to redefine ‘the way we do things around here’ to incorporate remote and office work.

For the majority of workers it means a steady return back to the office, where considerable thought and planning needs to be given about how to integrate face to face working again, because different tasks require different interactions and many of these will be face-to-face in the same space. Why else would Australian software giant Atlassian be doubling down on building a new office in Sydney if they didn’t believe in the need to bring people together?

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix is one person that isn’t convinced about the long-term benefits of remote working. In an interview late last year he stated that he has not seen “any positives” from working at home and that not being able to get together to discuss ideas in person is a “pure negative.”

Of course, he’s wrong. A ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t work regardless of whether it’s open-plan or everyone working remotely.

Many organisations have proved that remote work can be just as productive. However, at the same time – and acknowledging Hastings’ concerns – it’s also worth recognising the detrimental effect of remote work on organisation culture.

In one survey Prudential found that over half (55%) of the employees they surveyed felt less connected to their organisation because of remote work. Whilst Microsoft found that innovation had decreased by 16% in 2020 when compared to in-person working in 2019.

Different kinds of work require different interactions and approaches. Indeed a key principle of the agile approach being implemented in many businesses is “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a team is [in-person] face-to-face conversation.”

Yes, there are some that prefer working from home. These people have increased their productivity as they’re not in a distracting environment or else some of the cultural norms that have held them back – notably back-to-back in-person meetings to which they could add little value – have decreased. But there are also other people that thrive when working in an office with others. This can’t be ignored when the opportunity to gather people safely returns.

The answer to continually productive work from a diverse workforce with different personality and communication styles is to adopt a model where employees can work from anywhere.

In this model teams and employees need to be trusted to determine which location is best in terms of team output, not personal preference.

The foundational requirements for this model are threefold; a well-defined culture that people feel connected to regardless of where they’re based, a working environment that caters to different working styles and doesn’t alienate certain individuals; and managers who understand how to set and hold people to behavioural and productivity expectations.

And this latter point is often the key stumbling block to the ‘work from anywhere’ approach as managers just don’t have the skills or trust in people to make it work and organisations resort to telling people how and where to work.

Full-time remote work won’t work for most teams long-term. Organisations need to understand this and prioritise the co-creation of a vibrant workplace culture then trust their teams to deliver, wherever that may be.


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Colin D. Ellis
Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, and an award-winning author and international speaker. Based in Australia, Colin is the author of four books, including his most recent, Culture Hacks: 26 Ideas to Transform the Way You Work (Major Street $29.95) and Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work (Wiley, Nov. 4, 2019). Colin D Ellis is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or connect on LinkedIn.
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