Remote Work Is Sinking In: And The Impact Is Bigger Than We Realized

We’ve been studying the impact of Remote Work from the crisis and the well is deepening. Not only are companies getting comfortable with the practice, but a whole new set of issues has emerged.

Let me give you a peek (this is data from our, our bi-weekly study of HR professionals’ response to COVID19).

  • Productivity and work-life balance are now the #1 issues on employees’ minds. In early April we surveyed HR professionals and found that “job security” was the #1. Now it’s “technology and tools for remote work.” Roughly 50% of companies cite this as their #1 topic to address. Right behind this is the issue of “who’s paying for this.” 28% of employees want more subsidies for tools and wifi.
  • In our Remote Work Bootcamp, more than 1,000 HR professionals told us that remote work is more productive and useful than they expected. While almost all HR leaders admit that office-based collaboration is still very important, there is near-unanimous agreement that working at home is positive.
  • People want more help with productivity and engagement. 25% of HR professionals told us their people want better emotional support, clarity from their leaders, and tips to make work at home easier. A recent study by MetLife found that the #1 wellbeing issue today is “I am tired.” This is caused by the cognitive overload of working at home: poor work location, children and pets, and a myriad of distractions.
  • Emotional and social support is in great demand. Nearly a third of companies told us this is their #1 need, and this means more checking in with people, virtual social activities, mental wellbeing, and more fun. I wrote last weekend about the “puppy effect” – this is clearly coming through in all the data we analyze.
  • Everyone wants frequent two-way communication. Almost every company I talk with is now having daily all-hands calls, emails from the CEO, and other open forms of communication. 45% of people cited this as a top requirement and they want high-quality information (safety, work practices, new pay policies), clear guidance on “back to work” policies, and they want to give input.
  • Employee experience surveys are getting old already, so people want open conversations with their managers. As Medallia put it to me this week (a leader in EX solutions), we need “signals not surveys.” Surveys are just not specific enough for people to express their particular needs – so companies are being asked to open the aperture and let employees just talk, share a video, post a picture, or type.
  • Employees are craving for help with work-life balance and physical wellbeing. 32% of employees cite these issues and this includes highly flexible meetings, letting people have time to take care of their kids, and online exercise, yoga, and other forms of fitness programs.
  • There is massive need for patience as people have children and distractions at home. The #1 most voted “recommendation” is to “maintain patience as employees try to balance remote work, young kids at home, and the challenges of homeschooling all rolled into one.”
  • We have seen explosive demand for online learning. Companies tell me their learning catalog is “flying off the shelf” and the demand for video-based learning on work practices, personal fitness and leadership, and all sorts of information about the virus and safety is huge.

As we write about in our Remote Work Playbook (available to Bersin Academy members), this is not a small shift. A recent survey by the Financial Times found that 49% of UK-based companies are planning on reducing lease space. 

I actually think the numbers are going to be higher. Almost every CHRO I speak with tells me that 20-30% of their “work at home” staff will probably stay in that configuration, and they see the cost savings of reduced real-estate as a huge benefit. 

One of the world’s leading providers of office equipment told me “We just redesigned our offices for the future of work and eliminated cubicles and closed doors, cramming people together.  Now it’s time to redo it again, and give people more space and the option to stay at home.” I cannot imagine the panic that must be going through leasing agents right now.

Among all the data we collected this period, we found that the big issues fall out as follows:

Making Remote Work Work

I’m amazed at how many “experts” there are for remote work. I guess everyone who’s been laid off or worked at home has some expertise with this topic. 

Let me give you just a few higher-level thoughts:

  • Yes, this is a permanent change. Not only is the tech for remote work getting better by the minute (there are now dozens of integrated “work-tech” platforms we can use), but we’re all now comfortable with it. I believe the future will be “hybrid” work locations – you work at home some days, go into the office for meetings, and then go back home for other days.
  • It’s harder than it seems. People who work at home go through a tremendous learning curve on topics like productivity, stress, health, and workplace design. I’ve talked with many people working from their dining rooms, kitchens, and basements. We are going to see a lot of home remodeling to make this easier.
  • Human connection remains critical. As I learned during my time in a consulting firm, you do need to take time to meet face to face. But we won’t do it as much. We will “meet” and then go home, which is a common rhythm among consultants.
  • Productivity will go up. I am just negotiating a fantastic new business agreement with a company in Toronto and we’re doing it all on Zoom. I’ve saved days of time and thousands of dollars in travel, and we’re making it work well. As much as I’d like to spend a day with them face to face, we’re actually moving fast – and a few small video calls is making it easier than I thought.
  • People are saving money and we’re improving the environment. Studies show employees save $2,000-$6,500 per year on reduced childcare and gasoline. They also show that the US work at home trend could reduce 51 million metric tons of greenhouse gases this year.
  • You have to call people on the phone. Zoom is a bit of a mess for most of us. It was fun at first, and now it’s becoming a drag. Nobody can live on video all day – so make sure you space phone calls with video so people get a little bit of a break.
  • The real estate and design industry is going to transform. There are already lots of “covid-safe” offices being designed – more space, better ventilation, beacons to keep people apart, and even “paper placemats” for each desk that can be disposed of. One company has arrows on the floor to encourage clockwise lanes, and clear markings at coffee stations and cafeterias to encourage distancing. 
  • I think VR will arrive fast. The new Facebook Portal technology (which gives you 3D views of your peers) may be the way of the future. And I”m excited to see VR embedded into our workstations so we can have 3D zoom meetings soon.
  • We need new legal and liability structures. What if you go to the office and become infected? Who is at fault? I was already fed up with restaurants that crammed people too close together – I wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation that mandates “safe office spacing” which pushes this topic further.

Check out this video from Cushman & Wakefield Six-Feet Office Project to get a sense of what’s to come.


HR, IT, and Facilities Must Merge

The other big trend which is very clear to me is that HR, IT, Facilities, and Workplace Safety must “bond at the hip.” The issues we now face impact all four of these domains, so these groups have to work closely together.

The future of work isn’t AI or robotics, its a new integrated world of “WorkTech” – collaboration, sharing, project management, video conferencing, coupled with goal setting, feedback, recognition, and learning. The HR Tech markets of performance management and talent management are going to merge with IT platforms, and this means the big IT players like Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco, and Slack will be involved.

We’re probably in the second or third inning of this new ballgame, but the patterns are becoming clear. The Future of Work is not an academic discussion of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (I’m tired of that myself), it’s a pragmatic redesign of how and where we work – and we have amazing innovation ahead.

If you want to be part of our Big Reset Initiative, please join us. We are looking for HR leaders who want to help us share the real “future of work” and we hope to publish our “back to work playbook” in the coming weeks.