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Remote Work’s Prospects Within Your Organization Will Depend on Design

Although the pandemic’s still afflicting the world, many of us feel prepared to go back to normal, or as close as we can get to it. CDC restrictions are being loosened across the country. Many people have been vaccinated, making it somewhat safer to go out and mingle with others once more.

The big question many companies now face is: what do we do with remote work? Are you going down the path of Twitter and Facebook with a lifetime work-from-home option? Or are you doubling down on the traditional office and ordering bulk discounted hardware from suppliers such as

Expert opinion can be sharply divided on this point, and may not always be impartial. What really determines success on this front is the extent to which your organization can be redesigned for the future including remote work.

Job compatibility isn’t everything

At the pandemic’s onset, remote working arrangements gave us an acceptable alternative to our office routines. Within days, many businesses were either shuttered or beginning to experiment with adopting a remote work policy en masse.

Soon enough, we figure out that remote work wasn’t for everyone. A large part of that was due to the fact that some jobs just can’t be performed effectively off-site. This was obvious to anyone whose daily tasks involve operating machinery or providing in-person services to the public. But even occupations that could, in theory, be done remotely, were seeing low take-up rates (the number of workers who were actually doing so).

Research compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that 63% of occupations require significant on-site presence. The remainder can feasibly be carried out entirely at home. And of that percentage, the estimated take-up rate prior to the pandemic was only 25%. Those numbers understandably rose during the pandemic, but pre-Covid figures are the more reliable baseline in a “new normal” scenario.

Moving forward, it can be easy to determine your remote working policy based on the sort of tasks your employees perform. Those who tackle on-site sales, manufacturing, or construction activities, for instance, have to continue reporting to a physical workplace. People in management or administrative jobs can benefit from the greater flexibility offered. But as the numbers show, that’s not the entire story.

Evaluating worker fit

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For many years, we’ve heard that employees are clamoring for remote work and that the offices of the future will be virtual. Yet clearly, the BLS data tells us that not everyone who can work remotely avails of the option.

Employer policy remains a factor. We have a better idea of how much we can trust employees to remain productive when out of sight. But that reassurance can also be counterbalanced by the wariness of “Zoom fatigue” and the risk of mental health issues arising from a lack of socialization. Some might not find it worthwhile to invest in the requisite infrastructure, such as computers, internet access, and security or surveillance software.

More importantly, however, the attitudes and qualities of employees must be considered on an individual basis to determine whether they’re a good fit for remote work. Some might lack the discipline, self-efficacy, and communication skills that have proven so vital in such arrangements. Equally, they may lack emotional support or career security, and feel that missing out on in-person interactions deprives them of opportunities to bond, network, and further their career development.

Redesigning organizations

Just as many workers found the transition to remote work a lot more complicated than expected, companies shouldn’t underestimate the challenge. In the long haul, it will take even more than infrastructure to enable remote workers to succeed. Organizations must be redesigned to some extent to realize the potential benefits of these arrangements, even in occupations where they are feasible and the workers willing and capable.

Leadership and hierarchical structures, for instance, may need to be weaned off the adherence to a chain of command or reliance on a central authority to vet all decisions. An approach founded on greater transparency and trust has the potential to enable swift actions and rapid testing and feedback at the local level. This can improve remote workers’ performance and encourage higher take-up as they realize their jobs now truly offer more autonomy.

Workplaces that are hybrid or purely virtual will have to continue searching for better ways to overcome the limitations of current technology being used for online interactions. Innovation and creativity are realized when people of diverse backgrounds can come together for random, spontaneous interactions. Are you going to settle into a daily routine of video conferencing and email thread correspondence, or will you risk mandating the occasional face-to-face team building?

Everything we’ve done with remote work during the pandemic was just a stop-gap measure, part of a learning curve. If your organization isn’t prepared to do even more moving forward, constantly striving for ways to work remotely better than ever, maybe a return to the traditional office is best.

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