COVID-19 caused many of us to work from home for much of the last year. Now that the anniversary has passed, there have been any number of articles about what we’ve learned—or haven’t. As with any momentous event, we should all be taking stock of the experience. Was it a success for us personally? Or was it a terrible time you never want to relive?
What about for the organization? Did they learn new ways to be creative, overcome barriers to hiring and selecting new people? Did they even survive the last year? Maybe they managed to tread water while waiting for things to return to “normal”?
We’re seeing mixed feelings about remote work.
As an outfit that teaches people to successfully lead and work at a distance, you’d think we’d feel awfully smug about how well the world seems to have made the lead rather quickly to working apart from each other. Workers have crossed a kind of Rubicon when it comes to using webcams, with the help of easy-to-use tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams and widely available internet access.
But what we’ve learned in the past year is, to put it mildly, a mixed bag. Some people will trumpet the notion that once people have worked remotely, they will never want to darken a cubicle again (see this article from The Muse.) On the other hand, a much-touted article in The Atlantic made the case that we have all been secretly miserable and are pining to go back to working together in person.
F Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” With that in mind, here are a few things we have learned as we ponder a return to the office.
Working from home full time takes self-discipline and focus.
Not everyone is cut out to work in isolation, nor do they want to. This isn’t a judgment; much of it depends on factors such as our work style and our family surroundings. Having machine-like time management skills does not make someone a superior being. Some people crave the structure office work provides.
Working in a co-located workspace all the time can be chaotic and frustrating.
One of the reasons people request the ability to work from home (at least part time) is sometimes it’s hard to get things done in the office. There’s cake in the break room. Cubicle walls are easily talked over or even ignored, and people have access to you, even when you’re trying to concentrate.
People collaborate more organically, easily and often when they share a workspace at least part of the time.
Physical proximity to others when problem solving or even just working individually on team projects is, and always has had its benefits. We know that geography can play a role in how industries grow due to people cross-pollinating ideas and experiences (think Detroit at the dawn of the motor age, or Silicon Valley in the 60s and 70s).
Virtual and hybrid work can enhance diversity and inclusion for new blood and new thinking.
The flip side to the proximity argument is that innovation often requires people who don’t already think and act like everyone else. During the pandemic, many companies have been able to hire from outside their traditional geographic areas, with great results. The talent pool expands when you’re not restricted to commuting distance from the office.
Human beings are social creatures, and for many working remotely full time has been an isolating, negative experience.
Turns out, lots of people actually like going to work. It’s fun interacting with other humans. Not only that, it’s necessary. In industrialized countries, over 60% of our social interaction for the week takes place through work. If we’re not laughing, celebrating together, supporting each other in hard times through our work, where and when is that happening? People who get lots of social stimulation from friends, family, community and religious affiliations (someplace where they interact with people outside of work) report much higher satisfaction with remote work.
This list can go on and on. The point is that it’s hard to pass a binary good/bad judgment on whether remote work is a success. Certainly we’ve learned that it is possible to be successful, and many people see the benefits. But most organizations and people aren’t prepared to go totally virtual. The benefits of working together, at least part of the time, are too great.
For most of us, the solution will be some blend of the two, or a Hybrid approach. This will require being mindful of the desired outcomes for the organization and its people.
Whatever decision your organization reaches about how you will work, one thing is certain: you need to be the best teammate you can be. This workshop can help you hone those skills no matter where you ultimately work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.