While businesses worldwide were forced to shift to remote or hybrid workforces virtually overnight when the pandemic struck, many have learned some harsh truths and painful lessons as they adapt to this new way of working,
Truth: It’s tough to maintain connections
While many businesses understand that employees enjoy the work-life balance that comes with remote work, some leaders contend that interpersonal challenges are created when staff are not in the office full time.
Moving to remote work was “a huge shift for our people and our culture, especially as we were launching it before working from home was generally accepted,” said Christopher M. Good, a California-based creative director for design firm One Workplace, His company has been working on a hybrid basis since early 2018.
The biggest challenge his organization faced was shifting the way it managed people and introducing more formal ways of managing performance.
The hybrid work approach challenged the company’s natural ability to foster relationships in the workplace, so it had to rethink how employees were connected and aligned, he says. The business relies on cross-functional teams, which didn’t always work well in a hybrid setting. As such, it had to facilitate shared work agreements.
“If we wish to create really sustainable solutions, we have to address the reality that we have to intentionally shape the work environment wherever it happens, at home, at the office and everywhere in between,” Good said.
Truth: Collaboration is difficult
Debra Rizzi, president of creative agency Rizco in New Jersey, already let her staff work from home one day a week prior to the pandemic. She plans to go completely remote when the company’s office lease expires.
Rizzi admits that the team misses collaborating in person and that it’s been difficult to adapt to new technologies. But not having to commute, which gave staff more “heads-down time,” has been worth it.
Because the business doesn’t require the production of tangible items, the work can be done remotely. Still, along with collaboration challenges, it’s hard to foster client relationships and maintain solid staff relations.
“Creatives are collaborative, and when you are doing brand development especially, there is nothing better than having a traditional ‘think tank’ where everyone is in one room, mood boards and research are pasted up on a wall and you can identify the strengths and weaknesses collectively,” she said.
Mara Hauser, CEO and founder of interior design firm Workplace Studio in Illinois, agrees that creative ideation work is more challenging when done remotely.
“While you can utilize the Zoom whiteboard, it’s not the same as being physically in the room together and ideating or brainstorming together,” Hauser said.
Truth: You may need to be more organized about hybrid arrangements
Hauser, who launched the company in a hybrid work mode in 2014, says it will continue to work that way.
Still, leaders at remote and hybrid companies have to make extra effort and perhaps create new protocols to check in with employees to see how they’re doing with work — and outside of it, she says.
The hybrid option helps Workplace Studio with geographical challenges, so employees and managers meet yearly and quarterly in person and have weekly virtual meetings, Hauser says.
She emphasizes that telecommuting allows people to be more intentional when they do connect.
“Because more is accomplished when we do talk daily or weekly, teams are more productive throughout the week,” Hauser said.
Muhammad Younas, the Toronto-based founder and CEO of virtual event company vFairs, agrees that companies have to be more purposeful and direct about how they communicate remotely and how the office set-up works if they are using a hybrid approach.
“Businesses that don’t need a physical on-ground presence should, by now, be able to be comfortable with remote work,” Younas said. “If they are struggling, then their communication framework needs attention.”
A balance of asynchronous and synchronous communication can help make remote arrangements work, he suggests.
Younas also suggests letting people create a schedule that suits them while keeping overlap with colleagues so that they see each other.
“Where possible, encourage employees to come together at the office for one to two days a week for social interactions, brainstorming, workshops and recreation,” he said.
You’ll also need to educate employees on communications, Younas said. Specifying what scenarios warrant an email versus an ad-hoc chat versus a scheduled Zoom call goes a long way to ensure the collective avoids burnout.
Truth: There may not be a middle (hybrid) ground
Sarah Hawley, the Texas-based CEO and founder of remote-job board Growmotely, founded the company in 2020 with a hybrid approach. Now, the firm has a completely remote workforce.
“It [hybrid] was horrible,” Hawley said. “In my opinion and experience, either fully office based, or fully remote, works best.”
Though it can feel like a natural evolution as a leader to move to a hybrid model, she says it leads to a disconnect between those who spend more time in the office and those who don’t.
“It wasn’t very useful for our culture and so fairly quickly we got rid of all offices and went fully remote,” Hawley said.
While she’s pro-remote and says her staff is satisfied with the arrangement, she believes every company has a unique culture that flows down from the leadership. If the leaders value office life, that will filter through the organization’s culture and people may work better fully in-house — and vice versa.