Remote Work: Be Careful for What You Wish
Remote work is so popular now, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found last year that 48 percent of the 1,700 workers surveyed would “definitely” seek a remote position for their next job. In the engineering field, about one-third of the hours worked in 2022 were performed remotely, according to the 2023 PSMJ Financial Performance Benchmark Survey Report. These are just two of many available research statistics indicating that a substantial percentage of working people today demand some form of remote workplace accommodation, even as many firms insist on a full or partial return to the office.
Yet, this post-pandemic “new normal” can come with a downside to both employee and employer. Here are some ways that a remote or hybrid work schedule can turn counterproductive, along with strategies to minimize the negative effects.
Management consultant McKinsey reports that the age group most likely to work remotely is the 24 to 35 cohort, with 39 percent doing so full time and 25 percent part time. However, this is also the group that benefits most from being in the office when it comes to understanding and shaping corporate culture. Work-related and personal social interaction organically fosters a stronger company culture, especially among new and less-experienced employees. Firm leaders tasked with maintaining and articulating the culture in a remote environment often use tools such as “Zoom Happy Hours” to try to build cultural bonds among employees spread across the ethernet, often with limited success.
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With a little effort on everyone’s part, corporate culture can survive the challenge of remote and hybrid work schedules. Companies using a hybrid model, and even groups of employees with flexible schedules, can coordinate their in-person office hours and meetings to coincide in a way that creates optimal opportunities for social interaction. Firm leaders can refocus the culture on the work the company does, ensuring that good employees feel valued, emotionally connected and “seen,” while toxic managers and staff have their behavior corrected or are moved out.
Insufficient guidance and mentoring
Management-level people who feel they have earned the right to a more flexible schedule are often the ones that provide the most value by being physically among their peers and staff. Emerging leaders and professionals learn by doing, but also by seeing it done correctly. Companies that require less-experienced and lower-level staff to come into the office, while allowing senior-level managers to work remotely, miss this point entirely. Their leadership-deprived employees gain little from being in the office and can become resentful because of the disparity.
In such situations, executives should insist that managers do the full job of managing, including training and mentoring their people. If this means being in the office when their people are, that’s part of the deal. Managers must understand the importance of the role they play in the development of the people who report to them and work with them. Employees must advocate for their own professional development, not only with in-person and online training, but through sufficient exposure to the people who can show them a roadmap for their future with the company and in the industry.
Stunted career advancement
Another concern for employees working remotely is falling off the radar for raises and promotions. Remote workers may find themselves out of mind because they’re out of sight. As a result, they may be passed over during salary and professional advancement reviews.
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The simple answer for remote workers is to overcommunicate. For example, send a weekly update to both direct and relevant indirect managers citing all tasks completed and special accomplishments, along with a plan for the coming weeks. Many engineers struggle with self-promotion, but it is vital for the well-being of a remote worker’s career to ensure that their contribution is recognized as much as any in-office colleague’s. Managers should recommend or require this type of overcommunication from remote workers, while clearly articulating why it is in the employee’s best interests.
There are numerous and contradictory research studies on remote work productivity, but the constant is that many employers don’t trust their out-of-office employees to work hard. In a survey of 20,000 organization leaders worldwide, Microsoft found that 85 percent said, “The shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.”
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Once again, it is incumbent on the remote worker to reassure management that they are pulling their weight. Company leaders, for their part, must recognize that they hired these people for a reason and learn to trust that their professional pride and desire to contribute will drive productivity. The key for managers is to worry less about how their remote workers are spending their time and instead focus on what they deliver, ensuring they have the tools and guidance needed to perform at their best.
Micromanaging remote employees or worse, employing Big Brother techniques like computer-use tracking systems or GPS, is a surefire way to drive them to a company where they feel trusted and respected as professionals.
Always at work
One of the underappreciated benefits of a flexible work schedule is that it can accommodate people in a 9-to-5 field who don’t subscribe to a 9-to-5 mentality. With this said, remote workers who log on at 6 a.m. and log off at 11 pm.. may burn out quickly, even if they only work 8 hours total during the long day.
Remote workers must self-impose boundaries on when and how much they work. It’s fine for salaried workers to devote some extra time to advance their career or pitch in a little more but everyone needs limits. For non-exempt employees, working extra without being compensated could get the company in trouble. Management needs to reinforce to employees the importance of being away from work every bit as much as being at work, even for remote workers.
Insist that paid time off is not only taken, but that employees focus on their relaxation while on vacation just as intently as they focus on their work when on duty. Burnout is real and growing, especially in engineering where being understaffed and overworked is common. This is equally true for remote workers as it is for someone toiling away in an office cubicle.
Remote/hybrid work schedules are here to stay. The best avenue forward for employer and employee is to find what works best for the particular situation, then institutionalize the systems and practices that promote job satisfaction, employee retention and successful company performance.
Jerry Guerra is an independent writer in Lynnfield, Mass.