Let’s face it, full time office work is slowly losing appeal to its nowadays dominant opponent remote work. A handover that most professionals worldwide would have thought to be possible in a 5-to-10 year life span, it suddenly became reality within a couple of months due to the initial pandemic lockdown in 2020. And it is here to stay.
“Success in a hybrid work environment requires employers to move beyond viewing remote or hybrid environments as a temporary or short-term strategy and to treat it as an opportunity.” (George Penn, VP at Gartner)
Many of us clearly remember the full time office approach but just a few of us were actually familiar with the full remote one. Indeed, working from home was an activity reserved only for days when you had a medical appointment or needed to get a head start on travel plans in the afternoon. But now with most teams operating remotely, or at least within a hybrid work model, business leaders are working to determine exactly what the future of the organisation of work will look like.
But what actually is remote work? In the past, this term generally meant an employee would work remotely from their domicile, a hotel room, an aeroplane or a train seat, maybe while travelling from client to client. The point was they were not in an office. Some professionals took advantage of this work modality and chose to be more of a nomad by working from anywhere as long as they got their work done. This working approach was generally the exception, not the rule. Until 2020.
Just before the pandemic, some companies were already individually testing one Work From Home day a month, some of them once a week. Indeed, Alien Technology Transfer used to allow its employees to work remotely 1-2 days a month in a very flexible and informal way. Subsequently, during the strict lockdown and the subsequent months of mobility restrictions, the company managed to smoothly adapt to the new Full Remote paradigm with a clear increase of its overall talent pool attraction, productivity and work-life balance. Over the course of the last year and half, in order to reconnect the human side of our Aliens, where possible, a part of them slowly restarted coming back to the office life following a more structured hybrid approach.
“Technology now allows people to connect anytime, anywhere, to anyone in the world, from almost any device. This is dramatically changing the way people work, facilitating 24/7 collaboration with colleagues who are dispersed across time zones, countries, and continents.” (Michael Dell, Dell Technologies CEO)
Technological advances combined with the practical realities of 2020 now accommodated employees working from anywhere. Remote work isn’t limited to the house or flat you normally stay in. It could be anywhere. And companies are enjoying the benefits too, particularly with the cost-saving benefits on the table through reduced office space costs.
Rethinking Space, Time, and Work-Life Balance
“If working remotely is such a great idea, why isn’t everyone doing it? I think it’s because we’ve been bred on the idea that work happens from 9 to 5, in offices and cubicles. It’s no wonder that most who are employed inside that model haven’t considered other options, or resist the idea that it could be any different. But it can.” (Jason Fried)
The eight-hour work day concept was consolidated and boosted by Fordism and Taylorism, and the incredible industrial growth that accompanied western societies until the last couple of the 20th century decades. Industrialization caused a solid increase of human population that, combined with the urban, residential, and industrial expansion, managed to shape the way citizens live and organise their lives in the Modern City. A hundred years later, remote work is allowing us to slowly move away from the Modern City approach to a potential hybrid concept between this and the pre-industrial Home-&-Work one. We can already see the escape from high-cost living cities a lot of professionals are implementing with a consequent improvement of their work-life balance at 360°. People from all over the globe are experiencing a wide range of benefits such as time and cost savings from office commute, healthy lunch breaks, extra time to spend with loved ones and the neighbouring community, to cite a few of them. Furthermore, the challenges of remote work could actually perpetuate self-growth, pushing workers to gain an overall control of their time along their daily routine.
On the flip side, without a clear balance between work and private life, an increased tendency from professionals of working overtime could lead to potential burnout. Moreover, sense of isolation due to the lack of “in presence” human interaction, is forcing companies to find alternative ways to reboost people connection. To do that, Alien TT is currently testing different ways of reorganising the time spent between working activities and Non-working activities i.e. virtual coffee breaks, Friday team games. The company strives to support its employees by providing them with everything that can help to recreate a healthy home-office environment. Indeed, by setting flexible working hours, Alien TT aims to allow each employee to work within the same time slots minimizing the need for overtime working interactions that can affect the above-mentioned work-life balance.
"Part of the beauty of remote work is being able to work on a schedule that works best for you, but if you're online and working at all hours, you'll start burning out quickly. We'll need to build clear rules around how technology can be used to help us maintain those boundaries for work-life balance." (Ryan Bonnici, G2)
What about the Human Touch? Redefining Company Culture
Only a few years ago, working at the office full time allowed us to live our working relationships in a spontaneous and organic way similar to our private relationships. Spending time together, maybe during coffee and lunch breaks, used to give us the chance to get to know our colleagues way more in-depth and only this element played a crucial part in defining and shaping a company culture. If organisations are made by people, the way they interact, collaborate, and support each other definitely used to make a solid difference in terms of productivity, trust, and sense of belonging. Communication breeds and flows through meeting rooms and elevators, hierarchies are perceived before signatures’ job titles. Furthermore, true friendships and sometimes love stories had the chance to naturally flourish among spreadsheets and presentations.
With remote work the story changes quite a bit. Not surprisingly, the farther we are from each other, the more trust becomes paramount to form the underlying foundation of a great virtual culture. Those moments of connection among colleagues are extremely “productive” for building and fostering company culture and employees belonging. Where possible, Alien TT organizes in-presence social activities among its members with the aim to reconnect and consolidate the human bonding. Bottom line is: work is important, but people connect when they are not working and the discussion is not focused on work. Replicating the office life “human touch” through video calls is very unlikely. Instead, switching 180° the paradigm by adapting company culture to the new hybrid approach seems more obtainable in the medium-to-long term perspective. Indeed, firms need to come up with new ways of creating and consolidating their culture without losing those inner values displayed by their missions and visions.
"You can never over-communicate enough as a leader at a company, but at a remote company, nothing could be truer. Because you don't physically see people in-person, information doesn't spread in the same way, so leaders need to do the heavy lifting for evangelising the message." (Claire Lew, Know Your Team)
Level Up Productivity
“When you can’t see someone all day long, the only thing you have to evaluate is the work.” (Jason Fried)
If Trust is the input of the journey, Productivity is the output. Before the pandemic, one of the biggest concerns from company leaders regarding remote work consisted in their employees' overall level of work productivity. The basic assumption was that working outside the office environment without the supervision of managers and colleagues, the risk of the employee “relaxing too much” and not being able to find enough external motivation to get the job done was behind the corner. So far, reality has proven this assumption wrong. Surprisingly (or not), not only productivity levels have not dropped but, in most cases they have significantly increased. A study by Stanford of 16,000 workers over 9 months found that working from home increased productivity by 13%. This increase in performance was due to more calls per minute attributed to a quieter, more convenient working environment and working more minutes per shift because of fewer breaks and sick days. In this same study workers also reported “improved work satisfaction, and attrition rates were cut by 50%. Furthermore, 77% of those who work remotely at least a few times per month show increased productivity, with 30% doing more work in less time and 24% doing more work in the same period of time” according to a survey by ConnectSolutions.
“We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in.” (Ariana Huffington, Huffington Post)
What has been also seen is that as professionals have moved to virtual work, they seemed to be more focused on the things that have the greatest impact for their customers, colleagues and the business overall. They are able to make faster decisions, and meetings are now more inclusive of people regardless of location, level or other differences. From the HR side, broadening the talent pool by being able to get talent from anywhere really made the trick. Mandatory employees relocations, one of greatest recruitment deal breakers of all time, now can be easily overtaken and this represents a huge win-win achievement for both employers and employees.
The Future of Work
What do people want from work today? More autonomy. According to Daniel Pink, “Satisfaction comes from a stimulating work, complex but with decision-making power, where it is possible to choose how to do things. Future is hybrid, indeed in the future we will not even call it hybrid anymore but simply work.” What are the long-term effects of this hybrid approach, only time will tell.
Finally, what could be a potential solution? As with most things in life, a customised balance is key. The bet is that companies will understand their real needs in terms of work’s organisation and act accordingly to personalise that balance that will give them what every company usually looks for: business continuity, talent retention, steady growth, and competitive advantage.
By Marco Mirilli, Chief of Human Resources Officer