As companies prepare to make remote working permanent, cultural change will play a crucial role in building new, successful work environments.
Remote working isn’t just about technology – it involves a complete rethinking of how businesses operate. This not only includes how and where employees do their jobs, but a fundamental shift in our relationships with work and how we engage with it on a day-to-day basis.
While many office workers have been forced to work from home over the last year, for businesses the cultural change that comes with remote working is likely to be a bigger shift than any of the technical requirements of long-term remote working. For businesses, taking steps now can put them on the front foot as we move towards a cloud-first working economy.
1. Trust your remote teams to succeed
Trust is the secret ingredient to a productive distributed workforce – but beyond this, there are several other key strategies to make remote work a success, says Andy Wilson, global head of media technologies at Dropbox.
This includes learning how and when to communicate with teams, while making sure everyone has the headspace to work on their priorities. “Cutting down on external noise, and endless notifications means learning to prioritize and organize effectively,” Wilson tells TechRepublic.
“Leaders need to interrogate team to-do lists and OKRs [objectives and key results], and focus on the really important priorities.”
Once teams feel empowered to prioritize the tasks they’ve been given, leaders then need to allow team members to work in a way that works for them, says Wilson.
Central to this is setting clear expectations and then trusting them to manage their own schedules, while not forgetting check-ins to ensure things stay on track.
Wilson adds: “Once employees feel they are trusted to manage their own time and have the right tools in order to reach business goals, business leaders have cleared a path to optimal output, and these results will in turn lead to an increase in trust from managers – it’s a virtuous circle.”
2. Put digital support structures in place
2020 brought our old work routines abruptly to a halt. While the pandemic will eventually subside, a new way of working will be permanent.
Pip White, MD for Google Cloud UK and Ireland, says COVID-19 has heightened the urgency of rethinking how people get things done.
Cultural change is going to be an important part of businesses’ new work environments, White tells TechRepublic. “Employers more than ever need to build flexibility and empathy into their culture to make life easier for primary caregivers, who also generally tend to be women,” she says.
“We see the need for a hybrid work environment, where companies and employees can take advantage of a digital workspace that allows them to generate new ideas and connect with each other, no matter their location.”
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A successful transition into this new era of work will hinge on how companies keep their people engaged, productive and connected through communication and collaboration tools, says White – though she also notes that the new working normal is likely to bring even more challenges to the table.
“How each company responds to these challenges – and opportunities – will define their relevance in the future,” she says.
“Those who lean into change, no matter how uncomfortable, and embrace the opportunity to fundamentally transform, will be stronger than before.”
3. Re-imagine your hiring process, with tech at the forefront
According to LinkedIn, the number of remote jobs advertised on the platform has increased four times since June 2020. LinkedIn’s research found that remote job postings resulted in a 20% increase in the geographical diversity of applicants.
One way businesses can adapt to this change and build successful remote-working strategies is by re-imagining how they hire and retain skilled workers, says Jennie Dede, LinkedIn’s head of global customer success.
“When it comes to recruiting top talent, companies who are open to adopting long-term remote work plans will have access to candidates around the globe – as opposed to only near the office location – enabling a more diverse pipeline of talent that they haven’t accessed before,” says Dede.
Remote work will also lead to a continuation of virtual recruiting, says Dede. Companies have dabbled with video interviewing and remote assessments in the past, but COVID has made it stick.
“Almost all (81%) of talent professionals agree that virtual recruiting will continue post-COVID, our data found,” she adds. “For companies, this means they’ll need to refine and systematize their virtual hiring processes and ensure they have the right technologies in place to make it seamless and engaging for the candidates.
But Dede points out that recruiting and developing talent is only the tip of the iceberg.
“If organizations do not consider their employee wellbeing, even the most highly recruited candidate or star performer can decide to leave,” she says.
“To make remote work really meaningful, don’t overlook the power of virtually staying connected — whether that’s with your teammates at work or finding a community of colleagues on social platforms, to share a quick hello or pass along a tip or learning recommendation.”
4. Keep leadership adaptive
As employees get used to new ways of working, leaders also have to adapt if they want to achieve success with a remote workforce.
“Leaders should employ more flexibility in their approach, focusing on outcomes rather than just measuring in/out times or managing time,” says Sridhar Iyengar, managing director at Zoho Europe.
“With understanding, support, and clear and concise communication from business leaders, employees will be able to shift effectively between hybrid and remote work. ”
The right toolset can also help leaders maintain company culture, an important aspect that relies on a different leadership approach. This can also positively impact employee wellbeing and staff motivation, says Iyengar.
5. …and working styles flexible
Remote working means giving employees more flexibility around how and where they work, helping to restore some much-needed equilibrium to workers’ work-life balance.
Brie Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs, says employers should take this this even further, offering employees more flexibility around how they structure their working days to help accommodate different lifestyle patterns.
One of the important factors employers should consider is flexible scheduling, which might include flexible daily start and end times, time-banking (working more one week and less the next), and split-shifts, which involves working earlier in mornings and later afternoons or evenings, with a larger break inbetween.
Less common but still valuable are things like four-day workweeks, flexible vacation and policies that give employees more freedom around how to shift their time around things like doctor’s appointments and children’s schedules, without having to request permission for every change.
“Flexible scheduling can take many forms and is one of the ingredients that allow remote workers and teams to thrive both at work and in their personal lives,” Reynolds tells TechRepublic.
“Employers who plan to offer remote work in any form should also consider which types of flexible schedules might work well, and remember that this can vary based on team and role.”
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FlexJobs surveyed more than 4,000 remote professionals in 2020 and found that, while remote work is the number one preferred type of flexibility, flexible scheduling was the second most preferred.
Flexible schedules are beneficial to businesses as well as workers, says Reynolds, and are better prepared for disruptions, challenges, and unexpected emergencies.
They are also more likely to retain their top workers. “81% of our survey respondents said they’d be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible work options,” Reynolds adds.
“The best remote work arrangements are built on foundations of trust, communication, and a healthy combination of independent and collaborative work, and those are the same foundational elements that allow flexible scheduling to thrive.”
6. Share your talent
Boards of directors are driving digital acceleration as a response to the pandemic, with CIOs often at the helm. As a result, executives are facing immense pressure to pivot their organizations toward new ways of working.
Yet many organizations’ current workforce models are too static, rigid and slow to keep pace with the needs for this rapid digitization, says Daniel Sanchez Reina, senior research director at analyst Gartner.
The main ingredient to make acceleration possible is digital talent. “The need for digital skills will continue to grow rapidly in all parts of the enterprise as companies deepen and broaden their digitalization initiatives,” says Reina.
“However, there is a huge imbalance between supply and demand. The talent shortage in digital skills runs into the hundreds of thousands all over the world. Enterprises struggle to find it in their cities, even in their countries or continents.”
According to Gartner, there is an emerging trend of businesses sharing talent with other organizations, whereby a business will send workers to other companies for a fixed period of time. This scheme is usually among enterprises that already have close business relationships.
“These workers keep the employment status of the original organization but work as full-time equivalent staff in the new organization,” explains Reina.
“The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of this approach. A growing number of organizations have used it to fill pressing workforce needs with displaced workers from other companies. While digital talent is needed every place – thus reducing the chances of sharing – it can work between a company.”
7. Make your culture people-focused
A remote working strategy is not only a necessity to survive and thrive in the digital-first world – it provides an opportunity to multiply an organization’s impact.
“The famous quote ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, attributed to management consultant Peter Ducker, could not ring more true given the current challenges organizations face when managing the pandemic,” says Dunja Heinrich, director HR EMEA at Red Hat.
“As a matter of fact, adaptability and a people-centric culture are the leading factors determining a business’ success.”
Making remote and hybrid working the norm can strengthen and diversify an organization’s talent pool, says Heinrich, while simultaneously improving employee engagement by giving them a better work-life balance.
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For a remote working strategy to be a success, organizations need to look beyond the traditional means and provide virtual-learning and collaboration opportunities – including tools to tackle tasks remotely, as well as company-wide mentoring.
“To maximize the opportunity of remote or hybrid working, an organization also needs to actively engage with talent and over-communicate purpose, strategy and goals,” says Heinrick.
“This creates a culture in which each team member can engage, contribute, learn and grow, ultimately helping the business to leverage this as a strategic advantage.’
8. Recognize the power of empathy
The massive shift to remote working has given leaders a new appreciation for the context in which their people are working. Similarly, employees now expect much more from their employers, including deeper support for their wellbeing, skills development, and personal circumstances.
“In this new normal, we can’t underestimate the importance of empathetic leadership that creates a culture of trust and continually connects employees to their core purpose as a company,” says Elizebeth Varghese, global leader, talent & HR reinvention strategy, IBM Global Business Services.
“Employees do their best work when they believe in the company’s mission and purpose in the world, feel supported by a flexible and inclusive work environment, and are empowered to make decisions for the good of customers – whether they’re in an office or working at home.”
Half of high-performing CEOs to a recent IBM survey said managing an ‘anywhere’ workplace would be a top leadership challenge going forward, which suggests they take the future of remote work seriously.
But Varghese warns that short-term fixes aren’t enough – if leaders don’t adapt their culture and systems, there could be long-term repercussions.
“Already we’re seeing possible warning signs – one in four employees in a recent IBM global consumer survey reported they are planning to change employers in 2021, citing the need for a more flexible work schedule or location and better benefits and support for their wellbeing as a top reason,” she says.
“Leaders have to communicate often and transparently, and create feedback loops to listen to employee input and take action.”