Heading back to the office? Don't forget these lessons from remote work:
In 2020 and 2021, companies throughout the world returned hours of their employees’ lives back to them.
No, it didn’t require more overhead, nor did it mean cutting into the workweek. This change was driven by an external force: the global pandemic. In many cases, the hours returned came in the form of that morning ritual that so many people dread: the commute. When offices closed, commutes ended—and many around the world appreciated not having to schlep to an office to begin their workday. We learnt a lot about what work was in 2021.
Because people couldn’t congregate in offices, work itself had to adapt. Digital tools stepped in to simulate in-office, in-person back-and-forth. Suddenly, we weren’t chatting near the water cooler; we were chatting by typing in text in the corner of a Zoom screen. Gone were the company break room birthday celebrations; instead we awkwardly sang an out-of-tune version of happy birthday over Google Meet.
The benefits were self-evident: Lower emissions, happier employees, and a more flexible work culture—not by design, but by default. The rituals we so tightly associate with work were cast aside, seemingly overnight. In the process, many employees discovered something remarkable: The time and peace restored to them through abandoned commutes and discarded rituals were welcome changes.
Remote working is win-win for employers and employees
Employees who had never been given the chance to work anywhere but an office suddenly saw the wonders of working, well, anywhere but an office. But it wasn’t just employees who observed the positive parts of pandemic-era work culture. Employers, too, noticed a difference: By early 2021, 83 percent of employers surveyed by PriceWaterhouseCooper reported that “the shift to remote work has been successful for their company.” Crucially, that number went up 10 percent from June 2020 to January 2021.
And yet, today, as companies return to in-person work, many have forgotten these benefits—and how remote work in particular, and flexibility in general, can help employees and good company cultures thrive.
Disappointingly, prominent CEOs have come out waxing about the urgent necessity of in-person time; companies are even toying with in-person mandates. As the working world emerges from the worst of the global pandemic, we would do well to remember how work changed for the better as it became distributed in places other than offices. To spring back to the pre-pandemic work culture is to miss an enormous opportunity to safeguard improvements in how we collaborate and how we communicate.
Remote work is flexible work
Consider employee collaboration. Even as we return to in-person meetings, we shouldn’t discard the benefits of being able to log-in remotely. This flexibility is a godsend to those with long commutes, or anyone who misses a flight or faces a childcare issue. The pandemic stretched our collaborative muscles, and we ought not to discard those gains, many of which accrued to those for whom in-person office life caused added stress. Flexible workplaces are inclusive workplaces.
Some of what we “lost” concealed overdue benefits. Because so much mid-pandemic communication became digitized, we were more easily able to share information with those not present. Inadvertently, we created better records. We learned to document, note, share, append to a Slack channel, and add people onto threads—all of which formalized communications that might have vanished in more informal, in-office chats.
Remote work helps tackle biases
And then consider those virtues even more easily missed: Employees who may have felt locked out from a team or unfairly treated because of their looks or gender were suddenly on a more level playing field. Bias didn’t disappear during the pandemic of course, but incidents of bias that take place in person were less likely to occur. Again, companies would do well to notice who benefitted from this element of remote work culture—and to keep those improvements.
Remote work led to hybrid work
Pandemic-era work demanded changes and reconfigurations—but we should observe those that served us well and keep them. Work needn’t require more commitment, more time, a louder voice in a meeting. It can embrace flexibility, openness, and adaptability to individual circumstances.
It’s encouraging to see many companies adopt a hybrid approach—one in which working in person is available but not required. That gives employees the room to figure out what works best for them. It offers space to those parents who might want a quieter place to work; it also offers flexibility for those people who are dreading the return of the commute.
The pandemic proved that our work culture has the capacity to change—on a dime if needed. Let’s keep both our capacity to alter how we work as well as the benefits of a work culture that adapts to employees and their needs. Flexibility is a virtue—and one that the best companies ought to promote, even as the pandemic recedes.