Take Two: Home Sweet Office?
Working from home is now business as usual for some 62% of employed Americans, according to Gallup Inc.
About two-thirds of those polled say they want to continue that arrangement when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Here, Bentley Lecturer in Management Susan Vroman and Alan Hubbard ’83, MBA ’92 of the nonprofit National Telecommuting Institute discuss the impact of these unplanned at-home work arrangements — now and in the future.
COVID-19 caused a quick pivot to remote work for many employees. What was the impact of this shift?
Alan Hubbard: The internet made it so a good percentage of us could continue to do our jobs from home. For some people it meant schedule flexibility. Another plus is that it eliminated the commute, which for some meant saving hours of their time each day.
Susan Vroman: Building off that, the ultimate plus is that so many companies that didn’t think it was possible to have employees work remotely have now found there is a possibility for this to be successful. A minus is that the lack of pre-planning isn’t painting a true picture of what remote work would truly look like. But the upside will hopefully outweigh that.
How does this differ from a planned flexible work arrangement?
SV: Number one, of course, would be the planning: the ability to make sure a remote workplace is viable from an infrastructure and management perspective. Another major difference is that during “normal times,” you would have the option to pull back. If an employee wasn’t performing well remotely or with a flexible work arrangement, you could pull them back into the office. The same would hold true for a manager who isn’t ready to lead a remote team. Now there is no choice; you have to do it.
AH: I agree. For 25 years, my organization has been advocating for remote work and until a couple of years ago, a bulk of my day was spent trying to convince call center companies to go remote. But they weren’t ready to set up the security, infrastructure and software to do that. When COVID-19 hit, no one had a choice in the matter.
Does being remote have a ripple effect on other aspects of work?
AH: It does, partially because of the level of decision-making. You would think that the written word is the strongest when it comes to decision-making. But words on a computer screen can be open to misinterpretation. When we’re talking right now, I’m nodding my head to tell Susan that I get it — and she knows I get it. That wouldn’t happen in an email and could leave questions. The ripple effect is the impact on how quickly or successfully decisions get made.
SV: Feeling isolated can cause a resistance to ask for help — not just help socially, but telling someone you’re stuck on a project. If you’re used to having an impromptu conversation in the office to figure something out, the process of emailing or scheduling a Zoom call to get answers may not be comfortable. This can lead to mistakes.
I do want to highlight a positive ripple effect. Remote work requires more trust and empowerment. Having a manager give someone the power of authority to make decisions can really impact employee engagement and morale.
Are there necessary competencies to collaborate digitally?
SV: Absolutely — and not at all. You have to confidently do your work as you have been, but you also have to be more of a self-starter. It’s like an open-book test: Everything is there and nobody is actually watching you. So, to be successful you’re expected to take the time to look for the answer one more degree before asking your manager. Particularly if you’re an extrovert, you also have to be resilient and find ways to recharge your own battery without human interaction. For me that is meditation or going
for a run.
AH: Not everyone has a home office with doors; some people are working at their kitchen table. So the ability to block out distractions — pets, children, noise —is important. I also had to learn to focus
and not be a workaholic. I was filling the commute time with work.
SV: It’s a skill set to know when to stop; no one is going to tell you to stop working. You have to give yourself that permission slip.
Do you agree with reports suggesting that remote work will stay a fact of organizational life?
AH: Yes. A lot of companies have learned that employees can effectively and efficiently work from home. There is also another element of sustainability and reducing your carbon footprint by eliminating commuting and renting office space. Plus, there’s a quality-of-life factor.
SV: Companies are definitely considering a flexible work arrangement, but many haven’t yet developed a post-pandemic plan. It may require going back into the office, when it is safe to do so, to determine logistics like training and technology. I believe that the recruitment process will also change with more Zoom interviews and virtual onboarding.
What is your best piece of advice to manage teams remotely?
AH: Communicate, communicate, communicate — and preferably not only by text and email. People can feel detached when they are remote. In addition to making sure key indicators are met, encourage some kind of personal interaction.
SV: Yes! You have to ask questions, then you have to listen — with your eyes and your ears. Asking and listening are the two most important things you can do.
Lecturer in Management Susan Vroman brings more than 20 years’ experience in the private sector to Bentley, teaching courses on leadership and organizational behavior. Her work to explore leaders’ impact on employee engagement and workplace culture includes studying flexible work arrangements and remote work.
Alan W. Hubbard ’83, MBA ’92, has more than 25 years of experience in operations and technology, with particular expertise in the work-from-home model. He is chief operating officer at the nonprofit National Telecommuting Institute, which provides remote job opportunities for people with disabilities.