Let’s face it: until there is a safe, effective vaccine against COVID-19 we are going to have to wear masks and adhere to social distancing. This has huge implications, both physical and psychological, for workers.
As my friend and colleague Linda-Toche Manley, a Ph.D. in Applied Psychology and Cognitive Science, observes: “Our brains need three things to survive: structure, connections, and purpose.” For many of us and those on our teams, these have come from our workplace. But they’ve been missing since we’ve been following the advice to stay at home.
So, when will everything go back to normal? A better question is, what does the “new abnormal” look like? According to Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, “Remote work is here to stay….”1 As businesses gradually and safely reopen, people are likely to work in shifts in the office while others are working from home. And this is likely to continue to be part of the construct even after we emerge on the other side of the pandemic.
Remote working should be here to stay. A study looking at over 24,000 IBM employees worldwide, found that employees with the flexibility to work at home were able to work longer hours – often equivalent to one or two 8-hour days more per week – before reporting work-life conflict.2
Aperian Global, an organization that helps individuals, teams, and organizations work effectively across boundaries, cites other benefits. They point to a Stanford University study that found companies can save about $2,000 per year for each employee who works from home. Fewer remote workers quit because they have better work-life balance leading to greater job satisfactions. And, without geographic restrictions, companies have access to a more diverse workforce of highly-talented people.
The likelihood that remote working will continue raises two key questions.
First, to Linda’s point: how will leaders provide the missing structure, connections, and purpose that their team’s need?
Second, who among the corporate ranks will rise to the challenge of successfully managing remote workers by providing the support that people need for healthy cognitive functioning?
It will be leaders who have figured out for themselves what’s working, what needs to change, and what they can do to get ready for new opportunities. Then, they’ll help their teams do the same thing, by making remote working part of a culture that provides structure, connection, and purpose when face time isn’t possible.
These are leaders who can:
Create a shared enthusiasm and sense of team or community – and prevent feelings of isolation – by openly communicating and by regularly organizing virtual events, both work-related and purely social.
Engage their team in pursuit of a challenge, generating excitement, support, and feelings of belonging.
Build connections with and among employees, working to build relationships and get buy-in.
Seek input because they believe in the ability of team members to help set shared goals and make good decisions.
Share power with others, by appropriately delegating important initiatives and staying in touch on those initiatives without taking over.
Be clear about their intent – what needs to be achieved – so others can take the lead in getting it done.
In short, it will be forward-thinking leaders who know how to create employee engagement that transcends the physical workplace – strong leaders who, as Linda says, “…convey future vision and provide foundational structure until their teams’ brains catch up.”
1 Ms. Meister is a contributor to Forbes writing about Trends Shaping the Future of Work. This is from her March 31, 2020 blog The Impact of the Coronavirus on HR and the New Normal of Work.
2 This report is cited in the ebook Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work by Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson, published by Palgrave MacMillan.