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Type: Law Bulletins
Date: 06/25/2020

With the Future of Remote Workforces Before Us, Business Leaders Must Look Beyond the Pandemic

As a business leader, the decisions you make now will become the foundation for the future of your business. Much prognosticating is taking place about how and where work will take place in the future, with many articles and commentators speculating on the death of the traditional office space.

But a mere four months ago, virtually no leaders were even entertaining conversations about moving their entire workforce to remote settings. So, where do we go from here? Below are ideas to consider as you discern what is right for your employees and your business.

1. There is No Crystal Ball

We are in the midst of a season of immense change. Change from a pandemic, change in the economy, change in our social interactions. For many, remote work is effective. Nearly 120 days in, people are working remotely, to a great extent with positive results. Meetings are taking place, work and products are being produced, strategies are being developed, revenue is being generated. But just because this is working at this moment, doesn’t mean this is necessarily where you and your business should and will stay. If we could see the future, we would adjust accordingly. We obviously can’t, so be thoughtful in your assessment of whether where we are right now is where we will stay.

2. Assess the Positives

Now is a good time to consider exactly what is going well for your remote employees. Are their stress levels diminished without traffic-riddled commutes? Are they better able to juggle the demands of home and work life? Are meetings more efficient with technological capabilities, and easier to participate in when participants are given an equal footing on the Zoom screen? Exactly what is working well? Name it. It’s important to understand the reasons behind successful remote work as you determine whether it will work well going forward as a talent and business strategy.

3. Understand the Challenges

Just as you consider the positive aspects of remote work, it’s important to look carefully at what is not working well. Are employees receiving the feedback they need? Humans don’t always enjoy giving others feedback when we work together in person. Are we able to do so more effectively when we aren’t in the workplace? Global businesses often have complex coaching, feedback, and evaluation systems. Did you have good processes and systems in place before remote work? If you did, how are you adapting them? If your systems weren’t working well pre-pandemic, they likely aren’t working better now. Are your colleagues receiving mentoring? “Stretch” assignments? Understanding where they are in their career progression? Receiving timely updates on your evolving business strategy? Or, are you assuming they are in the know and doing well because they tell you they enjoy working remotely? Or perhaps they haven’t provided any feedback and you are therefore assuming all is well. This is the time to identify the gaps in your talent strategy and take steps to address them.

4. Focus on Leadership

The last four months were full of stress-inducing situations. How are your leaders doing? Do they understand your organization’s business strategy? Have you helped them think about how to lead during a crisis? Are you providing them continuing support for leading in a crisis? Leading during challenging times looks different than leading during ordinary moments. Step back and consider what your leadership team needs as you make decisions about where and how your teams will work in the future.

5. Consider How to Successfully Hire and Onboard

Recruiting and onboarding can be successfully navigated using technology, but it is important to study how you will assess candidates fairly and then thoughtfully integrate them into the organization. Yet again, determining whether you had a strong recruiting process in place prior to the pandemic is critical. Now is the time to revisit that process and consider a complete overhaul if you believe remote work is here to stay. Onboarding new colleagues is often a moment of excitement for an organization and a high point in a new employee’s career. After all, the organization worked hard to hire the person and the person worked hard to get hired. That enthusiasm and momentum can easily be lost if the onboarding process isn’t well thought-out, and especially so when team members are in different locations and remote. A successful onboarding experience sets the stage for the coming years, so consider providing managers with additional tools and training to help new colleagues join the organization. Be thoughtful about who they need to meet, how they will become familiar with the culture if everyone is primarily remote, how they will learn processes and technology, and how they will receive work and feedback.

6. Continually Review and Refine

Once you have established a baseline understanding of what is working about remote work and what isn’t, consider a strategy session with your leadership team. What do you collectively envision for the future of your business? What will it take to deliver the services or goods your customers and clients purchase from you? Can employees meet those objectives given the current dynamic with your workforce? What do employees need from you in order to deliver for your customers and clients? Can the company better align and leverage its current roles to meet new goals? How might you create an optimal environment that supports the needs of your talent, engages them in their roles and focuses on the delivery of goods and services to clients so that it is a win-win? Avoid leading others with a see-saw action--- wide vacillations in business strategies developed in reaction to quickly changing market conditions. Because of a pandemic, for example, don’t permanently declare that remote work is the way of the future. It might be a way in the future, but it’s doubtful that it will be the only way.

7. Don’t Box Yourself In

The uncertainty created by the pandemic creates prime conditions for continued experimentation. It’s probably not the ideal time to roll out entirely new and permanent changes to your strategy. When one doesn’t exactly know what is around the corner, particularly in times of stress, a natural human instinct is to respond quickly and “fix” the issue at hand. Address the current dynamics, but remain flexible for the moments ahead. Now might be the time to consider how in-office and remote work fit together, or begin discussing how that might operate. Start the future-focused “what if” conversations. Put ideas out for reaction. Create a vision of the future, but be careful not to state absolutes right now.

8. Practice New Skills

As you experiment, it’s also a good time to implement new behaviors and skills. Our brains are in a learning state right now as we moved to home offices, learned how to use Zoom, and to balance work and home life without ever leaving. What other new things could your team practice that might help determine where and how people should work going forward? For example, maybe you test new meeting structures by sampling different content, and focusing on new topics, or maybe you decide that now is the time to adopt new technology, or perhaps there is important work that a broad group of people can tackle together to address aspects of team work such as communication, feedback, or work allocation.

9. The Great Pivot

It’s important to remind ourselves that we can turn on a dime if it’s needed. We all quickly pivoted from working in the office into our homes in a matter of weeks. That’s an impressively quick change considering the scale. As a leader, remembering the power of collective action is important. You’ve now seen it with your very eyes. It was also exhausting to pull off as employees adapted to new ways of working. Take that seriously and know that people can do powerful things when it’s needed, but doing so takes a toll and makes it harder for people to want to pivot again.

10. Reinforcing Resilience

No matter what unfolds, the time ahead is new and uncharted. As a leader, it’s important to continually support and remind your team of their resilience. The phrase “we can do hard things” has become a bit of a mantra in this time - adapting it to “we can do new things” puts a more positive and hopeful spin and still reinforces the belief that our colleagues already have navigated new terrain and can continue to do so successfully.

Whether business leaders conclude that remote work is here to stay, or that some modifications are needed in the days, months, and years ahead, work will undoubtedly look unlike it does today. Taking the time to evaluate your circumstances, collect employee feedback, and test new ways of operating will provide useful insights for strategic talent and business decisions in the future.

If you have questions or concerns regarding COVID-19 and its impact on your business, please contact any member of our Evolving Workplace Task Force or your Taft lawyer.

Please visit our COVID-19 Toolkit for all of Taft’s updates on the coronavirus.

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