The year 2020 caused a swift upheaval in the way business was done, rapidly accelerating a previously slow-moving trend towards remote working. The coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to transform the way they were run — but has professionalism suffered?
When businesses recruit these days, the question of location is far more fluid than it used to be. Employees of practically every level seek more flexibility, and employers are more willing to give it. Even before the pandemic began, many businesses were moving towards more wide-spread blended working, where staff were able to work remotely.
In general, this move to a modern way of approaching business is a great thing. Increased flexibility opens up a far wider talent pool — not only in terms of broadening the location-based options but also enabling greater diversity. A single parent of young children, for example, may be an ideal candidate but previously may have been unable to accept a role due to family commitments. This embracing of technology is absolutely driving a path for increased diversity at every level — and nowhere is this more important than at the board. Diversity of experience and thought are vital for facilitating growth, spotting new opportunities and intrinsically understanding different customer pressures.
But — and there is a big but — there are considerable drawbacks to having full or large-scale teams based remotely for extended periods of time. Needs must this year, but businesses should tread carefully as we move towards exiting the first stages of the pandemic and ease back into work.
There are a number of key areas where leaders should take extra care if their teams are working from home for a large portion of their time:
A huge amount of most people’s professional development comes from the things they informally pick up from people around them at work. This can be from anyone and cover anything from how to close a deal, to how to handle pressure, or how to motivate a team.
For those working from home all the time or the majority of the time, the opportunities for this professional development are severely lacking — which will cause knock-on effects in years to come as the next generation rises through the ranks lacking in key skillsets.
Howgate Sable partner Chris Green says: “I firmly believe that at least 50 per cent of your professional development comes from the people around you. It’s impossible to overstate just how important it is to work as part of a team in order to continue to learn and to grow, no matter what level a person is operating at.”
Having a solid corporate identity is one of the most important factors for business success. It can be hard to build a strong identity at the best of times — if huge numbers of the team are working from home for large portions of their working week, businesses are fighting an uphill battle.
Creating or evolving a corporate identity requires intensive face-to-face time with employees at every level. It simply cannot be communicated over Zoom. And, without a clear business purpose and direction that all staff can buy into, a business can easily lose its way.
Tech tools like Zoom, Teams and Skype absolutely have their place in the modern working world. They remove geographic borders, navigate time zone changes and help bring multiple departments or locations together in an affordable way.
But there is a huge downside — meetings conducted via these platforms can become very transactional in nature. Gone are the niceties of opening and closing a meeting; the times when real relationships are forged. There are no more coffee catch ups, lunch meetings or post-work drinks. Not to mention tech glitches cutting off important discussions at vital times. The human side is being overlooked in favour of the business function — and relationships will suffer as a result.
This isn’t only a problem with external meetings and deals, but internally, too. Team leaders can easily miss the signs that something isn’t right with an employee when they don’t have the time to properly engage. It’s easy to come off an hour-long Zoom call with very little idea of how the other people on the call are coping and what the team’s morale is.
Chris Green adds: “One CEO I know recently told me that they now start every video meeting with 15 minutes covering off something non-work related and not on the agenda, in order to get people chatting more. There will need to be more of this as we continue moving forwards with remote working.”
That brings us on to a company’s responsibility to keep its employees well. Good mental and physical health and wellbeing are vital for ensuring people are happy and performing well; but they are easy to miss when real, human connection is lost.
For some people, work may have been their ‘safe’ place; a place which has now been lost. This will create enormous challenges and pressures at home which undoubtedly spill into their wellbeing and performance. A responsible employer must recognise this and find a way to help.
For others, the isolation caused by working from home can be intolerable, especially as the months draw on with little sign of imminent change. Again, a good employer must be mindful of this and find ways to offer practical help.
Of course, it’s vitally important that businesses act responsibly and keep their staff safe during this extraordinary time. For many, that does necessitate large portions of staff working from home for elongated periods.
But as we move towards an exit strategy and a return to a new, blended way of working, leaders must carefully weigh up the pros and cons of enabling long-term working from home.