Last year, Gartner reported that 74 percent of the 317 business leaders it surveyed will permanently move at least five percent of their onsite workforce to remote positions. Another 25 percent will allow 20 percent of their employees to permanently telework. Such considerations are happening across industries. What percentage of businesses can sustain the transition remains unknown. But 100 percent of them need to put their money where their fuzzy buzzwords are: making rapid investments in organizational culture, human capital, and leadership development.
Understanding human societies – how cultures and communities evolve – is a key step towards reconfiguring workforce development. When Twitter’s chief executive officer, Jack Dorsey, announced a permanent shift to remote work for his employees, the media lit up evaluating whether Dorsey’s decision constituted the best post-pandemic workforce model. For all the contemplation, the answer is no. Companies are made of individuals — and humans are different, dynamic, and mind-achingly unpredictable. Dorsey’s solution meets Twitter’s particular needs based on its product, staff, and organizational culture. The same convention could spell disaster for a different company, while reinforcing negative assumptions about telework.
Distilling the best remote work solution requires an acute and honest institutional assessment. Such data points are invaluable in illustrating the social infrastructure of a workforce and exposing its vulnerabilities to changes like prolonged telework. A strong organizational culture, determined by the shared values or ethos of an organization, will be embodied in its leadership, employees, and operations. Investments in such factors heavily determine how well companies adapt to demanding circumstances as a community. In a study noted by the Harvard Business Review, the top 25 percent of companies, who proactively managed the time, talent, and energy committed to projects, were 40 percent more productive than companies who did not make such investments in their workforce. The human element is basic common sense: People derive relevance from being treated with value and dignity– not as undifferentiated, disparate commodities.
Even under the best circumstances, telework requires effective management and accountability. The strongest management objections to remote work stem from distrust and doubt about employee productivity, as people lose immediate visibility of one another. Productivity is not intrinsic. It is inspired. This is also the crux, as those in leadership positions can sometimes be as inspiring as cardboard or outright toxic. Learning to motivate productivity from a distance should be a priority for business leaders hoping to navigate the challenges of workforce transitions. Ample resources exist to equip people with the skills necessary to lead effectively. Investments in leadership development can help people work closer together while further apart. For businesses, this could mean a swift improvement to overall morale and output, as remote work impediments become more quickly identified and addressed.
When managed well, recent experiments in telework report relatively positive outcomes. In 2012, a study of patent examiners at the U.S. Patent & Trade Office determined a 4.4 percent increase in work output without a decline in quality among personnel who worked from home. The growth represented almost $1.3 billion dollars of value added annually to the economy. Similarly, a case study of CTrip, a Chinese travel company, by Stanford University recorded a net positive impact when half of its call center employees were allowed to work from home. Ctrip found those working from home conducted 13.5 percent more calls on average than onsite staff – an increase that was the equivalent of an extra day’s work. Not only did Ctrip reduce its staff turnover by 50 percent, it saved $1,900 per employee on reduced office costs over nine months. Not everyone, however, is determining patents or running call centers, but the point remains: telework can work and work better.
The top-down approaches, as described above, have to be complimented by bottom-up resolutions. The latter relies on individual will and discipline. Might remote work make people better humans? An office can render every bit of procrastination visible and every personal phone call or 27th snack, audible. Being out of sight makes it easier to lean into distractions – or the pantry – far too often. If a conscious part of day-to-day productivity is improving focus, mindfulness, or bad habits, work might be a more meaningful exercise than proverbially pushing paper or keys. The workforce transition experienced today may be a blessing in disguise for the future of work; one in which human development and corporate growth can be constructively symbiotic.
COVID-19 is neither the first nor the last crisis businesses will face. But it has already equipped society with seismic lessons learned on the global economy. The best companies today may be among the dust tomorrow. Financial success is not necessarily an indicator of resilience in a crisis. Like thumbprints, each organization makes its mark differently in the world. The glory will go to the company that does its due diligence, anticipates changes, and adapts just ahead of the curve where performance and competitive edge meet.