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A long-term shift to remote work is now inevitable. Here’s what companies need to do—and what they need to change—to guarantee it works

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Ryan Garcia/The Globe and Mail

Alessia Yaworsky, a senior project manager at Telus, has a work-from-home routine: She’s an early riser, doesn’t need much time to get ready and has zero commute. So she can be at her computer between 7:15 and 7:45 a.m. Instead of stopping by a colleague’s cubicle to chat, she checks in using Google Chat. She’ll often throw a load of laundry in the machine and might go for a run through her Vancouver neighbourhood, tune into a workout class or grab groceries as a quick break. She appreciates the flexibility, but setting boundaries between work and the rest of her life can be hard. And she misses connecting with colleagues in real life.

Please note: This isn’t Yaworsky’s pandemic routine. This is just how she’s worked for her entire nine-year tenure at Telus. She loves setting her own schedule and logging in from wherever she wants—her grandparents' place in the Okanagan or a hotel in Halifax—but understands why it’s been so hard for some people to adjust to the new normal.

“I think some friends who had never worked from home were excited at the beginning, just because they thought, I can do all this other stuff,” she says. “And then the prospect of being able to watch a Netflix show during the day, or something like that, wore off. We still have our list of things that need to get done within a week.”

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Ryan Garcia/The Globe and Mail

If we didn’t understand that reality at the beginning of the pandemic, we certainly get it now. Back in May, 51% of workers in the U.S. were experiencing burnout, according to a poll conducted by Monster, the global employment website. That number had increased to 69% in a follow-up survey taken in July. Partly, this is because we’re not just working remotely; we’re trying to get work done during a pandemic, which is an entirely different thing. But there are also too many companies trying to approximate their in-office experience with employees now spread across a city, country or even the world.

“The research doesn’t support full-time telework in a lot of ways,” says Linda Duxbury, a management professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business and an expert on work-life balance. She differentiates between telework and remote work. With telework, employees have a designated workspace at home, with an ergonomically designed area and access to all the data, software and technology they’d have at the office. Remote work is much more ad hoc—and that’s what most of us are doing right now.

“We know what works for telework and we know what doesn’t,” she explains. “And this breaks all the rules. Telework is some days in an office and some days at home. You should never be teleworking and trying to do childcare at exactly the same time. And it’s usually thinking work, knowledge work—work that doesn’t require collaboration.”

But despite the challenges, a general long-term move to working from home no longer seems like a question of if but when. In late April, OpenText announced it would be permanently closing half its offices. In May, Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke proclaimed that “office centricity is over” and that most of the company’s workforce would work remotely on a permanent basis. This shift isn’t restricted to tech—the Bank of Montreal announced that up to 80% of its employees would be working from home, at least some of the time, in a new hybrid model. In the U.S., Nationwide Mutual Insurance announced a permanent move to a hybrid model, while Jes Staley, the CEO of U.K.-based Barclays bank, noted that “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.”

Companies have realized that workers don’t have to physically be in the office to be productive—and reducing the number of employees who work from the office can lead to huge cost savings on everything from rent to office snacks to administration, says Stefan Palios, a consultant on remote work and the founder of Remotely Inclined, a newsletter on the subject. If you’re not physically in an office, you don’t need an office manager, he points out.

But if our six-month experiment with remote work has made one thing clear, it’s that if this new approach is going to work for both companies and their employees, employers need to stop finding ad hoc fixes and start crafting long-term strategies. It will mean detailed policies, investing in technology and changing companies' fundamental approach to management.

Leadership matters

Telus instituted its flexible work program, Work Styles, in 2006. By early 2020, 73% of its employees were set up to work from home at least some of the time. During the pandemic, that number rose to 95% of employees with relatively little fuss, because the company had already developed a plan—and they’d had the luxury of working out the kinks more than a decade before.

Executive buy-in was the key to success, says Sandy McIntosh, the company’s vice-president, people and culture, and chief human resources officer. “At the time [Work Styles] launched, there were very senior people who were reluctant to accept or believe that team members could be productive if they weren’t physically in front of you,” she says. “There’s just general mistrust: If I can’t see people, how do I know that the collaboration, productivity and outcomes will still be there?” Spending time helping senior leaders understand both the benefit but also the “nuances and challenges” is absolutely critical, McIntosh says.

Managers who still conflate presence with productivity need to loosen the reins a little—or a lot. Unless an employee is clearly lagging behind, there’s no need for daily checklists of completed work or tracking software. McIntosh was recently on a call with a group of HR professionals when someone asked how to ensure employees are working. Her response? “You don’t. You have to stop trying to measure how people are working like we used to—who’s in at seven in the morning and who leaves at six at night.” Instead, managers should ask themselves: Did this employee deliver what they’ve agreed to deliver on deadline, and is it high-quality? And did they work with their teammates effectively?

“It’s about giving employees the power to make choices in how they spend their day,” says Doron Melnick, a partner in KPMG’s people and change advisory services division. “And giving them guidelines so that certain staff don’t feel disadvantaged by decisions that other staff are making. If you can create that level playing field and the rules, and everybody’s clear on how it should work, then I think you can get the right results.”

Duxbury also notes that remote work “tends to hurt people’s career progression, because we make a lot of our judgments of people in terms of our interactions with them personally.” To offset this problem, managers should make a particular effort to recognize, and document, their employees' successes—and workers themselves should deliberately seek out opportunities for internal networking and mentorship.

Put it in writing

In face-to-face workplaces, new employees can learn a company’s culture over time. In a mostly remote workplace, that just doesn’t work. “A high-productivity remote environment requires a lot more things documented to ensure collaboration, communication and that employee connections can be forged without physical presence,” Stefan Palios says. That means onboarding documents that clearly explain how things are done—and why—along with guides for commonly used tools. He points to one remote entrepreneur whose company explicitly tells new employees that Slack is for urgent work matters, email for non-urgent matters and Workplace by Facebook for office “watercooler” conversations.

And that level of detail doesn’t just apply to processes or tools. “Remote work policies should be pretty comprehensive—they really should not leave anything to the imagination,” says Louise Taylor Green, CEO of Ontario’s Human Resources Professionals Association. “One of the most critical sections of these policies really has to be about work design.” That comes down to questions like: What are the core working hours? Are compressed work weeks allowed? What about split shifts?

Taylor Green says policies should also outline whether em-ployees are required to track their hours, how accessible they will be during work hours and to whom the policy applies. It should spell out whether remote workers are subject to the same vacation, sick day and bereavement leave policies as in-office workers. Employers must also think about labour laws. “Some employers will only accept responsibility for injuries incurred in the course of employment during working hours, whether at home or at work,” says Taylor Green. “But if employees aren’t tracking working hours, it can lead to some [confusion over] whether it’s an occupational injury or not.”

The policy should also clearly spell out how and when an employer will monitor their employees via camera or keystrokes, or other forms of surveillance. (Though Taylor Green cautions against using these tools, as they can “signal distrust.”)

Money talks

Companies might see some savings long-term, but the initial transition to remote work requires an investment

“When an employee works from home, their home becomes an extension of the workplace, and the same obligations to ensure compliance with [occupational health and safety legislation] applies,” Taylor Green says. “So, you have to make sure employees have an ergonomic space to work in and that it adheres to any of your health and safety protocols.” In March, for example, Shopify provided employees with a $1,000 stipend to buy office supplies like lamps, office chairs or a new desk.

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Ryan Garcia/The Globe and Mail

Companies also need to ensure their employees have the right technology, which means both hardware (laptops) and software (key computer programs, access to shared drives). And their responsibility goes beyond office supplies. If your employee lives in a rural area without high-speed internet, they might need to use cellular data to work. Employees might see higher utility bills, or an increase in their home or tenant’s insurance, because they’re now making their home a place of work, Taylor Green says. Remote work polices must be very clear about who covers those costs—and it might be the company.

Culture club

Workers—especially millennials—are increasingly concerned with company culture. But many businesses' go-to team building strategies—especially around recognizing and rewarding achievement—aren’t possible with a remote workforce. But maybe that’s okay. KPMG’s Melnick says conversations around culture make him think of a quote from Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, who said, “Culture is what people do when no one is looking.”

“Behavioural science finds that humans mirror each other’s physical actions to form emotional bonds, so it’s not surprising we build connection by working together, eating together, playing together,” Melnick says. “And without physical proximity, yes, I think it probably takes longer to form a sense of team. But culture is an expression of values, and we describe values through stories. So even in remote work, we can still share stories about accomplishments, about coming together and overcoming challenges.”

Storytelling that emphasizes a company’s values can happen in a multitude of ways: on conference calls, in digital newsletters, via video chat. Melnick points to one of KPMG’s clients, a big insurance company, whose CEO creates a video for employees every week. “He’s sitting in his home, he’s dressed casually, and he’s just relating stories about what’s going on in the company and what they’re doing to help customers. It’s a great way to express the values, and people really relate to it.”

Some experts believe employee wellness will become an even more important part of company culture. “I think we’re going to see an expectation revolution,” Taylor Green says. And it won’t just be about physical health. “We’re going to see employees expect their employers to really step up the kinds of mental health supports that are being provided.”

Martha Switzer, co-founder of Sprout Wellness Solutions, a global corporate well-being platform, agrees. The new corporate wellness program “has to be digital, of course. And it has to be holistic,” she says. “It can’t just be physical, or a challenge platform where everyone gets healthy together.” Employees will be looking for programs that cover everything from financial well-being to nutrition. And, she says, it has to allow employees to “socialize” with one another—and not just because we’re socialized to want to mimic what other people are doing. “That wellness program is a good chance for people to have a platform to actually communicate, whether that’s COVID information or just wellness information in general. It’s a way to get those messages out.”

A larger shift toward remote work was already coming—according to the Conference Board of Canada, in 2018 just over one-third of organizations offered full-time remote work and just under half offered it on a part-time or ad hoc basis. But companies that never would have considered flexible work are now considering it in a post-pandemic world. “COVID-19 has forced us to rethink what we can accomplish from home, and employers are looking to make it work wherever they can,” says Alison Cowan, director of human capital research at the Conference Board of Canada. Still, we’re not going to have an “ideal” model of working from home while the pandemic is ongoing and people are also needing to engage in some combination of elder care and child care.

For now, success comes down to leadership, Cowan says. “Leaders who are authentic, open and transparent help in setting clear expectations for employees. Leaders who are focused on the employee experience will be most successful.”

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