Two and a half years before Covid-19 changed the world, Harvard professor Tsedal Neeley couldn’t have seen a global pandemic coming down the road. An expert in virtual and remote work, however, she did envision a massive shift to a non-office-based workforce. By the time coronavirus upended the global economy last year, she had already amassed 300 pages of material about the future trend for her book Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere, which was published last month.
Despite her research and expertise, though, even Neeley–who is the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School–did not expect some of the major and subtle effects of such a sudden switch to remote work across the globe. That shift, coupled with both its positive and negative ramifications, formed the basis of a conversation between Neeley and Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief of Harvard Business Review, at From Day One’s virtual conference last week on “Digital Tools for Building an Engaged, Productive Team.”
Along with most corporate leaders, particularly in the tech industry, Neeley and Ignatius expressed doubts that workers will ever return to previous norms, with a hybrid workplace much more likely. But HR teams and executives from CEO level down must be prepared to shepherd that long-term transition with strong leadership, frequent reassessment, and open-mindedness, Neeley said. “I am 100% convinced that, if we do this hybrid right and with courage, and we set our policies based on need and not fear, we’re preparing for the digital revolution that’s right around the corner,” Neeley said.
That means identifying and addressing even minor personal and professional changes that have been highlighted by the massive shift in corporate culture over the past year–both good and bad, she added. “Commute times have disappeared, and people’s quality of life has gotten better [through] the democratization of interactions,” Neeley said. Among other equalizers, she pointed out that on video platforms like Zoom, everyone is the same height, using herself and her husband as examples (she’s 5-foot-4; he’s a foot taller).
“There is this democratization that takes place ... provided we have great leaders that give everyone an opportunity to speak. Operational costs have gone down; bloated travel budgets no longer seem necessary; hiring and retaining employees without asking them to move is actually a special thing that we’ve been seeing in Boston when it comes to identifying and attracting diverse candidates,” she said. “So it’s been great to see this untapped labor pool for many companies. Astronomical real estate no longer seems important ... The numbers are staggering when we look at how many people want to retain some form of remote work in their professional arrangements.”
Those are the upsides, yet there are unintended consequences too. Ignatius asked what kinds of obstacles exist when it comes to fostering a diverse, inclusive and collaborative environment when coworkers are so physically far apart–a question many employers are grappling with. “I consider this to be the diversity and digital era,” Neeley said. “And we need to work hard to create inclusive environments so you are working together. It’s a mindset shift; you may not think you’re working together, but you are–it’s just using digital tools.”
Employers need to be intentional about the impact of these tools on all the processes of bringing people together as a team, she said. “How we onboard people, how we integrate people, how we help them build social capital ... we had heard about the weak vs. strong ties. There’s a whole set of best practices when it comes to virtual onboarding. And we have to work hard to integrate people through the systems.”
She added: “We need to pair people with others so they feel like, ‘Ah, I actually can belong here.’ Experience the place through pairing, hiring, not just one Black person or Latinx member being lonely by themselves–imagine if we brought in two people instead.”
In confronting these issues, corporate leaders need to ask themselves if there are deeper-seated organizational issues contributing to isolation that have nothing to do with remoteness. “There are all sorts of strategies–effective strategies–that companies are using in order to ensure that people don’t experience professional isolation,” Neeley said. “It’s not the distribution ... it’s your existing culture and the lack of diversity. You know, diversity begets diversity.”
While remote work becomes more established, the inclusivity efforts must also take into account employees’ diverse living situations, mental health, and personal circumstances, she said. While a vast majority of employees prefer working from home, an estimated 15% hate it, she pointed out. On top of that, even workers who had been remote for long periods of time before the pandemic had to readjust, thrown off their rhythm when the rest of their colleagues essentially joined them in a virtual daily existence. Further complicating matters is research showing that, at least before the pandemic, remote workers were often passed over for promotion in favor of on-site colleagues. And then there’s the huge existential workplace question, posed by Ignatius: “What is the point of an office at this point?”
Managers have a key role in navigating all these crosscurrents, Neeley emphasized. “We have to think differently on how to bring the group together to gel now,” she said, emphasizing the importance of feedback. “People want predictability ... and predictability around the big picture overall,” she said. “So we have to connect people to the big picture because they feel a little bit lost. They don’t know what’s happening at the mothership, so connecting people to the big picture as much as you can on a regular basis. And finally, performance feedback. Remote workers crave performance feedback. They have more questions about, ‘Am I doing okay? Are things okay?’ So we have to be so disciplined about this piece and developing people, as well.”
Both managers and employees face other pitfalls, including tech exhaustion and overwork, with Neeley and Ignatius citing previous studies showing remote workers have demonstrated higher productivity but also longer working hours. “Untrained and unchecked, remote work can go wrong,” Neeley said. “I use the term hyper-productivity when I describe productivity gone wrong. This is where our work and non-work lives get blurred to the point where we don’t know where we start and where things end because we’re literally commuting for five minutes,” she said.
“The other thing is, we’ve replaced some of our commute times with work. And on average, we’re seeing that people are working 6.8 hours more per week. If you think about seven hours, that’s like a whole day, so it’s so much more work. And leaders need to really put those guardrails up, because people are getting stressed and burned out,” Neeley said.
She added: “It’s time to recreate and revise culture–and take the best that remote work and virtuality offers, while at the same time overcoming some of the challenges. One of the most important things that I see, and the failure points that I’m worried about, is around this entire mindset shift that needs to take place. Leaders of organizations are still stuck with the idea that we’re going back to something.”
A key practice that will have to move forward is assessing and measuring performance. “How do you do that when you don’t see people?,” Neeley asked. To refocus those parameters, she said, “we need to completely rethink how we measure performance predicated on outcomes and not process. We need to trust people and help people trust people. We need to bring the logic of global organizations, even if we’re not global–which means how we think about time, how we think about space, how we think about connection, how we think about dispersion, how we think about compensation.”
Sheila Flynn is an Austin-based journalist who has written for the Associated Press, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Daily Mail and the Irish Times. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.