This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold…It’s not ideal on any level. Even at a remote-friendly company like Automattic, we rely on in-person team meetups and conferences to strengthen our connections and get work done.
We all knew remote work was the future. Spurred as much by evolving technology as by new attitudes towards the workplace, the transition towards a digital, distributed workplace was inevitable. As reported by Global Workplace Analytics, the rate of regular at-home work grew by 173% from 2005-2018, and Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace found that in 2016, 43% of employees worked remotely with some frequency
But this was supposed to be a gradual shift. It wasn’t supposed to take place virtually overnight. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
Thanks to COVID-19, businesses completely unprepared for digital transformation found themselves scrambling frantically to contend with an unfamiliar landscape and unprecedented demands. As we mentioned in a previous piece, this understandably resulted in significant growing pains – but also improved productivity, collaboration, flexibility, and sustainability.
Distributed Work is Here to Stay
Many of us are now returning to the workplace. Dusting off our office attire and physically going to work for the first time in months. Unfortunately, this may only be temporary, as the pandemic is by no means over.
New Year’s Eve 2020 was not a reset button.
The only thing it really changed was our calendars. The problem is that the novel coronavirus doesn’t care about milestones. It doesn’t care that we’re all tired of social isolation and quarantine and not being able to see friends and family. It will continue spreading and mutating indefinitely.
At the time of writing, we are already battling a second wave. And even once COVID vaccines have been widely distributed, there exists a considerable chance that we may face more pandemics in the near future. A return to full-time remote work is therefore likely for many of us – either now or further down the line.
If your business is among those that found its digital footing over the past year, that’s excellent. Secure infrastructure, streamlined software, and a means of keeping everyone in touch are all incredibly important. But they’re also only the first step.
Isolation Takes Its Toll
We are not operating under normal circumstances. People are tired and anxious. The myriad stressors of the past year have even resulted in something experts have taken to calling pandemic fatigue – really just another word for burnout, to say nothing of the impact the current environment has on people already struggling with mental illness.
It’s even worse for people who are isolated. Due to lockdown orders and quarantine, some people may go weeks or even months without face-to-face contact, which takes a heavy toll. And this is all in addition to the struggles they may already be experiencing, which per analyst Deloitte include:
- Dealing with new distractions that one might not be used to.
- Feeling a lack of commitment due to everything being virtual.
- Feeling disconnected or isolated and losing motivation as a result.
- “Screen fatigue,” which results in a shortened attention span.
- A poor work/life balance.
But where exactly do you fit into all this? What can your business do to help its employees adjust to this new world of work?
Shifting to a Digital Culture
The thing a lot of people forget about adapting to distributed work is that it is not solely a technological problem. You need to do more than update your software and hardware. You need to take a step back and rethink your culture as well.
Your business processes need to evolve in order to adapt to the new normal. You need to change how you operate. Drawing in part from Matt Mullenweg’s analysis of the five levels of autonomy in distributed work, this involves a few things:
- Axe the 9-to-5 workday. While you may have to occasionally schedule meetings during regular business hours, COVID-19 functionally acted as the death knell for the traditional workday. Flexibility should be your new default, and you should allow your employees to work when and how they choose.
- Avoid overdoing it on email. How many emails do you suppose you receive a day? Your employees and colleagues are probably in the same boat, which means if you rely solely on that channel to provide information and updates, you’ll end up lost in the noise. Consider centralizing everything into a single newsfeed, or providing updates via a mobile app.
- Keep things simple. Avoid overwhelming your employees with a complex set of collaboration tools. Where possible, communication should take place on a single, unified platform. We’re all dealing with enough complexity as it is, after all – better to avoid adding more.
- Promote mutual trust between leadership and staff. Everyone should have a clear idea of their responsibilities and the capacity to reach out for clarification as-needed. Beyond that, however, people should have agency and autonomy.
- Plan and schedule meetings sparingly and deliberately. People’s time, whether or not they are in the office, should be respected. Every meeting should have a clear purpose, and there should be an opportunity for everyone in attendance to make their voice heard.
- Prioritize wellness. You need to make sure that mental health and counseling services are available to anyone who needs them. Emphasize that there is nothing shameful or wrong about struggling, either with pandemic-related anxiety or genuine mental illness. Give your employees the help they need.
- Foster togetherness. Relative to the above, working remotely should not mean working in isolation. Encourage people to regularly connect with and check in on their colleagues (and make sure you do the same). When possible, plan virtual meetups, which might take the form of an online movie night, digital board games, video games, or even just a simple video call.
- Offer advice. Circling back to Deloitte’s COVID-19 brief, provide everyone with guidance on maintaining a proper work/life balance and establishing an organized, quiet, and comfortable home office. Ensure also that everyone knows how to use all of your organizational tools.
“Remote” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Isolated”
2020 was a difficult year. But we got through it together. And that’s the only way we’ll get through 2021 – by acknowledging that, whatever else happens, we are not in this alone.
Ultimately, in such challenging times, it’s absolutely critical that we stay connected with one another. Unified-Communication-as-a-Service platforms will be instrumental in both establishing and maintaining this connectivity. Here’s where Unio comes in.
Ultra-secure and easy to use, Unio allows you to stay connected with both clients and colleagues through messaging, voice, and video. Leadership can ensure that critical messages are viewed thanks to Unio’s integrated newsfeed, and the platform’s file sharing capabilities enable the level of collaboration necessary to keep projects on-task and on-schedule.