In a year of profound change and uncertainty, companies across the world have had to adapt on the fly to a new way of working. Looking ahead, however, we are in the unique position to purposefully redesign our relationship with work. To make the most of this opportunity, though, we need to make data-informed decisions to address the unique behaviors, priorities, and concerns of the most diverse workforce in history.
As we begin a new year with 40+ weeks of remote work under our belts, we look back on how our work processes and attitudes have evolved since the beginning of the pandemic. Back in March, when it became clear that our two-week precautionary closing of the office would go on indefinitely, we developed a ReEntry survey to help our clients understand how their employees were adapting to remote work. Like any good consultant, we also gave the survey to ourselves - once in March and again in November. We dug into how employees were spending their days, what challenges and distractions they were facing, what they missed most about the office, what they enjoyed most about working from home, and what concerned them thinking ahead to a return to the office.
Our survey results, much like the results from our clients' surveys, were surprising in revealing how well we were all coping with such a sudden and unprecedented shift to remote work. Productivity had mostly increased or remained the same; in fact, 63% of us reported improved or unchanged productivity. For many of our clients, who don't have the need to visit job sites or consult physical material libraries, they experienced productivity increase numbers in the 80-90% range. We were taking advantage of a new suite of tools, and our opinions around remote work were mostly positive (in March, 60% had a more favorable view of remote work than before the pandemic; in November, that jumped to 81%). There were of course many challenges. Non-work distractions, inadequate work setups, and insufficient technologies were all affecting our employees. We missed the social interactions and ease of in-person collaboration (but not as much as we liked our lack of commute and increased flexibility). Our work and home lives blurred together. Many of these challenges made sense given that we were all adopting to a new reality with new routines and distractions, however, they remained challenges that needed to be addressed.
One funny story that our survey uncovered, both with us and across our clients: before the pandemic, it was a good bet that most of us would say that "spending time with family" was something we wanted to do more of. However, after two months of the pandemic, when asked what people enjoyed most about working from home, "no commute" and "casual dress" were the top two reasons – "spending more time with family" was second from the bottom! As someone with two adorable, but spirited young children stuck at home, I can certainly understand this data point.
Despite these speedbumps – and in hindsight, it is easy to call them mere speedbumps – it became clear, both for us and our clients, that no one was in any rush to return to the office. Yes, we missed our colleagues. We missed the informal conversations, the ability to sit down across from someone, and the energy of the workplace. But we were also remaining productive at home while staying safe and doing our small part to help stop the spread of the virus. Our lack of commute gave us time back in our day and our flexibility increased. Our survey brought to the surface important issues that, in addition to helping us think longer-term about what a return to the office might look like, also allowed us to address our more immediate pain points of working remotely during unusual times.
Fast forward to 2021 and we're still working from home. Our makeshift measures have become more permanent and our abnormal has become routine. We recently re-administered our remote work survey to ourselves to see how we have changed, if at all. Our survey revealed that we have sorted out many of the logistical challenges that we struggled with at the outset. More than 90% of us now have an adequate home office set-up, up from 70%. Only 6% of people reported having insufficient technology, down from 33% seven months earlier. Non-work distractions dropped by almost half as we settled into routines.
We were also sorting out more ambiguous challenges around collaboration. Microsoft Teams and Zoom shot to the top of the list of most helpful applications as the importance of communication – both chat and video – became ever more evident. (Prior to the pandemic, Zoom was only a blip on our radar!) Our reasons for wanting to return to the office realigned away from tools and technologies that exist in the physical space and more toward the simple desire to see our colleagues.
Perhaps just as important as what the data revealed about us was the discussion it engendered. We all viewed the results through a lens colored by our individual perspectives. Some of us live with kids in houses, others alone or with roommates in apartments. Some of us need to visit jobsites, others need access to physical materials, and others need nothing more than a laptop. We have been able to think about how our experiences fit into broader trends within our company. Those struggling with motivation could hear how others were coping. Those challenged by virtual communication could hear techniques from those who have discovered helpful tools or processes. Most importantly, we were able to have an informed discussion – one that would have been hard, if not impossible to have, without the context of the survey – around what the future of work might look like for us as individuals and collectively as a company. Of course, every company has a unique culture, management structure, and work processes, and every company will have to ask themselves these questions to understand what's uniquely important to their people.
We all long for a return to normal, but tomorrow's normal will be quite different than yesterday's normal. However, we're optimistic that our new normal will be better. We have picked up useful new tools and processes that have improved our workflow. Our proficiency with virtual communication tools will help us save time and money in the future. The importance of clear communication has become more salient. Our collective appetite for remote work, and the value it generates, has increased. Because of our surveys and the discussions they fostered, we now have more empathy for our colleagues, we better understand how we work, and we have become more resilient. We will return to the office with more appreciation for the importance of human connection and the energy and commitment our colleagues bring to our work.