Remote work can unlock productivity or push burnout. Here's how smart companies are planning for our 'hybrid' and WFH future.
- Executives have expressed concern over the rise of remote or hybrid work.
- It’s a risk for retention and innovation. It could be a boon to productivity.
- “We’ve really dedicated ourselves to taking the leap,” said Zillow people chief Dan Spaulding.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Prashant Hegde, senior director of product development at Zillow, used to be skeptical of allowing remote work or having fully remote employees on his team or at the company. He told Insider he felt it was a muscle the company didn’t have, so it wouldn’t work well.
As a product lead, he spends his days with engineers, designers, and marketing and customer success teams to ensure Zillow is continuously improving its offering. After going fully remote during the pandemic, Hegde acknowledged the need for a new approach to work.
“When you go back, there’s going to be this tendency to go back to the old normal, where you don’t know or didn’t have to think much about what it felt like to be a remote employee,” he said, “and we can’t do that.”
Zillow has publicly committed to supporting a “work-from-anywhere” model, where all employees are free to work from home as they wish, despite expenses that might come with it.
“I would say there was healthy tension with our employees for some time over that desire to have more flexibility,” Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow, told Insider.
“We’ve really dedicated ourselves to taking the leap,” he added. “We think the world is going to be different coming out of this.”
In some ways, it already is. Burnout and fatigue are familiar themes of pandemic life; a recent Harvard Business Review survey found that 85% of 1,500 respondents felt their wellbeing had declined, while 89% had said their work life was worse off. Meetings are booming, workdays are lengthening. And at the same time, per recent LinkedIn survey data, 74% of employees are taking “shelter” in their current job as a way of mitigating risk during tumultuous times.
While what it means to work from home isn’t going to be the same in post-pandemic life, these remote and hybrid — where you come into the office some of the time — work styles are likely to. But conflict is rising around the best way to do it without sacrificing quality, company success, or personal wellbeing.
“The risk of getting this wrong is one that you’re impacting people’s lives and careers,” Spaulding said.
Uneven buy-in for a bold new direction
The five-day work week has been a default since the Fair Labor Standards and Safety Act in 1938, but it now seems unlikely employers will ever go back to expecting employees to be in the office that whole time. Overwhelming survey data suggests little to no drops in productivity and improved employee morale as a result of remote work, in addition to some unexpected benefits such as being able to expand talent markets for recruiting and a more accessible workplace.
Companies have recognized these benefits, and like Zillow, some are moving to hybrid or fully remote working. Spotify is also letting employees work from anywhere.
However, corporate leaders still see a lot of risk in this model for work. Not all are fully bought in. Microsoft recently announced that all employees would be able to work remotely up to 50% of the time, but would need to request their manager to be full-time remote. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, was one of many companies to express concern for remote work’s impact “on our ability to compete effectively and maintain our corporate culture.”
Eric Mosley, CEO of Workhuman, an HR software provider, told Insider he thinks companies benefited from the culture they had already built over years in the office together, and that it will be harder to recreate as more employees join the company virtually.
“The value of human connection is highly underestimated and it’s likely to be felt as new employees enter the workplace remotely and lack the shared experiences coworkers had the opportunity to build in an in-person setting,” he said.
To develop a successful working model going forward, business leaders are going to have to take intentional steps to build culture and facilitate collaboration. This means rethinking schedules, how employees are recognized, and finding ways to connect with colleagues virtually in a way that fits into the company’s existing culture.
“It’s not impossible to foster a culture of connection in a remote and hybrid model,” Mosley said. “It will require dedicated measurement of how people are doing as well as what they are doing. Leaders will also need to normalize the celebration of more personal moments that are often left at the door in the modern workplace.”
The risks of going remote
Lauren Smith, vice president of research at Gartner’s HR practice, said that when leaders bring up culture, “most frequently, they mean team camaraderie or collaboration.”
While meetings and brainstorming sessions can still occur in a virtual environment, peer-to-peer learning and spur-of-the-moment collaboration are missing.
Every company and team will need to take a different approach based on their people and the type of work they do, Smith added. Spaulding said at Zillow they’re evaluating every department, role, and process to see how it needs to be different in their new working model.
Hegde said the thing he misses the most is working on ideas with his teams at Zillow, going to the whiteboard, drawing something out, understanding what the person is saying immediately, and advancing or rejecting an idea in the moment. “It is hard to replicate that in a virtual environment,” he said.
The impact is particularly significant for those companies that rely on their ability to build innovative new products.
“At the end of the day, as technology companies, the thing we have is innovation,” he explained. “That’s really what we bring to the table. The risk here is huge.”
He added that managing productivity as well as keeping employees enthused and engaged remain challenges for any company.
Creating a better work-from-home culture
The exact steps and strategies for overcoming the risks of moving to a more remote-friendly workplace can vary across industry and company type, but they do build on the shared values of treating people well, respecting their time, and communicating as frequently and meaningfully as possible.
One strategy that does not work, Smith said, is adding more “check-in” meetings or employing a digital tool to force random meetings onto employees. An August 2020 study from NBER found that the number of meetings attended by workers increased, on average, by 12.9% during lockdown – with the average number of attendees per meeting increasing by 13.5%. That approach is likely to disrupt the employees’ workflow and could exacerbate burnout and fatigue, Smith said.
“Successful organizations instead are embracing a policy of intentional collaboration,” Smith said, “to think more intentionally about when, where and how we collaborate, and embracing other types of collaboration that aren’t just based on being colocated.”
In practice, this means looking at every role and every process employees engage in at work to see if they need a redesign.
“I think it’s really important that people sort of rethink their whole strategy for what meetings are, why they need to have them, and think about what has to happen live and what can be done asynchronously,” said Christina Janzer, senior director of research and analytics at Slack. She recommends that “status-update” meetings and small-scale collaboration meetings are good candidates to hold virtually, and even asynchronously, to the benefit of employees who seek flexibility.
Another culture risk comes from isolation, or the lack of a sense of belonging. Hegde said “it can be fairly isolating to be a remote employee,” adding that he felt that way himself and saw it play out in different ways across his team.
Data from Slack’s quarterly surveys of remote workers that found employees’ sense of belonging has improved over the course of the pandemic, so some companies have found ways to do it better. Janzer said egular communication and informal check-ins from managers and peers are the best way to naturally drive belonging. Additionally, recognition and celebrations — of major life or work events — can also make a difference.
“I think showing that kindness at work is so important,” Janzer said. “And I think it’s even more important now that people are remote, because they’re feeling isolated, they’re feeling disconnected.”
For every company, the solution will look a little different, but restructuring training and performance management and developing virtual ways to connect employees across teams and departments are the foundation.
For example, Spotify is rolling out a virtual workshop for employees that will reinforce cultural values and is also hosting new employees for in-person onboarding.
“We have to double our focus and make sure we understand how employees are feeling in this environment, so will continue to use employee surveys to track engagement, mental health and wellbeing, sense of belonging, and barriers to execution and collaboration,” Anna Lundstrom, vice president of HR, Americas, Advertising & Content at Spotify, told Insider.
The risks of getting this wrong go much further than a loss in productivity.
“The future is remote, the future is hybrid,” Slack’s Janzer said. “This isn’t just about boosting productivity. This is about employee engagement and long-term retention.”
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