Remote Work and the Pandemic Part 1: Challenges of the New Normal

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The US employment sector is currently undergoing a revolution in remote work. The ways in which people work have substantially changed since the beginning of 2020. Many people, almost all at once, have had to adapt to working primarily from home. This constitutes an unprecedented shift for companies worldwide that have had to adjust operations to this new normal.

New Challenges of Remote Work

Not every job can be done remotely. Nevertheless, efforts to implement health and safety protocol have meant that many companies have newly turned to remote work.  Before 2020, only 7% of U.S. workers regularly worked from home, while post-pandemic data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that almost one-third of the U.S. workforce is able to work remotely.

At the onset of the pandemic, most companies had to rethink policies that would have likely otherwise gone undisturbed. The 2019 IWG Workplace Survey indicates that more than 50% of companies had no flexible policy with the reason that “longstanding company policy” dictated such. Companies large and small had to enact operational changes quickly in order to continue functioning, and in many cases this involved some element of remote work.  

Today, about 1 in 4 workers is working entirely from home. Under these new conditions, employee behaviors and experiences have changed in some cases dramatically. The pivot to remote work has altered the way teams interact and how people experience their work. Faced with new challenges related to adjusting to this status quo, many companies are trying to play catch up.

We spoke to two companies about their experience pivoting operations during the pandemic. One, Nearsure, a nearshore outsourcing agency, has always had teams working fully remote, but they experienced increased challenges when they were obliged to shift to 100% remote work. The second, UruIT, a software development company, offered a flexible policy for employees who wished to work remotely, but for the most part had teams working in their offices. For these companies, while logistical hurdles demanded immediate attention, the major challenges were related long-term effects on employee well-being and team culture.

EPresenteeism, Loneliness and Work-Life Imbalance

The sudden, obligatory shift to remote work for many companies has brought its share of concerns for human resources teams. Addressing EPresenteeism has emerged as one of these major challenges.

Presenteeism, or working while sick, has been studied as a cause of reduced productivity, exhaustion, and poor health. EPresenteeism stems from the feeling experienced by employees that they need to be constantly online and available while working remotely. Workdays can have the tendency to lose demarcation especially for those with large workloads. The pandemic has also limited non-work activities for many people, which can contribute to an increased difficulty disconnecting from work. This has lead to higher levels of stress and increased risk of burn out.

Workers who assumed the additional responsibility of childcare have been especially impacted by the dueling pressure of working from home. “These times can be challenging for those who have children at home given that everyone is trying to balance work and parental responsibilities”, explains Regiane Folter, Marketing Specialist at UruIT. Folter has been collaborating with her company’s human resources team on initiatives to maintain employee engagement and communication.

Folter explains how UruIT addressed the demands of working from home and caring for a family. “Our PeopleCare team has been offering solutions, such as keeping a flexible work schedule, depending on the role. They also provided daily tips in our Slack workplace with informative links on how to have a positive remote work experience and keeping a healthy work-life balance”.

Work-life balance is a term used to refer to a healthy equilibrium of work and other activities, relationships, etc. that enrich a person’s life. The abrupt shift to remote work, and resulting EPresenteeism, has created or worsened an imbalance for many people.

Feelings of loneliness can also result from isolation and have a severe impact on employee wellbeing. Reduced social interactions between colleagues can attenuate connections that create positive work culture. Folter recounts that this was a key concern for UruIT, a company that fosters a thriving, social company culture. They, like many, have turned to online activities and events to help. Every Friday, all the employees get together in an online brunch through Zoom where all are welcome to join, listen to the latest company news, and partake in some fun activities with co-workers. Also, we’ve been having weekly online classes to take care of our physical and mental well-being while staying in isolation. This includes activities such as stretching, self-massage and posture tips, online fitness classes, and yoga and mindfulness sessions.”

Combating the averse effects of mandatory remote work takes focus and a good deal of creativity. However, while the shift to working from home presents many challenges, for companies that adapt effectively, the impact may not be wholly negative.

This is why it’s important for leaders to take a proactive approach and start actively looking after their employees’ well-being. On that article, you can learn more on how corporate wellness programs can help you boost employee motivation.

The Upside, Some Surprising Results

A recent Owl Labs report shows that one of the biggest concerns managers had at the beginning of the pandemic was reduced employee productivity. However, there is evidence that suggests that in some ways the benefits might outweigh the costs when it comes to working remotely. According to a recent survey conducted by Lenovo, 63% of the global workforce surveyed reports that they are more productive working from home than they were at the office.

These results coincide with Folter’s observations about her teams. “All the teams are working in a manner as productive as they used to do when everyone was in the office. We’re receiving positive feedback from our clients, and work is going as smoothly as always.”

These positive results may just be the motivation for lasting change in the ways companies work even after the pandemic subsides. Benefits associated with working form home have been gaining traction in the workforce and may just result in shifting expectations moving forward. Flexible work schedule is one benefit that has been slowly gaining ground among employees. As much as 86% of parents now want flexible hours, 40% more than before the pandemic outbreak occurred. In fact, it is currently one of the top benefits of remote work cited by employees, with or without children.

Remote Work: A New Normal?

Industries such as Software and IT have been offering flexible hours and remote work options as benefits for some time. It is a trend that began to reach other industries even before the pandemic outbreak. Baliero believes that this trend will be accelerated and that many more companies as a result will adopt more flexible policies long-term. I believe that the pandemic has definitely made remote work more accepted in many industries, not just the software industry. On that note, I think it is here to stay and businesses that are able to operate remotely are going to improve their policies and continue to do so”. 

So, is this a glimpse of what work will look like in the future? The answer, it depends. What can be seen, is that people’s opinion of remote work, and their desire for more flexibility has shifted. According to Buffer’s State of Remote Report, 98% of employees surveyed would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers. In response, many companies will likely update their policies long-term to accommodated the greater demand for flexibility. Similarly, a study by Microsoft reveals that 82% of managers expect to have more flexible work from home policies post-pandemic.

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