Work From Home Is Not About the Technology

A Gallup poll done in May showed that half of those working from home indicated a preference for continuing to do so even after the pandemic has passed. Organizations are looking hard at how to make that work. The remote worker genie is absolutely not going back in the bottle.

Leading a remote workforce involves far more than technology. And yet, during that same May time frame, searches for online monitoring and virtual time clock systems went through the roof.

It is important to be certain a remote worker is properly set up, secure with company data and able to work effectively even if not in the office. But working from home reaches way past the logistics into the heart of organizational culture. The true genie out of the bottle is that leadership, decision-making, performance management, recruiting and even communications are never going to be the same with a remote workforce. Never.

I had a Vistage CEO member whose web hosting business ran 100% virtually. His G&A expense consisted of an 11-inch Macbook Air and a local hotspot. Development and support happened in time zones from Asia to Bulgaria. And although they needed support and other front-line staff online and ready to work at specific hours, most of the business operated based on “get your work done” and “show up for committed meetings.” Their margins and growth were the envy of the group. But few businesses can operate that way.

For the same reasons your employee is at home now, his kids are at home. And his spouse is likely at home, working in the next room. Many of the things that were routine and simple, like grocery shopping, errands and child care, are now spotty, frightening and require the logistics skill of an air traffic controller.

I recently heard a VP vehemently complaining about a manager who had to deal with a fussy child during a small group virtual meeting. It wasn’t an ideal situation for anyone involved. However, a business that insists on stringently applying the “old rules” to the “new reality” is going to find it hard to recruit and keep the best and brightest. Besides, who really wants to be that boss, the one who complains to an employee about caring for an upset toddler?

Remote workers will need to be available for meetings and other activities that require synchronous participation. However, one of the advantages of working from home is the ability to trade paying attention to a child (who is also trapped at home) for completing the sales forecast after the kid is in bed — when it is possible to focus. Managing remote workers with the expectation that they are going to keep the same schedule and work the same way as before the virus hit will most likely create a lot of stress. A company that cannot adjust is going to have a hard time keeping top talent.

Think about all the interactions, policies and procedures that remote work touches — and potentially changes. Recruitment screening will need to include a whole new level of vetting for personal responsibility and ability to work independently. Performance management would have to stress quality of work, initiative, creativity and deadlines, while all but ignoring the time clock. And all of these will impact culture in a very big way.

Of course, some jobs cannot be done from home. And not all employees will thrive in a remote work environment, even if their jobs could be done remotely. But an organizational culture that is more invested in counting noses at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. than the initiative and quality of work product of knowledge workers is going to be at a serious disadvantage in recruiting and retention in the age of remote work.