A new world of remote work
Best practices of “work from anywhere” could transform the business landscape
4 minute read
- Aﬅer starting off in emergency mode, businesses are now exploring how to adapt remote work practices for long-term success
- Best practices include increasing flexibility, having clear communication guidelines and more
- Remote work could make small communities stronger as talented young people are able to stay rather than leaving to pursue their careers
The coronavirus pushed untold numbers of companies into unplanned experiments in remote work, forcing them to rethink communications and workflows in order to maintain operations. Their success under the most trying circumstances has made clear the potential of remote work to transform companies and communities.
Now, however, companies will have to transition out of emergency mode and consider how remote work should operate in the long term. Choudhury, who has spent years studying remote work, offers suggestions on how companies can prepare.
Under normal remote working circumstances, you’re not taking care of kids in the house, you’re not prohibited from going to the gym, you’re not worried because someone in the family is not well.
Preserve company culture
Most workplaces have long relied on in-person presence to forge a sense of teamwork and company identity. But Choudhury maintains that culture is about people connecting socially and having a common set of values. To achieve that sense of unity, your company could create “virtual water coolers” and other remote social gatherings to bring together randomly selected workers, which allows businesses to include everyone, even introverts who might otherwise keep to themselves. Companies can highlight common values — such as transparency, social justice or innovation, among others — through communication involving all members of the workforce.
While managers may worry that workers who aren’t in the office will slack off, remote work actually resulted in a 4.4% increase in productivity, in one study Choudhury conducted prior to the pandemic. In fact, managers may have to take steps to ensure employees aren’t logging 12-hour days at home and losing work-life balance. He recommends setting objective measures for productivity and then trusting workers to complete their tasks. “It’s not about seeming to be busy, but what you actually accomplish,” Choudhury says. “That is the paradigm of productivity.”
A new world of remote work may mean being more flexible about the hours and times of day employees are at their desks, especially if they’re located in different time zones. It may also involve reconsidering what kinds of work can be done remotely. While some jobs require a physical presence, many don’t, and companies should take a fresh look at how to support a more remote team. “Instead of saying, ‘Can this work for this role?’ try to ask, ‘What is needed to make it work for this role?’,” Choudhury says.
In traditional settings, workers oﬅen relied on the institutional knowledge of coworkers in the next cubicle or down the hall rather than consulting organizational handbooks. In current remote modes, colleagues oﬅen reach out to one another electronically for this information. In a future, more flexible “work from anywhere” arrangement, far-flung workers may be on the job at different hours of the day and night, making even today’s digital modes of contact less efficient and effective. Creating clear, transparent and readily accessible guidelines that cover all of a company’s processes and values can make that information always available to every worker, wherever they are.
One main challenge of remote work is making sure employees have equal access to information, whether they’re working in the office or remotely. Options for keeping everyone in the loop with both information and processes may include asynchronous messaging channels that let employees share their thoughts; video and mobile options for communicating, including fingertip signatures, remote tokens and other digital functions that allow tasks that once required a physical presence to be performed remotely; and shared documents and servers that make needed information accessible at any time.
Like all other best practices, those for remote work will continue to evolve. Look to research published in business and academic journals to keep up with the latest trends. Some very large companies are shiﬅing to all-remote work, and seeing how those companies fare will also be illuminating. “Watching them manage this transformation will be fascinating,” Choudhury notes.
If you let people work remotely, a large number of people could actually move back from the congested coastal cities to small towns in the U.S.
Although managing a permanent shiﬅ to more prevalent remote work will be complex, it could yield signiﬁcant long-term beneﬁts for companies, workers and communities, Choudhury says. Such a shiﬅ could help bring renewed vibrancy and economic strength to communities long accustomed to having their most promising young people leave in search of careers elsewhere. “That is one of the most exciting possibilities of ‘work from anywhere,’” Choudhury says.
Prithwiraj Choudhury, Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School