As offices begin to reopen across the U.S., today’s leaders are navigating the challenges of a remote workforce while also considering opportunities for in-person collaboration. Plenty of them can talk the talk when it comes to supporting employees and their career development in our hybrid work reality, but how many can actually walk the walk?
Probably fewer than you’d think. Let’s begin by examining this phenomenon through the prism of two conflicting tropes.
Managers and employees generally agree that productivity increases with remote work.
A number of surveys and studies over the last several years have substantiated this idea, and, anecdotally, I’ve heard many employees say the same. In-office work certainly has its benefits, but when it comes to creating a distraction-free efficiency machine, it’s hard to beat remote work for many people.
Telecommuters are seen as less dedicated to their careers, and thus less likely to be monetarily rewarded than those who work in the office.
A study of over 400 tech employees from February 2020 revealed that remote workers received as many promotions as in-office workers, but that their salaries grew at a slower rate. Interestingly, when telecommuting was highly normative, and when they engaged in higher supplemental work, remote workers received greater salary growth.
COVID-19 forced employees out of offices and into their homes overnight. Over the past year and a half, organizations have leaned into the remote working, utilizing collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom to stay connected; but as they are calling employees back in person, many of the challenges facing the hybrid working model remain, both professional, and personal.
So, where do things come apart? Why the disconnect? It largely comes down to human psychology.
The Remote Work Disconnect… It’s a Matter of Trust
Comprehensive research on this subject comes from a research team at UC Davis several years ago. Talking to nearly 40 management professionals, they found that managers tended to have a bias towards workers who were frequently in meetings or physically at their desks. One study participant put it this way: “If I see you there all the time, okay, good. You’re a hardworking, dependable individual.”
In their research, the study creators also asked 60 professionals to read a fictional short story about someone who spends a lot of time working in an office. After reading, the participants were given a list of words (none of which actually appeared in the story) and asked to remember which words had appeared in the text. People were most likely to remember words like “dedicated,” “committed,” “responsible” and “dependable.”
Words that, for lack of a better phrase, speak for themselves.
Ensuring that employees feel supported, seen, and rewarded for the work they do is vital, perhaps even more so in a hybrid working environment. It’s also incredibly important that managers convey their trust that work is getting done, regardless of location.
Staying Plugged In — and Five Tips for Tech Leaders
As a society, we’re taught that “burning the midnight oil” is inherently a positive thing, that showing up early and staying late should be the norm, and that “remote work” is for the lazy who don’t want to leave the house. Together, we must work to undo these institutionalized prejudices and biases that managers—and workers—are essentially trained to have.
Here are a few best practices I’ve compiled based on my conversations with leading executives and managers:
- Find ways (virtually or otherwise) to create team gatherings that keep employees connected and engaged, so no employee has an unfair advantage.
- Engage with employees to find what makes them most productive, whether that’s being remote, in the office or otherwise.
- Design offices in ways that actually serve a purpose, tailoring them for creativity, collaboration, community and focused work.
- Ensure a flexible, trust-based workplace is the norm, not the exception.
- Create workplaces that prioritize inclusivity, sustainability and health.
The Real Work Starts Now
This conversation shouldn’t end with reading an article about it. Leaders must be consistently—and constantly—engaged from the top down, every single day, in order to successfully create an environment that’s built to excel.
When it comes down to it, the calculus is quite simple: If we can get the right people doing the right things day in and day out, our customers will be successful. And if our team is happy and our customers are happy, well, what more can we ask for?
Steve Baird is Managing Director of SAP North America Midwest.