Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Is remote working the future, or should companies hold on to offices?

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Is remote working the future, or should companies hold on to offices?

Related tags Soup-To-Nuts Podcast coronavirus

Last Friday marked six months since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, which for many Americans means six months of either risking exposure to go to work as essential employees or six months of working remotely from a repurposed kitchen table or other spot in their homes while also potentially balancing family care or isolation.

Unfortunately, without a vaccine and with cases still spreading, the end of the pandemic in the US isn’t in sight – which means companies and employees who are able to work remotely, need to get comfortable doing so. But there is more to it than buying a webcam and a real office chair for remote workers, according to Laura Dribin, founder of Peritius Consulting, and Raquel Pittman, general manager at Peritius Consulting. It is also about setting boundaries, inspiring innovation and preserving culture, while also determining if all those extra video conferences, emails with long-lists of cc’ed recipients and even office space are necessary.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​, Dribin and Pittman breakdown the impact of the near overnight shift to remote working for many companies and employees, outline strategies for making the best of the current situation, including advice on how to drive innovation and productivity while protecting against burnout, how to preserve or evolve a company’s culture and more.

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Change is painful, but offers benefits

While the initial shift to remote working for many companies and employees was disconcerting and more than a little frustrating, Dribin lauds businesses for acting quickly to keep employees safe and notes the fast transition wouldn’t be possible without the flexibility provided by video conferencing and enhanced technology.

“Typically, I would say that businesses don’t do change very well. They all want to make change, but they actually don’t execute change quickly,”​ but with the speed of the pandemic there was no other choice but to pivot fast and, given the circumstances, Dribin said she would give a “pretty high grade for businesses that reacted quickly to be able to continue operations.”

Despite any initial or ongoing discomfort with remoting working, Dribin notes that the shift has brought many benefits – both for workers and companies – including enhanced productivity, flexibility and potentially cost savings.

But for each of these benefits, Dribin warns there are tradeoffs – some of which can cause long term damage to companies and individuals. For example, she notes, while remote working has improved productivity, it has hindered innovation.

“For innovation, I don’t know any other solution than an actual face-to-face”​ meeting, Dribin said. Which is why, she adds, she worries some companies may be jumping the gun by declaring they don’t need shared office spaces anymore now that they know how much work can be done remotely.

Rather than scrap offices entirely, she recommends companies think about which employees can continue to work at home after the pandemic and which would be more efficient if they were brought together in a central location again.

Finding work-life balance: ‘Not everyone needs to be in every meeting'

Another downside to the increase in production while working remotely is that it comes at the cost of work-life balance, with, as Dribin mentioned, many employees working much longer days.

She explains that many employees simply work through what would have been their commute. Others are fearful of furloughs and layoffs and so are working longer hours to prove their worth. Still others simply have trouble logging off at the end of the day if their work isn’t done but knowing they can’t actually go anywhere else.

To help employees set healthy boundaries and avoid burnout, Dribin recommends companies evaluate their approach to meetings and, where possible, reduce them or at a minimum ensure the people who attend actually need to be there.

“Not everyone needs to be in every meeting. I think with Zoom meetings and remote, everybody is adding more people to the distribution lists than might need to be there”​ as a way to feel more connected, Dribin said.

While the spirit behind this might be helpful, the execution isn’t as it means more people are in more meetings and have less time to actually work.

She recommends that team leads share minutes of meetings rather than requiring everyone to attend. She also advises remote workers to block out time on their calendars to work when they will not be joining meetings.

Dribin also notes that while seeing people in meetings through video conferencing adds a layer of connection and enhances communication, it can also be fatiguing. So, she reminds companies that not every meeting needs to be a video conference. Some can be phone calls, which would give attendees a chance to stretch their legs and take a walk while talking or, at a minimum, not need to fret about smiling and sitting up straight through the entire meeting.

While cutting back meetings to free up time might seem like a no-brainer to some, a less obvious – but just as helpful strategy for ensuring employees have better work-life balance is to actually add​ meetings. While this sounds counterintuitive, Pittman explains that kickoff and signoff meetings at the beginning and end of the day can help ritualize – and compartmentalize – the workday for remote employees.

Pittman also notes that companies may need to apply similar pressure to employees to take their paid time off – even if they can’t go anywhere – to ensure they have a chance to decompress.

Maintaining an office culture without an office

Just as important as preserving employees’ work-life balance, is preserving companies’ cultures, which can be at risk without a shared space, cautions Pittman.

She explained that many without the perks of an office, like free snacks, coffee and alcohol to bring people together, companies need to create a more deliberate communication strategy to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Middle managers also should consider taking a more personal interest in their reports now that many people are remote. She explained that before the pandemic, most offices prized a clear difference between work and personal life. But now, with so many people isolated, the extra attention and care can help forge bonds between employees and reinforce company loyalty.

When to break an office lease, and when to keep it

As the pandemic stretches on, Dribin encourages companies and managers to think not only about how to make employees more comfortable now – but also what they and the business will need in the future once the coronavirus is no longer a threat.

In deciding whether to break an office lease and go all remote all the time or to call everyone back to the office when it is safe to do so, Dribin recommends companies think first about their goals, and next about what roles would benefit from face-to-face interaction and which ones can continue remotely without suffering.

Ultimately, she said, the decision about whether to remain remote or come back together after the pandemic is not an all or nothing decision. The model can be a hybrid and it can be fluid to evolve as employees’ and companies’ needs require.

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