Bringing Lessons from Remote Work Back to the Office

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A lot of people aren't going to want to return to their pre-pandemic commuter lives—and many won’t. Organizations will have to adjust.

As many federal workers continue another month of working from home, many are asking how they will eventually reacclimate to the office and to their commutes. The truth is, many won’t. Team structures will likely become a hybrid of co-located and remote workers, bringing to life what years ago many predicted would become the norm. 

A recent survey commissioned by Project Management Institute found that nearly half (47%) of American professionals report their company offered a work from home policy prior to the transition to working remotely full time. Now, nearly three-quarters (73%) of American professionals think their company will update their work from home policy as a result of COVID-19. And only 16% of professionals report wanting to work mostly in an office once we return to “normal,” with most (51%) preferring a hybrid remote/in-office mix. 

What does this mean? Virtual working is here to stay, and organizations will need to maintain what they have learned while working from home and incorporate it into the office when they return. Hybrid work is much more complicated than 100 percent telework. In fact, that’s why we rarely got virtual right before now. So, maintaining learnings might be harder than it seems. Here are three key takeaways from our time working from home that leaders and team members alike can continue to apply – be it in a virtual or in-person setting. 

1. Create a common virtual place to work where you can find everyone. When we first transitioned to a fully remote workforce, many feared it would negatively impact connectivity and accessibility. And while it has changed the type of impromptu “collisions” that can happen at the physical office, there are still many ways to digitally promote these types of encounters and ensure you are still as available as you were in person. 

The most successful virtual work environments offer a “place to go,” versus a handful of scattered tools that leave people feeling disconnected. By establishing a unified platform, you make people more accessible (you know where to go to connect with teammates) and put everyone on equal footing (we are ALL dialing in). Additionally, teams can create an always open virtual meeting space, such as an ongoing team chat, to create a “coffee shop” of sorts and help foster informal conversations that mimic office encounters. 

Through a common set of digital tools, people can also more readily show their status, so there’s greater transparency into when someone is available, away, in a meeting, etc. By using this technology to clearly indicate when employees are (and aren’t) available, teams can better set boundaries between work and life.  

This leads directly into the second takeaway:

2. Make work more visible. “Information radiators” like Trello, Asana, Wrike, etc., have helped make it easier to show your work even if we aren’t all co-located. These tools often allow you to capture progress in one space. So, your teams will have greater insight into where certain items are in the workstream and where exactly to engage their coworkers beyond official calls and meetings. This is traditionally an agile practice.

It’s important to continue to foster this virtual work environment—much as you would in the office—to make work more visible to those working in and out of the office. This helps ensure that your teams aren’t questioning each other’s productivity and prevents micro-management. In a sense, it’s ensuring your teams are living in the same space virtually.

Establishing a virtual workspace helps create greater autonomy while simultaneously enhancing transparency.

3. Provide the big picture context. People need to see their work within the context of their bigger team goals. It gives them a sense of place and worth when they understand how their work fits into the greater picture and how their contributions are making a difference. It’s not just about measuring progress against an output, it’s about measuring progress against an outcome. 

While many organizations have quickly pivoted since the COVID-19 crisis began, the transformation is far from over. It’s clear what is happening now by force will have a long-lasting impact on the work ecosystem. 

Government agencies, businesses and individuals alike will need to ensure their workforce keeps the skills learned from this massive remote work experiment. Otherwise, they risk needing to relearn these skills. COVID-19 will not be the last disruptive force that impacts the workforce, so the more governments, businesses and individuals ready themselves for whatever change will come, the better they will set themselves up for success long-term. Because at the end of the day, government agencies, businesses and people that can drive change versus simply respond to it will be the real “winners.” 

Dave Garrett is the Chief Strategy and Growth Officer at the Project Management Institute. 

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