Is remote work the end of the office?


As the pandemic changes the shape of the office forever, will companies forgo their office space in favour of their employees working from home?

Leonie Freeman – Property Council New Zealand

Yes, the pandemic will change the future of the workplace. It will mean employers have to re-think their open plan environments, consider how they can quickly implement greater social distancing quickly and with minimal disruption, and hopefully, it will prove to employers that by and large employees can be trusted with more flexible work arrangements, opening the door for greater opportunities for women and primary caregivers, as well as those seeking the elusive “work life balance”.

But also, no, I don’t believe that remote working suits all companies, nor all people. Personally, I found being isolated from my team very difficult and it was only through daily early morning video calls that I felt connected and had an understanding of what was happening for my team, both personally and professionally.

Any leader will tell you that a significant part of the job is communication, and that communication is a two-way street. Remote work eliminates a leader’s ability to pick up non-verbal cues, making it more difficult to see when someone is bored, overwhelmed or unmotivated.

Property Council was an early adopter of remote working, with our regional team of Branch Managers having worked from home for over a decade. While this has proved to be very efficient and effective, the key learnings are thus:

  1. Getting the right person for the role is all the more important when it comes to remote staff. It’s more difficult to train people remotely, they don’t have the benefit of asking the person next to them why we do X and how to do Y. It’s also not often you find someone who is used to remote work, so you don’t just have to induct them to the company, you have to help them find their feet in isolation. They have to be a self-starter, they have to be open to working with others via digital channels and they have to be mature enough to show their vulnerability and ask for help, while being brave enough to try something new and (at times) fail, dust themselves off, and try again.
  2. When you have an “in office” team and a remote team, it is very easy for a divide to develop. We’ve all had that email that was perhaps worded too bluntly, in fact we’ve probably all written an email in haste that was less than fluffy. Being remote and not having context to these communications means it’s easy to read between lines that don’t exist. If your team are not mature enough to deal with this feeling of guilt, resentment or hurt head-on, you’ll quickly find yourself with a derailed train. It’s easy to blame the person on the other end of the phone or email chain when they’re miles away because you don’t see them as a whole person, you don’t have Friday drinks with them, you don’t chat about what Netflix show to watch as you eat lunch. It is this personal connection that gives people a sense of belonging, a sense that is very hard to develop remotely.
  3. You have to find ways to connect virtually that are not strictly work related. For our team, we do an ice breaker at the beginning of each team meeting, which often consists of quizzes of things you might not know about your colleagues (which is when the team discovered I play the saxophone) or highly-ridiculous questions such as what superhero people would be, what their favourite smell is, what their first job was, etc. These silly games break down barriers and breed a culture of respect, allowing us to see each other as what we are – human.
  4. Encourage your remote staff to change-up their workspace on a regular basis. This could mean going to a cafe or a shared office environment, heck it could even mean sitting in the public library for a few hours every Wednesday. They will feel better and be happier for it. Just seeing people outside of their normal environment will lessen the feeling of isolation and give them perspective when it comes to the inevitable trials and tribulations that come with any job.
  5. Similar to the above, encourage remote staff to punctuate their day. Have a routine that cues them for “home time” vs. “work time”. They might take the dog for a walk in the morning, then finish the day by picking up their children from school or vice versa. Getting into healthy habits that signal a beginning and end to the workday helps people switch off at night. Think of it as a replacement to the traditional commute, something that gets them out of their chair and moving is even better.

To me, remote work is fine when it makes logical sense, but it takes much more work to forge bonds within a team and cultivate a culture where you work as one.

The sense of belonging an employee would generally feel after six months in an office environment can take much longer to develop, and the management of staff has to have a different approach as you figure out whether your employee is the type of person who will tell you if they’re struggling or if they’re having trouble switching out of work mode at the end of the day.

I am quick to dismiss those who see working from home as a cheap alternative to an office environment, because I believe the value of face to face human connection simply cannot be fully replicated on a screen. What you might save on rent you will almost definitely spend on technology and human resource.

We are social animals who have evolved and thrived in tribes, not in spare bedrooms and home offices as we sit in isolation. The office is here to stay.