For much of the white-collar sector across North America, working from home (WFH) became a necessity and then a way of life beginning in mid-March 2020. After an initial period of learning and technological bumbling around, a surprising consensus began to emerge from senior executives. Many of the same leaders who had resisted WFH trends embraced the new patterns. They trumpeted their own improved efficiency — ”No more commutes!” And they also began to see other benefits, including the possibility of a wider talent pool and potentially reducing or eliminating office space.
Many leaders also came to believe that overall workplace productivity was improved: less time wasted in the hallways, meetings that seemed more precise and time-bound, and that easy commute from the bedroom to the home office. WFH, from the standpoint of corporate decision-makers across many sectors, is seen now as a predominantly positive permanent shift. And sure enough, many companies are announcing permanent WFH models.
To all those celebrating the positive side, we are here to say: Not so fast.
It’s Not all Rainbows and Unicorns
The widely proclaimed sparkle of WFH has not been felt by all. Research has shown that a large number of workers feel burned out and less engaged from juggling work and home demands.
And that good news about productivity? It appears to have been achieved through increased hours of work. Studies from NordVPN and Microsoft have revealed that WFH has extended the average workday, in some countries by two to three hours, driven by distractions at home and the increased effort required to socialize ideas and stay connected with working teams.
And yet, one by one, large companies seem to be moving steadily toward various forms of permanent WFH. Google announced WFH until July 2021. Twitter and Square have announced permanent WFH options for their employees. REI is selling its HQ campus in anticipation of more remote working. And the list goes on.
Part of this is because executives are blinded by their own relative comfort (well-appointed home offices, grown-up children or the means to get tutors, and high salaries that enable a range of solutions). They are also shielded from the frustrations of employees further down the corporate ladder. Just as data has made clear that COVID-19 is ravaging the poor and disadvantaged disproportionately, that too is showing up in the corporate sector. To understand this, we first need to look at who has been advantaged by WFH.
Groups Advantaged by WFH
- People who have a distraction-free work environment at home are much more successful at separating work from life. Part of this is having a dedicated office space (and space in general) that’s sealed off for one to stay focused on work, and part of this is having someone else (a spouse or partner or hired help) handling caretaking responsibilities while one is working. Most employees don’t have these advantages and find themselves caught between work and life demands.
- People in senior roles and those with strong networks in their companies feel somewhat unaffected by remote working as they continue to exert influence in the organization, push through ideas, and get heard. One EVP remarked to us, “In some ways WFH feels about the same. My team and I know each other well, and they pretty much know what I want. So I give them my ask and they come back with very good output!” However, those without such a network, either due to lack of rank or tenure, find it difficult to build one. On video calls people tend to interact only with those they know, which inherently alienates those who aren’t already in the network. Over time, this leads to a tightening of existing networks, not an expansion or creation of new ones.
- People who are naturally more vocal and expressive in meetings and find it easier to engage others, particularly their seniors, find themselves able to stay top-of-mind. With virtual meetings, there are fewer opportunities for quieter team members to make personal connections. Gone are the spontaneous chitchats by desks, in the hallway, and in walking to and from meetings. These interactions, especially between more junior members and their seniors, play an important and underappreciated role in building trusted workplace relationships. Now that every conversation requires a deliberate setup — often in fixed blocks of 30 minutes — it all seems too hard. With limited interactions, employees who don’t speak up will find it more challenging to get noticed and considered for future opportunities.
Groups Disadvantaged by WFH
With C-suites lacking in diversity, underrepresented groups may find themselves without a champion to voice their concerns and issues. And with the necessity of a focus on COVID, many companies have spent less time on diversity and inclusion initiatives, limiting connection and support networks to help them develop and grow.
In addition, members of underrepresented groups may be more hesitant to speak up in virtual discussions. There can be enhanced fear of saying the wrong thing or being misunderstood amid new challenges in “reading the room” and finding the right time to ask questions and engage. Anyone who feels like an outsider to a discussion may experience special challenges to expressing themselves fully.
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It’s critical for leaders to understand and address the inequities and increased challenges that most employees face. This can be best grouped into two steps: 1) re-activate listening; and 2) re-deploy all available engagement tools.
Active listening is about creating an open dialogue where employees feel comfortable sharing fears, concerns and challenges. One-on-ones, coffee chats, lunches, and happy hours have long been the chosen fora to get to know employees on a more personal level. Now leaders need to work harder to actively solicit real WFH stories from workers and not shy away or deprioritize these important conversations.
We recommend setting up virtual one-on-one sessions, specifically and exclusively focused on checking in on people’s health and wellbeing. Here are five questions to help start the conversation:
- What does your current working environment look like?
- How are you and your family doing?
- What challenges are you facing?
- Are you getting the support and resources you need?
- What do you miss about working from the office?
The emphasis should be on listening, not providing solutions. Aim for a listening-to-talking ratio of 70:30, and use the talking to ask questions to deepen your understanding of what challenges exist. These sessions will help you understand the common challenges that you may not have seen so that you can then deploy actionable solutions.
The second push for leaders is to rethink and redeploy the engagement tools already in place. Companies often have the right tools and can adapt them very effectively to a WFH/COVID setting to help employees better engage and raise their concerns in a safe environment. Here are some ways we see companies better leveraging existing tools and networks:
- Create channels within a central communication platform (e.g., Slack, Yammer) to address top-of-mind topics for employees
- Allocate time in town halls and other large communication sessions to talk about WFH challenges employees are facing and how management is thinking about addressing them. Employees are looking for acknowledgement of the challenges they face and guidance on how to overcome them.
- Expand forums to go beyond the employee to incorporate partners and children. For example, Vox Media introduced daily virtual storytime, Cisco provided a series of town halls on mental health for employees and their families, and LaBella had a fun contest to see which family could construct the best blanket fort.
- Use employee resource groups to engage in focused discussions with specific networks. The pain faced by Black employees confronting racism and police brutality and of employees of Asian descent facing racist hostility need to be discussed openly and fully.
- Modify employee engagement surveys to reflect the current WFH environment by incorporating questions on mental health, willingness to return to the office, productivity impact, and direct suggestions for how the organization can improve.
While these actions alone will not shift the additional negative impact on the balance of power and privilege wrought by COVID-19, it is a beginning. In this period of unprecedented opportunity for self-reflection, empathy, and the willingness to listen in new ways, it is sometimes harder than ever to see the invisible sources of challenge and pain. Leaders, as always, must look outside their own experience, beyond the little boxes on our screens, and into the lives and challenges of their colleagues.