As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many businesses had no choice but to pivot to remote work. They quickly invested in technology that enabled staff to communicate and collaborate more efficiently, wherever they might be located. Work/life balance took on new meaning as "going to the office" became "walking to the kitchen table" and spouses and children became the new office mates overnight. For many workers, it was a dramatic shift.

Now, as businesses begin to reopen, many experts believe remote work will be a permanent part of the business landscape. Twitter and Square, for example, recently announced their employees will have the option to work-from-home (WFH) permanently. Is this a good thing? Are blanket "everyone-work-remotely" policies sustainable, or even desirable?

The upside—and downside—of working remotely

For years, working from home was viewed as the ultimate perk. Candidates interviewing for a new job often asked if telecommuting was possible. After all, who doesn't want to avoid long commutes and distracting workplaces? Or to have the flexibility to work in a way more aligned with their own natural rhythms rather than pigeonholed into a standard 9-to-5 day?

While we rarely talk about the downsides of WFH, they do exist. Examples range from work-related challenges such as limited collaboration and reduced creativity to personal issues, such as loneliness and feelings of isolation. With so many styles of work, it's no surprise that levels of productivity and work satisfaction can vary greatly from employee to employee.

However, there are tools that managers and organizations can use to mitigate the challenges involved in working from home. Many companies have found creative ways to keep co-workers connected, productive and happy even while they're dispersed. They've learned it's critical to focus on practices and policies that address emotional and environmental concerns. At the same time, organizations also need to take full advantage of technology that closely mirrors in-person activities.

Here are some of the common downsides of remote work—and a few options for addressing each.

Is your team culture fading?

The lack of in-person—or even virtual—socializing weakens the connections between workers. A recent survey conducted by Clutch found that companies aren't doing enough to bridge this gap. One-third (35%) of survey respondents said their company hasn't hosted any virtual social events since the current wave of remote work began.

Socializing, though, plays a key role in building team cohesive, making it time to move video conference calls beyond meetings with agendas. Instead, foster team spirit by using the technology to bring everyone together in fun ways, for example, virtual coffee breaks, happy hours, meals or games like trivia contests at the end of the workday. Use email or team workspace platforms to share photos, like the "best quarantine snack" or dream vacation spot. Contract with a local yoga studio to provide virtual yoga sessions or midday stretches.

Have you lost serendipity along with the break room?

Also missing are the casual connections that happen naturally in a physical workspace. Colleagues pass each other in the hallway or chat over a cup of coffee. These chance encounters often spark creativity and innovation, noted Apple founder Steve Jobs. "Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions," he said. "You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say "wow", and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."

Rediscovering serendipity requires extra effort in the world of remote work. Encourage co-workers to create "thinking time" with each other by picking up the phone or setting up a chat to work through ideas. Some companies have organized morning coffee breaks, just to mirror the kind of interaction that happens in the micro-kitchen. Set up brainstorming video sessions with breakout rooms, so workers can share in more intimate groups, as well as the larger meeting.

Are your employees feeling exhausted, lonely and stressed?

In a global survey of 2,700 employees across over 10 industries conducted during March and April 2020, employees reported higher levels of stress (67%), anxiety (57%) and emotional exhaustion (53%). Of respondents who lacked informal personal contact in their daily lives, 19% reported a decline in their mental health.

Working remotely impacts employees differently. While a parent may feel stressed due to childcare responsibilities, the colleague who lives alone can easily experience depression, loneliness and self-recrimination. Without the reality check of family and friends, it's easy to misinterpret an email or second guess your every move.

And when communications are only focused on business tasks, remote workers can begin to feel like a mere cog in the machine. The informal personal contact that occurs naturally in a physical workspace takes more effort to replicate in a virtual environment.

Probably those hit hardest are extroverts. They feed on the energy that comes from personal interactions. While an introvert can contentedly sit in front of a computer for most of the day, the extrovert drags under the same circumstances. Depression and a lack of productivity often result.

Many managers schedule check-in calls with employees just to see how things are going, not to discuss work tasks. In a post-pandemic era, companies will have to rethink the types of mental health resources they offer, putting policies and resources in place to help those employees who may struggle with the lack of social contact. To mirror "over the cubicle wall" conversations, some employees may keep a video channel open or use chat to check in with colleagues. After social-distancing mandates end, consider organizing local meetups for those working remotely. Schedule meetings at the office on a quarterly or monthly basis.

Has the boundary between work and home blurred?

One challenge of working from home is managing the boundaries between home life and work. Among the hardest hit at the start of the pandemic were parents with school-aged children. Juggling home-schooling along with job responsibilities was no easy feat.

Another problem? Too much availability. Due to multiple electronic devices and strong bandwidth, most people are now accessible 24/7—which, many find, isn't a good thing. According a 2017 United Nations report, the result is more stress for remote workers—41% versus 25% for office workers.

Anecdotally, employees report that their workday has stretched since they started working from home. Research bears this out. In 2019, the cloud infrastructure company DigitalOcean conducted a survey of remote tech workers. Over half of respondents reported they worked longer hours than colleagues in the office, and 40% felt they needed to contribute more because of their remote status.

Balancing work and family is often most difficult for employees with children or other caretaking responsibilities. Many workers in this situation feel pulled in too many directions, with not enough time or capacity to properly manage both work and family demands.

Just as employers set expectations for the normal in-office workday, they should lay out parameters for the work-at-home day. Some managers go so far as to only send email during business hours. For employees who are juggling competing priorities, consider working out a more flexible schedule.

Technology's role in the future of remote work

Having the right collaboration and communications technology in place is essential. According to the Clutch report, 26% of companies have ramped up their communications technology during COVID-19.

Unified communications allows workers to communicate easily using any device or mode, whether it's joining a conference call, using the phone, emailing or instant messaging. In addition, the best systems offer a virtual workspace so that team members can share information, assign tasks, schedule meetings and manage projects.

Experts predict that the future workplace will be a hybrid, with some work done in the office and some from a remote location. Lazlo Bock, CEO of Humu, a human resources tech start-up, agrees. Humu's research found that employees are most productive when they can spend one and half days working outside the office. It gives time for focused work, but still keeps the employee connected to co-workers and office culture.

COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on how work is accomplished. One thing's for sure: it won't be the same as before. In the post-pandemic workplace, each company will need to find the right balance of policies and technology for their business and culture.

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