Two Things We’re Getting Wrong About Remote Work

Two Things We’re Getting Wrong About Remote Work

Guest Post from Amina Moreau of RADIOUS. Original article published here.

As we begin to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, employers are racking their brains for answers about the future of work. Nearly every company with office workers is desperately trying to navigate a challenging office and hiring landscape; managers are asking themselves if they should require teams back in the office, while employees are feeling growing frustration with inflexible policies and eyeing new employment opportunities. In addition to all of the nuances and complexities both sides are faced with, there’s a big elephant standing right in front of them that they don’t even see.

It’s not just companies and their employees, either. Global consulting firms historically known for their impeccable research and professional reporting are missing it, and they’re issuing guidance that is fatally flawed. If companies follow their advice and make high stakes decisions based on faulty assumptions, this will almost inevitably lead to dire consequences.

Remote Work

There are two misconceptions that are leading to flawed decision-making on a large scale. People are:

  1. Confusing remote work with isolation;
  2. Conflating remote work with work-from-home.

1. Remote ≠ Alone

Remote doesn’t have to mean alone. In fact, remoteness and togetherness are two completely separate dimensions that can be plotted with each other, revealing four quadrants. People can be:

  • Remote and alone: a less-than-ideal state that the pandemic threw most of us into;
  • In the office and alone: a state that some have sadly started to experience upon return;
  • In the office and together: a state that some people think they want, often because they fail to realize there are other places to gather in-person;
  • Remote and together: a sweet spot that very few people are talking about.

The root of this misconception is that we don’t have a unified definition of “remote,” and everyone seems to use the term differently. If your definition of remote is “away from people,” then of course you’ll assume that a remote workforce will eventually feel lonely. But if your definition of remote is “away from the corporate office,” then you’re likely to be more open to recognizing the countless ways for teams to be together in person remotely. Teams can meet in coffee shops, co-working spaces, even outside in public parks, and of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Radious spaces.

Much like we, as a society, rebranded “social distancing” to “physical distancing” to feel less lonely during the pandemic, perhaps we should be resurrecting terms such as “distributed teams” to replace “remote work” for clarity’s sake.

The consequences

But so what? It’s just semantics, right? Unfortunately no. The consequences of this confusion can lead to everything from the embarrassment of having to publicly roll back policies to companies losing their top talent.

Employers who continue to believe that remote work is synonymous with isolation will be less open to embracing any type of remote work. Instead, they will regard a return to the corporate office as the only viable option and begin recalling their teams, whether on a full-time or partial basis. Such mandates are already losing them talent, with quit rates reaching record highs. Working professionals are leaving their companies in droves to find work that fits with their lifestyles and values, especially those employees who have become accustomed to any increased flexibility afforded to them over the last year and a half.

We have already started to see some of these consequences play out, including public backtracking on policies, employee uprisings, and various other contributors of the so-called Great Resignation. Put simply, companies need to start thinking a bit more creatively if they’re going to remain competitive.

2. Remote ≠ WFH

“Remote work is lonely,” they say. “Remote work leads to burnout,” the headlines read. However, these statements are incorrect. Rather, they are incomplete. What people mean to say is that working from home can feel lonely. Working from home can lead to burnout.

During the height of the pandemic, remote work and WFH were absolutely the same thing. The safest thing to do was to confine yourself to your home and hunker down. Certainly, doing this long term can have its downsides, including developing feelings of isolation from coworkers and experiencing burnout from a lack of work-life separation. However, none of these are symptomatic of remote work as a whole — simply, they are a side effect of WFH.

We must realize that WFH is only one facet of remote work. What’s encouraging is that there are countless places to work from remotely, most of which get you out of the house and out of isolation. It doesn’t need to be a binary conversation, where we limit ourselves to “WFH vs corporate office.”Just think about the countless different ways we can experience work-life separation and in-person collaboration in a remote work landscape. The options are quite compelling, and embracing them is a great way for a company to demonstrate leadership in an evolving landscape and show that it’s listening to employees’ needs.

The consequences

As with the first misconception above, the ramifications of seeing “remote” and “WFH” as synonymous can be disastrous. If a company bases its return-to-office policies on the assumption that the downsides of WFH are entirely generalizable to remote work as a whole, they’re far more likely to force partial or even full-time returns to the centralized office.

Again, such mandates have already started to backfire for many companies, and could have been avoided had they had a deeper understanding of the distinction between remote work and working from home. Instead of return mandates, they might have explored the plethora of ways to make flexible work possible for their people, resulting in lower turnover and stronger team morale.

Hybrid Work

But there’s hope

Most companies with office workers are already starting to experiment with different variations of hybrid models, some with an office-first emphasis and others trying remote-first. Some companies will mandate a partial return (such as 3:2 models), while others will embrace full flexibility and put autonomy in the hands of their employees.

As forward-thinking employers, we have a unique opportunity to stand out in a slurry of antiquated thinking. Working professionals are already leaving their stagnant companies in droves, knowing that a more flexible employer that invests in the well-being of their workforce can be found just around the corner. These companies are already becoming magnets for the world’s top talent. They are the ones who have waded through all the nuances and all the semantics and are steadily coming out as victors.

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