Insights 2 years into the pandemic

For many of us, March 2020 feels like a frozen moment in time.

In a matter of a few days non-workplace dependent employees were largely encouraged to work from home while protective equipment was quickly deployed to those who were workplace dependent.

And for the most part, society moved slowly forward. A new way of life was born — from more carry-out meals and grocery pick-up to virtual school and web conferences, the list is nearly endless.

One of the most impactful changes has occurred with employers allowing non-workplace dependent employees to continue working from home as the COVID-19 pandemic began to recede in the middle portions of 2021. A full-time remote environment gave way for many to a hybrid approach of a few days at the office and a couple of days working remote from home.

For employers and employees, this was a new endeavor. More flexibility for the employee was quickly appreciated with less commute times, lower expenses and an ability to be more responsive to life events that butted up against traditional work hours.

On the other hand, employers had and likely still have some consternation about how to fully integrate new hires and less tenured staff into the organizational culture remotely. At the start of remote working, key performance indicators became the buzzword and the research tends to bear that most organizations are putting good tracking metrics into place to ensure teams (wherever they are located) are meeting basic job performance expectations.

The larger challenge — and the one that will continue well into the future — is understanding the communication limitations with remote working. This is in no way saying firms cannot be successful in this endeavor, but rather the companies that are successful likely have been quite proactive in nurturing communication and cross collaboration among teams.

Some of the pitfalls that organizations must address include nurturing the less in-depth synchronous communication not necessarily related to task-specific endeavors. In other words, the hallway chats, watercooler conversations or the five minutes before and after meetings whereby employees exchange ideas, develop social bonds and create a peer and mentoring network.

Research in the journal Nature (9/2021) cite employees become less interconnected in a remote environment. There also is research demonstrating shifts in the time spent investing in office networks.

Employees were found to spend more time collaborating with individuals with which they felt stronger ties and less time creating new ties with newer and less familiar co-workers. Smaller amounts of time is spent with weak ties and developing new connections. The non-face-to-face environment did not tend to yield the same levels of interpersonal engagement as the traditional physical presence at the office.

Research has shown that a worker’s performance is affected not only by the strength of these interpersonal and information sharing ties, but also by the dynamics of that network including adding new ties and reconnecting to dormant ties.

It appears to point that remote work in general has led to creating a more static employee collaboration environment. As employers work to find best practices, and perhaps a hybrid approach moving forward, one can expect some of these challenges to naturally work themselves out.

For organizations seeking to remain entirely work from home, how the organization can engage different groups for knowledge sharing and the transition of knowledge from leaders to colleagues is a key consideration to address.

Unfortunately, the lack of strong social constructs and networks could take years to be fully felt in performance.

Several years post-pandemic, as longer-term employees opt to retire, there might be one point whereby deficiencies are readily identified.

Another will be with innovative technology driven firms that rely on collaboration to create. The innovation pipeline could be strong today with products and services that were conceptualized prior to the pandemic.

The question will be, is the innovation continuing to occur at the same pace as pre-pandemic? Or, will we experience a drop off in innovation a year or two post-pandemic due to a lack of complex employee interaction?

Whatever the case, humans by and large are social beings who also appreciate and thrive with added flexibility in their lives. That appears to be well established.

As employers, how will we onboard full remote, or hybrid employees so they create strong peer networks, mentoring, and continue to remain part of watercooler chats even though they are remote? Solving that will go a long way to removing barriers to a successful remote or hybrid workplace environment.