When the return to the office happens, don't leave remote workers out in the cold

To remain competitive, businesses will have to meet the expectations and requirements of their new remote teams.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Almost half of employees will prefer either a remote location or a combination of a physical and remote office after the pandemic subsides.

Image: Getty

As tempting as it is to get employees back in the office as soon as possible, business leaders will have to embrace new hybrid-working models that suit their staff – or face talented workers leaving for better opportunities, according to a new report from tech analyst IDC. 

Together with IT company Unisys, IDC surveyed business leaders and employees across 15 countries, and concluded that almost half of employees (46%) will prefer either a remote location or a combination of a physical and remote office even as the pandemic stay-at-home orders subside. 

At the same time, a significant proportion of business leaders still struggle to cope with the lack of management oversight and visibility that come with home working.  

"There are a lot of organizations that are still stuck in what is possibly a pre-dotcom strategy with their workers, where they only trust or accept their staff is doing anything if they can physically see them," Kevin Turner, digital workplace strategy lead at Unisys, tells ZDNet. 

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There is mounting evidence that some businesses are resorting to remote-monitoring technologies to keep tabs on what their employees are up to when they are working from home. One in five organizations are now tracking workers online or planning to, with digital surveillance tools ranging from logging the time spent by employees on particular websites, recording what they type or remotely viewing their desktop. 

Organizations that struggle to trust WFH will be keen to ask employees return to the workplace; in fact, more than a third of workers have reported facing some degree of pressure to return to the office. But according to Turner, that could turn out to be a big mistake. 

"If you get told as a worker that you have to come to work even though you believe you are risking your health or welfare, then it won't be long before the workers, as soon as they get a better opportunity that suits their personal requirements, just vote with their feet and leave," Turner argues. 

Recent surveys seem to confirm the observation: up to 29% of respondents surveyed by job platform LiveCareer reported that they would rather quit than return to the office in a full-time capacity

The advent of hybrid working 

To say that all businesses are out of touch with their employees' expectations, however, would be unfair. As Turner explains, the majority of smart organizations have also understood that a new model of hybrid working will be necessary, and are getting on with developing WFH strategies. 

This is also because despite their concerns, many business leaders can also see the advantages of remote working: in EMEA, 66% of organizations said that remote work is as productive, or more productive, than working from a company location. 

IDC's survey found that more than half (55%) of businesses will make a priority of investing in workplace transformation programs, which includes collaborative workspaces and management tools. Among the technologies that are seen to provide the greatest benefits to hybrid work environments are 5G, IoT, AI and modern security platforms. 

Major companies are already leading the way in showing that flexible working arrangements are here to stay. Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook or Salesforce, to name just a few, are examples of companies that have extended the possibility of remote working indefinitely, with the end-goal of letting employees choose a model of working that suits them best. 

But although it is one thing to allow workers to choose where they want to log in from, IDC's research found that it is another entirely to make sure that employees are equipped with the right tools to make the model work for them. 

From that perspective, there seems to be a gap between workers' priorities and employers' perceptions of what is most important. For example, using unfamiliar WFH technologies is seen as a challenge by 41% of business leaders, but only by 10% of employees; on the other hand, a work location and schedule that is conducive to family life is important for 66% of employees, while less than half of employers see this as important. 

According to Turner, however, one criteria stands out as the most important aspect of an efficient hybrid-working strategy: that of digital parity. This means that, whether they are working remotely or in the office, all employees should be treated equally. 

"You have to set up an environment where people on the remote end, wherever they are, feel as included as the people in the room," says Turner. "For example, it's all too easy to neglect the fact that people who are remote can't see the unspoken body language, such as a slightly raised eyebrow or a nod." 

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In other words, simply providing remote access to company resources isn't going to cut it anymore. IDC recommends that employers find ways to ensure employees can be productive and innovative "anytime, anywhere and on any device," without distinguishing between those who are remote and those in the office. 

This means more training for first-line managers to be able to lead distributed teams, as well as developing new onboarding and training methods for employees who may be geographically remote; but also, as Turner explains, simple etiquette codes such as consistent requirements for camera settings during a video conference, or avoiding talking over each other. 

The risk of failing to achieve digital parity is that remote workers will feel alienated – and the outcome will be similar to not allowing any working flexibility at all. 

Warning against the risk of remote workers becoming "second-class citizens" as some employees start returning to the office, Turner says: "There will come a time when these employees, if they feel disenfranchised, will look elsewhere. If you're too harsh on ignoring those requirements, you will give your workforce more motivation to consider what their options really are." 

Ultimately, argues Turner, it is in every business's advantage to have an engaged workforce; not only to retain talent, but also to boost productivity of teams, no matter where they are located. 

"It's not about pampering your remote workers," says Turner. "But it's important in any workplace to feel a part of the team. We've known for some time that a happy workforce equals happy customers, and if you have engaged employees the chances are you'll have better business development, too." 

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