Beware Early Work-at-Home Success

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Ready or not, in a matter of days COVID-19 thrust companies into a work-at-home situation for every employee that possibly could. In speaking with several chief supply chain officers over the last two weeks, despite some early technology stumbles, the transition appears be a success. So much so that chief financial officers and heads of corporate real estate are revisiting the amount of office space needed in the near future.

It is true, cost savings is one of the biggest advantages for organizations, as the corporate offices will need less space, equipment, infrastructure and utilities. Gartner found that through remote working, employers can hire and accommodate 40% more workers in the same corporate space. Studies also found that employee absenteeism is greatly lessened by remote work, with remote employees working 1.4 more days per month than those based in an office.

Having been part of the remote workforce and managed a remote team for over two-thirds of my career, I can agree with those benefits. However, there are significant caveats to the success of work-at-home that all leaders need to be aware.

1.  They might be more productive … but also less likely to stay

A study from Gartner’s HR practice showed that, while remote workers are slightly more likely to exceed performance expectations, those who never worked from home had 33% higher intent to stay. In other words, remote workers are productive but are more likely to jump ship should an opportunity present itself. This is particularly true with high performers and it makes sense since there is much less attachment to the people and the organization.

2. It is more difficult to manage career development opportunities remotely

Yes, individuals have the responsibility for making sure their presence is known. The expectation needs to be set that they should take the initiative to participate with the team and to raise their hands for involvement in projects and activities that increase their visibility. But as a leader, one needs to realize the difficultly level of this increases exponentially when the team isn’t physically together. A particular challenge arises when it comes to advancement. Unlike in an office environment where interactions and informal relationships can lead to sources for talent as well as advancement, in a remote environment that is very difficult (near impossible) to replicate.

3. An employee needing close management in the office will need more working remotely

It is difficult to maintain the same level of communication you are used to having with an in-person team. Yes, self-motivation is key within the employee, but it is incumbent upon the leader to establish a regular cadence regarding how and when to “touch base.” It can be difficult to replace the regular face-to-face encounters and informal conversations, but they are necessary.

I can attest based on my experience that finding the balance between creating the right structure, setting clear expectations and treating the remote worker fairly and consistently without micromanaging is a challenge.

4. Leading remotely is much easier when there is a common goal

At the moment, teams that have been thrown into an unfamiliar remote work environment have a common goal: solving the complications presented by COVID-19. That brings focus and a sense of purpose for the team. But what happens when that is gone and we return to more mundane business operations? It is remarkably easy to lose focus on company outcomes and instead focus on individual productivity. That’s because with a remote team, it’s easy to begin seeing a collection of individuals rather than a cohesive team you once had in the office.

The benefits are certainly there with work-at-home teams, and I don’t think I’d ever go back to a mandatory five days a week in the office environment. Just be sure the benefits are taken together with the added challenges — particularly leadership —when making the final decision.

Michael Uskert,
Chief of Research,
Gartner Supply Chain
[email protected]

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