In 2020, we are all participating in the world’s largest work from home (WFH) experiment. Around the middle of March, great swaths of the construction world went virtual. This article explores the positives and negatives of the industry’s plunge into the virtual workplace, and offers suggestions for managing a flexible blend of WFH with return to the office initiatives.
- While productivity was expected to fall considerably (that's normally what happens in WFH situations), productivity actually went up. Neither the authors of the Harvard Business Review article from July of this year nor we know exactly why this occurred, but we can posit a theory. There's a parable about a king who landed his troops on a foreign beach to invade that land, and, once ashore, he burned his ships behind him. He gave his soldiers an unmistakable signal that there was no possibility of retreat. They had to win, or they'd be slaughtered. While not as martial a circumstance, we didn't exactly have a choice either. We had to figure out how to operate virtually due to the pandemic, and people have embraced this new WFH normal quite energetically and enthusiastically.
- While job satisfaction was reported to have fallen for most people in the first few weeks of the pandemic, it has now returned to a normal level. WFH has not greatly affected employees’ perceptions of the contributions they make.
- People report having better work-life balance now. WFH allows for more flexible work hours, access to family, and even extended family than before.
- There is far less commuting and virtually no air travel. The days of getting on airplanes to fly halfway across the country for a two- or three-hour meeting and then flying home again are over. And since virtual meetings tend to be shorter than face-to-face ones, we've picked up a few minutes a day there too.
- Unplanned interactions are much less frequent. Our peer group members highlight the value of the informal communications they enjoy at their meetings, and consistently report that’s one of the biggest value drivers of the entire program. If your organization is like ours, where we have an amazing team of super-talented people, we miss that daily energizing vibe in the mostly virtual world. The Harvard researchers wrote about "weak ties" —individuals we don’t know well, if at all, but who nevertheless contribute to our happiness and sense of belonging— that employees share in the virtual workspace. “These ties are critical to our well-being because they end up giving us the opportunity to vent, confide, brainstorm, and discuss things that we think are important,” said Mario Luis Small, Harvard’s Grafstein Family Professor of Sociology, who studies personal networks. Organizational performance in attaining milestones is directly correlated with weak ties, and they are much, much harder to replicate virtually.
- Onboarding new people is quite problematic when not face-to-face. People may feel less connected to your organization in an era of virtual onboarding.
- “Zoom fatigue” is a very real thing. Everyone has embraced virtual meetings whether on Zoom or another platform, but our members report that they are frankly sick and tired of sitting through lengthy virtual meetings.
- Providing "pointers” is much less organic. When you're in your office, and you walk down the hall and see a colleague scratching her head or puzzling over a particular problem, it's easy to say, "Wow, you look like you're really struggling there. What do you need from me? How can I help?" The ability to spontaneously coach, collaborate, mentor, assist, provide context, and direct resources is greatly constrained in a virtual world.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Virtual meetings and WFH are going to be a part of our business equations going forward. Here are five suggestions for balancing a continuation of some level of WFH with return to the office initiatives.
- Be flexible. Some people have really enjoyed working from home and find their productivity has risen, while other workers much prefer being back in the office. Now that the toothpaste has squeezed out of its tube, you're going to have to accommodate either with the same attitude of acceptance.
- Be crystal clear. For people who aren't in the office and are, therefore, missing weak ties and unplanned interactions, you've got to be crystal clear with your vision, mission, priorities, plans, expectations, and milestones. In order to hold departments and people accountable, they need to understand with absolute clarity your short- and long-term expectations. It’s hard to hit a target you cannot see.
- Avoid creating two classes or two tiers of employees. It's natural and easy to be closer to people that you see live and in person daily versus people seen only infrequently. Make sure you include your WFH employees in meaningful ways, so they don't feel like second class corporate citizens.
- Define your WFH policy(s). You're going to have to formalize it because inevitably there will be those who try to take advantage. A well-defined policy will help keep everyone on the straight and narrow.
- Establish well-defined communications rhythms. In the virtual world, communication becomes more, not less, important. Make sure that everyone knows your rhythm of meetings whether daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or in any other frequency. Make those touch points meaningful, and always have an agenda for them. A rhythm of meetings is especially important for maintaining one class or tier of employees versus bifurcating them.
WFH can work, just as returning to the office can work. Make sure you give your people what they need—whatever their preferences—to maximize everyone’s success.
Wayne Rivers is the president of The Family Business Institute, Inc.