Work from home was at first a temporary pandemic solution, but as public and private organizations alike make remote work permanent, they’ll need to make adjustments to more than just where staff are located.
This spring, as businesses began closing their doors and state and local governments issued stay-at-home orders in response to the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many organizations began allowing their staff to work remotely. While these changes were born out of necessity, teleworking has long had appeal for its many benefits, such as lower turnover, reduced relocation costs and positive environmental impact. Months into the pandemic, it is clear that the massive teleworking experiment has largely been a success, with a number of organizations announcing plans to extend this option permanently to their staff, but making this change sustainable over the long term will require additional adjustments.
For many people, teleworking during the pandemic was a significant change. In May, approximately 35 percent of employed Americans worked from home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Women were more likely to telework, with approximately 41 percent of female workers teleworking compared to 31 percent of males. And those holding college degrees teleworked the most — nearly 54 percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree teleworked, and 69 percent of those holding advanced degrees did so.
The number of teleworkers has since dropped. In September, BLS reported 33.5 million Americans teleworking because of the pandemic, approximately 23 percent of the U.S. workforce. But this still reflects a significant increase, since only a few years ago between 4 million and 5 million Americans worked remote. As both employers and workers have gained experience with teleworking, and as the technology has proven its reliability and convenience, many workers will likely continue to telecommute, at least part time, even after the pandemic.
To ensure this transition to telework is effective over the long term, both public- and private-sector organizations should focus on the “seven C’s”:
Cloud: Organizations that have adopted cloud-first strategies are well-positioned for telework because their services are accessible remotely. Organizations should use the shift to telework to expedite their migration of services to the cloud.
Collaboration: Working from home is not productive without the right tools for collaboration. While video conferencing tools are a must, so are other collaboration tools, such as project management and whiteboarding tools. Organizations will need to make sure their employees have the software they need to work effectively from home.
Cybersecurity: Teleworkers face unique cybersecurity risks, especially if they are using their own devices, which may not have proper security controls to prevent intrusions. Organizations need to continue providing security awareness training and move quickly to adopt multifactor authentication across all services.
Culture: One of the biggest barriers to telework adoption is organizational culture. Employees are often concerned that if they are not in the office they will lose out on important opportunities for face-to-face interactions with their managers or that their peers may consider those working remotely to be making less valuable contributions to the team, potentially hurting their opportunities for professional advancement. Organizations that want to make telework a success will need to embrace it from the top down.
Camaraderie: Most people have experienced how email and text communications can quickly devolve into a series of hostile, or even toxic, interactions that might not otherwise occur face-to-face. However, a variety of new AI-based tools can monitor these electronic exchanges to perform sentiment analysis and help managers respond to employee concerns.
Community: With employees working remotely, many lose out on opportunities for the type of water cooler conversations that help build community within an organization. Organizations will need to dedicate time and resources to building their own virtual community and encouraging social interaction that fosters strong working relationships.
Commute: One of the benefits of teleworking is no commute, which can save hours of travel each week, not to mention the associated costs. But commuting offers some upsides, such as an opportunity to disconnect from work, listen to a podcast, or go for a walk or bike ride, that may fall by the wayside. Indeed, Microsoft has proposed a “virtual commute” tool to help workers plan time for reflection and establish a boundary between work and home.
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