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The Future of the American Workforce is . . . . Something Else, Part II

How a change in venue impacts the way we communicate and collaborate

Posted on June 15, 2016

In part one of our three part series on the future of the workforce, we talked about how a change in values is shifting the way we work. In part two, we'll talk about how WHERE we work is changing it.

You don’t have to look too far back to recall a time when most employees did most of their work in a traditional office setting. With the advent of technologies to help us connect remotely, many U.S. workers no longer report to an office on a regular basis, if at all. In terms of driving this change, there were several factors involved and some surprises in terms of the kinds of companies who have heavily supported the transition to a more remote workforce.

Driving the Trend

There are some great resources that explain, in detail, the advantages of the new flexibility in work venues. Just a few of the key factors driving the trend towards working from remote/home office spaces include:

  • Changing face of the workforce—as more women joined the workforce and men and women needed to adjust traditional roles to meet family obligations, it became (sometimes painfully) clear that the traditional role of husbands leaving for work in the morning and coming home (often late) in the evening was simply not a sustainable model. For women to grow professionally and for men to be able to take a more active role in family life, the option to work from home (at least part of the time) created more flexibility. Employers, seeking to attract and retain their best employees needed to provide more flexibility and the advent of technology enabled this to happen.

  • Cost savings—many highly traditional employers began to enable work-from-home options as a way to cut costs associated with rent for office space and employee relocation expenses. They figured that for current employees, why not let them work from home on company issued technology? This was perceived as both good for the company and good for employees who would no longer have to deal with painful urban commutes, off-site dining expenses, etc. It also had implications for greater flexibility and cost savings in hiring—if headquarters is in Silicon Valley, but my ideal employee is in Boston’s Seaport District, I can still hire them and not have to worry about paying for expensive relocation and putting them through the stress of relocating their family, finding new homes, schools, etc.

  • It just makes sense—for some firms, especially startup tech firms, consulting firms, etc., the talent needed to drive success may be assembled from people all over the world. Since most of the work is done via computer and telephone, remote meeting technology is cheap, and servers can be hosted in any secure site, many firms, were conceived as remote employers from the outset.

  • Reduced absenteeism—it’s generally understood that many people who call in sick are actually taking personal time for other reasons. If personal matters in the local community can be attended to quickly, without the added complication of a commute, employees contributions are not lost for an entire day, increasing productivity for both the employee and any colleagues they are collaborating with on projects. Additionally, many employees who are actually sick, will still work from home for at least part of the day and they will do so without spreading contagion through the rest of the team as happens with shared office space. This contributes to overall productivity.

Challenges and Backlash

With all of the advantages migration towards remote work flexibility has brought to employers and employees alike, there have been some recent, high profile examples where companies have “walked back” their commitment to work-from-home options, either limiting them or providing greater oversight as to which employees are eligible. The recent decisions by technology leaders Yahoo, followed by HP, to bring employees back into shared work-spaces will be analyzed in the next few years. Having shown the courage of her convictions in bucking some high profile critics, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer is now confirming that employee engagement and productivity is up in the wake of the move back towards co-location. Depending on what is learned over the next few years, the decisions by these major companies could spur a trend back towards employees spending more time in their company’s offices.

The issue of productivity for remote workers has led to concerns that remote work may not be for everyone, at least not all the time. For companies that use a mixed model, days in the office should be used to full advantage to plan collaborative events and to plan face time between managers and employees to address goals, challenges and to plan strategy. For companies who continue with a commitment to full-time remote work, managers who have been used to managing co-located teams need to make adjustments to managing remote employees to be sure that the team is getting the strategic direction and support it needs.

Blurring the line between personal time and work has become a hot topic. As more people work from home, that once cherished tradition of leaving work behind at the office has become blurred as people move seamlessly from a conference call to a meeting at their child’s school to writing up documentation to meeting friends for coffee and back home again to review some competitive intelligence. There are folks, like Richard Branson, who blend their business and personal lives together and claim that is the preferred approach to life. Conversely, there is a body of work that suggests employees and employers who fail to enforce some boundaries and find ways to balance their work/home responsibilities can burn out and become less effective in both roles.

Generational Considerations

Let’s start with the boomers. They accelerated this journey of change in work venue in the 1990’s. It was their changing lifestyles, their desire be different kinds of parents and workers than their parent’s generation that began this new era in workplace flexibility. For many boomers, the transition to work-from-home began as a part-time offering where, for certain days of the week, or certain times of day, they were afforded the flexibility by their (often cautious employers) to work from home. They were the pioneers and their successes in being able to be productive and engaged from an off-site venue paved the way for the Gen X and Millennial employees to follow.

Gen Xers want choice. A recent study by EY (formerly Ernst & Young) showed that Gen Xer’s were strongly influenced by workplace flexibility in choosing an employer to the point that they would walk away from a job where such flexibility isn’t available. As Gen Xers begin to assume the leadership roles of retiring baby boomers, it seems reasonable to expect workplace flexibility to continue to be a strong force in corporate decision making.

Millennials bring new challenges in the design of work spaces. While much has been written about the Millennial’s desire for workplace flexibility, one important change we’ve seen with them is a preference for urban environments over the suburban enclaves favored by their parents. With a preference for urban living, comes the ability (and desire) to be able to work at least some of the time from an office space that is walkable from their home. The huge growth in Boston’s Seaport district is driven in large part by this desire of young, tech-savvy millennials to be able to live, work and recreate in a walkable, urban environment. While many millennials have shown a desire to return to work amongst their colleagues, their preference for open work environments and flexible spaces are driving a revolution in office space design as companies move to attract and retain these tech and social media savvy workers.

How to Adapt

Despite some of the recent backlash from significant thought leaders like Yahoo and HP, it’s clear that much of America’s workforce will continue to be working remotely on either a full or part-time basis for the foreseeable future. While work-from-home has been a significant reality for the last two decades, in many ways, managers of remote teams still have work to do to adopt appropriate new skills and technologies to effectively manage remote employees and teams.

Here are a few thoughts on ways to do this:

  • Scheduling weekly team meetings to catch up on projects, compare notes, request feedback and plan for the week and month ahead will keep your team working together and eliminate end-of-month surprises.

  • Using video technology like Skype or Google Hangouts to make face-to-face connections can help employees feel connected. Despite its convenience, many people find working from home to be somewhat socially isolating. Using video for meetings gives people a sense of connections and enables you to read people’s expressions better. For managers, seeing someone’s face can mean the difference between hearing someone say they are fine taking on more responsibility, versus hearing them say it while wincing, which can prompt another, more effective response, like, “well, why don’t you share the content development with John, so that neither one of you has to take on the whole project alone?”

  • Look for signs of distress in your employees. Are deadlines being missed? Has the level of someone’s contribution fallen off recently? As a manager, it’s your responsibility to pick up the phone and have a private chat, or suggest a meeting for coffee to help guide the employee back on track. As a colleague, working on a project, if you sense a co-worker is falling behind or is not in step, working remotely has its challenges. A quick call or video chat today can save a lot of grief over a missed deadline or extra work to re-align a project tomorrow.

  • When possible, planning face-to-face team meetings can help create a cohesiveness and shared sense of mission and culture among employees. These events can be blended, multi-purpose in nature, for instance you can do some training in the morning, some planning in the afternoon and celebrate success and socialize over dinner.

  • If you haven’t already, think about an investment in purpose built technology to help your remote team members provide feedback, collaborate on ideas, share best practices and celebrate and recognize success. Purpose built software should be intuitive and fun to use and can be used as a focal point for soliciting, collecting and managing employee feedback. Especially for remote employees, the right technology choices can make them feel more connected and engaged as they see that their input is sought, valued and acted upon.

While new generations and technologies have redefined “workspace” to include home offices, coffee shops, trains and airplanes, work still needs to be accomplished, employees must collaborate and managers must make sure teams meet goals and objectives. Understanding the trends and preferences in work venues and thinking of new strategies to both manage remote employees and configure the modern workspace for office bound employees will continue to drive organizational success by helping you retain top talent while maintaining healthy levels of innovation, collaboration and engagement.

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