As parts of the world reopen, businesses must decide how and when to bring staff back to offices and worksites. Some companies have already committed to work from home forever. In my experience, this is a huge mistake.
There is no substitution for face-to-face collaboration. Pace-driven managers must create an environment that allows for fast and simple collaboration among people or suffer the consequences of stagnated communication. Whether it’s because of poor Internet connections, increased distractions, or any other unique challenges that working remotely brings, people struggle to communicate when they work from home. The outcomes of this struggle are numerous: slower pace, misunderstood ideas, increased revisions, and lackluster results. All of these can harm bottom lines, innovation, culture, and more.
No Policy Should Be One Size Fits All
Open offices were a trend for years before the pandemic. When COVID-19 struck, these workplaces could not comply with social distancing – so sending people home was the easiest and best decision to protect their health. What was, at the time, the only way for people to be responsible global citizens and limit the spread of COVID-19 has done immense harm to businesses and their workers. Managers are now dealing with stifled creativity among employees and dying corporate cultures. Working from home may be fine for some people who don’t frequently collaborate with others, but 18 months apart from coworkers does unspeakable harm to businesses with entrepreneurial and product-focused cultures. When a business’s deliverable is physical, like hardware, software, or design, in-person work helps create an exquisite user experience because people can nurture ideas in real-time. End users would never trust the quality of a product developed in a vacuum without collaboration, so managers shouldn’t, either.
Apart from culture and productivity, managers should consider mental and physical health for their staff. The pandemic has shown us how important personal contact is as mental health issues increased in people suddenly isolated from others. Not every home has an environment conducive to productive work, thanks to poor lighting, staring at a screen all day, loneliness, and distractions. Some people enjoy going to offices for a change of pace, to meet with peers, and advance their work. Managers should find a way to make in-office work healthy for these people instead of forcing them to work in an environment where they cannot thrive.
Work-life integration is one thing. Being “always-on” is unacceptable. People need a separation of work time and home time that the pandemic took away for many at the cost of mental health. Management needs to consider this perspective: not everyone who can work from home should, wants to, or can successfully do so.
Manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and other in-person work are left out of work from home conversations because this topic is biased toward office workers. Offices exist to offer a service or support a product. In the Western world, service industries are prevalent, so work from home is achievable there. However, the rest of the world majorly relies on in-person work, mainly manufacturing, to keep economies moving. In a global economy where multi-national companies are the norm, a unilateral decision for everyone to work from home or not work from home is short-sighted. If office staff is allowed to work from home while manufacturing staff comes to a worksite, business processes, innovation, relationship building, and lead times will slow down.
Work from home also welcomes catastrophic cybersecurity risks. Sectors like finance and government need tight security and IT policy to protect sensitive information. Even engineering and manufacturing companies have critical data like designs and code that need to be secure. IT staff can lock down office Wi-Fi, but it is impossible to adequately secure every employee’s home Internet to the same degree. Anxiety over cybersecurity skyrockets during work from home because information is every company’s most valuable asset. The risk of theft needs to be mitigated in any way possible.
Looking Ahead to Post-Pandemic Business
I strongly encourage all businesses to do whatever is necessary to re-tool their worksites and encourage their people to return to work as soon as possible. This is not only to restore profit and productivity but also to ensure the wellbeing and professional development of staff members. An entire generation of workers has never stepped into an office, collaborated with peers face-to-face, and begun to develop soft skills like communication, patience, and teamwork. A return to in-person work is imperative for today’s managers to oversee the education of tomorrow’s leaders. The road to scale and innovation has no shortcuts, and new employees need mentorship to learn how this is done. Without this necessary experience, the business leaders of tomorrow – and the enterprises they run – will suffer.
To move forward, don’t invest in quick fixes over long-term solutions to protect workers’ physical and mental health. Equip your workplaces with whatever you need to give people an opportunity to return to work safely if you want innovation to continue. Hiring cleaning staff, improving ventilation, and mandating personal attestation are steps management can take to ensure staff feels confident in returning to work. Investing in permanent infrastructure now will help shorten your transition period from work from home to the thriving, vibrant workplaces we had before. Navigating the pandemic today with your business’s culture and staff’s wellbeing in mind will help managers protect the bright future of creativity, innovation, leadership, and technology.
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