As remote work becomes the norm and the nation’s students head back to school, business experts are looking forward to what some are calling “Remote Work 2.0,” or a more sophisticated effort to boost producrtivity, establish teamwork and build company revenues all while working from home.
But there are pros and cons to this second generation of remote working, and experts agree that employers and employees are both responsible for making sure remote workplaces are not only efficient but also a place where everyone feels equally responsible for the company’s best interests.
These issues will become especially pressing in late August and early September as school districts, colleges and universities decide whether to go back for in-person instruction, offer virtual learning or a hybrid of both. This will have an impact on all businesses and employees of every level, especially those who are remote and balancing childcare and school demands against the work clock.
For example, new research by the U.S. Census Bureau and Federal Reserve recently found that working mothers in states with early stay-at-home orders and school closures were 53.2% more likely to take leave from their jobs than working mothers in states where closures happened later.
While one study found that dads increased their childcare role during the pandemic, it also showed moms spent the most time in caring for children. Around one in five (18.2%) of working-age adults said the reason they were not working was because COVID-19 disrupted their childcare arrangements.
As such, employers and employees need to come together – whether through a socially distancing meeting or via an online platform such as Zoom – and have some tough discussions, said Deborah Brouwer, a partner with Detroit-based management side labor and employment law firm Nemeth Law P.C.
Brouwer says the stay-at-home order, which kept employees out of the workplace for three months and is likely to extend well into the fall for some workers, presents a variety of challenges for evaluating performance.
“Employers and employees need to be open with one another and discuss issues such as flexibility, communication and expectations,” Brouwer said. “Moreover, they have to be open to adjustments and making changes as needed.”
When people started working from home in mid-March because of quarantines and concerns around the coronavirus, the first issue was getting the basics in place, Brouwer said. This included having a desk, a quiet work environment and technology. People were scrambling and everything was in flux to some degree.
Months later, people are well equipped and working with new projects as well as new products with ease for the most part. People understood when a cat or dog walked into a Zoom call; in fact, some people found it endearing and that is helped level the playing field with co-workers or collaborators, Brouwer said.
But the new shift in this Remote Working 2.0 world is children and schooling those young minds. This is where flexibility, communication and setting specific expectations are important, Brouwer said.
“We know things are different. We understand that we cannot expect things to be exactly the same. But here’s where it is important to communicate what the expectations are,” Brouwer said. “If there’s communications between the employees and employers that can help with expectations and with productivity.”
For example, remote working continues to have advantages for workers. For example, Brouwer said she has far less time on the road with her commute to and front the courthouses where she has cases. She also doesn’t have to sit and wait for a case to begin, limiting what she can accomplish. Now, she’s on Zoom right when a case begins and everyone is efficient with getting the work done.
“Employers need to understand that there are definitely advantages for employees. Workplaces are stressful, and home may be less stressful,” Brouwer said. “Understand the mixture that you’re going to run into with different employees operating under different circumstances.”
Employers also should work differently in terms of promoting and helping employees. Instead of seeing mentoring happen around the water cooler, employers may need to contact two workers and see if they want to establish a mentorship – this isn’t as organic, Brouwer said, but it can help make sure employees feel valued and see a path for growth.
On the employee side, Brouwer said people need to be proactive. They need to share their ideas and their needs. These aren’t easy things to do, but they are necessary given the remote environment often works best when people swing a hammer instead of speaking softly.
Employees have a lot on their plates, especially parents, a pair of workplace experts agree. But they are on the same side as Brouwer in that they believe workers need to speak up loudly for themselves while the world in general seems to be working remotely.
Communication and gender bias experts Andie Kramer and Al Harris recently published “Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work,” a book that hopes to give women advice they can use to break through bias and achieve the career success they desire and deserve.
“The hardest thing for people when they’re working from home is that they are missing out on the natural water cooler interactions with people,” Harris said. “(In-person and in-office interactions) created networks that provided them with all that informal information that they’re used to and that they have come to depend on.”
To replace that important interaction, Kramer and Harris said workers need to be vocal about their wants, needs and even their own wins so their employers see not only the work that they are doing but the quality of that work.
“People need to recognize that in the work-from-home environment, there needs to be an additional step besides getting your work done, doing a quality job and making certain you stay current with your projects. You also need to make an effort to be visible – and that requires a great deal more effort,” Harris said.
“Not enough to just present yourself in a positive way – through programs like Zoom and the like – but very often, the people who evaluating you, in control of promotions/salary are not in those conversations. You need to stay in touch with everyone who can affect your career,” Harris said. “Of all the things women should not be doing right now is hanging back. They need to be raising their hands.”
Women who are balancing caretaking or schooling of children alongside a remote work effort need to be especially conscious of this, Kramer said.
“For many women, being self-promoting feels uncomfortable,” Kramer said. “If you remind yourself that you’re not self-promoting, you’re just owning your accomplishment and you have permission to tell people what you are accomplishing, that goes a long way to helping women overcome the lifetime of being a good girl and being modest.”