Remote Work Isn’t Working? Maybe Your Company Is Doing It Wrong

As the pandemic stretches on, some companies are souring on remote work. Maybe that’s because they’re not doing it right.

White-collar offices that have carried over the same conventions from the physical office have realized they don’t work well, executives and researchers say.

Companies that have changed the ways they work have had more success — and in some cases, discovered new routines that they want to continue when they return to offices. These companies have a few things in common:

They have fewer meetings that are long or large or back-to-back. They designate meeting-free time for focused work; offer flexible work hours; and find ways for colleagues to socialize when they’re not seeing one another in person.

“There’s a natural pull, even in these times, not to figure out how to operate in this new world but how to replicate the old world in the new conditions,” said Leslie Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. “The longer this goes on, my optimism increases because I think people are being forced to figure out innovative ways.”

In a sense, remote work during a pandemic is not actual remote work. It’s made much harder by the circumstances of the crisis, including the lack of child care, anxiety about getting sick or losing a job and the inability to work in person even if it’s desirable.

Still, employees are generally very satisfied with how it’s going. In surveys, most say that even when it’s safe for offices to reopen, they want to return only part of the time and continue working at home several days a week. That means it’s incumbent on employers to figure out how to do it well, said La’Kita Williams, founder of CoCreate Work, an executive coaching and consulting firm.

“Some bigger companies who started remote work said it failed, but one of the reasons it failed is they didn’t build the type of culture that successfully supported it,” she said.

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Updated 2020-07-31T18:38:39.039Z

At Microsoft, teams quickly realized that large meetings of an hour or more with vague agendas worked even less well online than in person. Back-to-back meetings were problematic, too — in offices, people rely on breaks walking from one meeting to the next to use the restroom, eat a snack or check their phones.

One 400-person team working on business software at Microsoft has seen an 11 percent decrease in hour-plus meetings and a 22 percent increase in 30-minute meetings. One-on-one meetings have increased 18 percent, according to Emma Williams, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for modern workplace transformations.

Some colleagues have also started social video meetings, like logging on while eating lunch to chat. Fridays have been designated no-meeting days, for people to focus on a project or recharge.

Another challenge Microsoft discovered: When there’s no office to leave, the lines between work and life blur. The team saw a 52 percent increase in online chats between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.

For some people, shifting hours is helpful, because they can take time during the day for things like exercise or child care. But managers also wanted to encourage work-life boundaries. One solution was to use a tool that allows people to write messages to colleagues that aren’t sent until the next workday. Another was more one-on-one meetings between managers and employees — people who had those got their work done more quickly, probably because they were clearer on their priorities, Ms. Williams said.

Companies much smaller than Microsoft — like the Key, a public relations firm in San Francisco with 16 employees — have landed on similar strategies. Because its work is in client services and tied to the news, the Key can easily fall into a round-the-clock schedule, said Martha Shaughnessy, its founder, especially when work and home are the same place.

At first they tried letting people pick their hours, allowing afternoons or entire days off, but found it was too hard to collaborate. Now, they’re restricting internal meetings to 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. That period accommodates people on both coasts and gives everyone mornings for focused work and the ability to schedule time for child care and other needs.

They’re also trying to break the pattern of employees believing they always need to be available. It’s particularly difficult for senior leadership to do, she said. To force it, for each week in August a quarter of the company will take a mandatory week off. When employees return, they will start four-day workweeks. On Fridays, Slack will be banned and people will take turns handling client requests.

“Most things aren’t as urgent as you think; they just happen to be in your inbox,” Ms. Shaughnessy said. “We’ll practice passing the ball entirely from person to person, as opposed to all of us being on all the time.”

One thing missing is the ability to ask quick questions across a cubicle wall, so the company set up a specific Slack channel for those. Some employees have started hanging out on video while they’re working independently, so they can bring up questions or observations as they go.

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Here are five things executives and researchers said should change for remote office work to work well.

It doesn’t make sense to expect workers to be available at all hours because they’re always in their “office.” Instead, companies should reserve time for both collaborative and independent work, researchers said, and focus more on the work that gets done than on the time spent logged on. People could create rituals to mark the start and end of the workday, and companies could make clear they don’t expect messages to be answered immediately.

People have learned that they’re evaluated in part on the number of hours they spend in the office. To adapt, managers should be very clear about expectations for the work assigned and when it’s due, researchers said — then leave the “how” up to the workers and not worry about following the traditional 9-to-5 schedule.

Decide which meetings you really need, and replace some with Slack conversations. Keep meetings short and small, with breaks in between, and make them optional with detailed notes for those who can’t attend.

People miss office friendships, and these often lead to better work. In addition to having video chats to catch up, co-workers have sent letters or packages in the mail or met up for socially distanced walks. Some suggest calling co-workers just to check in.

Remote work can lead to feeling excluded — without daily contact, people might reach out only to those they know best, and it can be harder to assert oneself on a video chat or conference call. Forming in-person relationships in the office has been shown to be helpful for expanding opportunities to women and people of color. It can also be especially helpful for workers new to a company or to the work force.

Companies can increase the frequency of meetings between mentors and mentees, researchers and executives said, and people should become more conscious about collaborating with people they don’t know well.

In many ways, companies have found, remote work can be more inclusive. A brainstorming session on Slack is easier for many people to join than an in-person meeting. Events or employee group meetings may be less intimidating to some workers when they’re held online. And networking over video chat or the phone is accessible to more people than golf retreats or after-work drinks.

It’s likely that widespread remote work will last a long time, and many people may never return to the office full time. These tips could improve working from home now and in the future.

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