The Single Biggest Challenge for Remote Teams in a Post-COVID World

Advisory | Glenn L. Friedman | Mar 16, 2021

After an in-person interview, we learned a new hire had a family member with COVID-19. As a result, the skeleton crew that had been working in that Prager Metis office had to go back to working remotely.

Did anyone think the coronavirus would still be affecting our lives like this almost a year later?

Vaccines represent the light at the end of the tunnel. At some point this year, we’ll start to see the mythical “new normal” take shape, so business leaders need to start planning to determine what an increasingly virtual organization looks like.

Where will your clients be? Are they moving from the city to the suburbs or other parts of the country? If your clients no longer feel that a trip to your office is necessary, do you need to be there? Can you serve a community if you don’t have a physical presence in that community?

What positions truly require people to be in the office?

Most physical offices have enough space for the entire staff. How much office space will you need when more people will be working remotely on a permanent basis? Should you focus more on meeting rooms than offices? What should you do with the space that’s left?

Important questions need to be answered to create a plan for an operational model that makes sense in a post-COVID world, and you can all but guarantee that the plan will change as business needs and client needs continue to evolve.

From my perspective as CEO of an organization that values its people above all else, the single biggest challenge that needs to be overcome – the biggest question that has yet to be answered – is one that most companies are overlooking.

How Do You Turn It Off?

If everyone in the country is vaccinated tomorrow, people won’t suddenly go back to offices in droves after nearly a year of working remotely. There is no more going to work and coming home at the end of the day. The line has been permanently blurred.

Some people don’t like working from home and can’t wait to get back to the office, but the days of entire teams hopping on trains, climbing into buses, or driving an hour to go to an office five days a week are over.

Of course, this isn’t a new trend. The shift to remote working started in earnest years ago with laptops and Blackberry phones. Technology has driven this trend. The pandemic, however, accelerated the trend and forced immediate changes that happened almost overnight.

The easy part of that change was gaining the capability and technology to work from home. The hard part is adapting as a human being. Many people weren’t prepared emotionally.

The biggest problem I see in a post-COVID world is the fact that people working remotely don’t know how to turn it off.

The flexibility and convenience of remote working are great, but at what cost?

Have you really achieved work-life balance when you bring your phone and your work to the dinner table, the bathroom, the shower, and the nightstand? Kids are told to stop playing video games all day, but the parents can’t set down their phones.

When clients and co-workers expect you to be accessible and responsive 24/7, how do you distinguish between “my time” and “company time”? Do you think someone will wait to contact you just because it’s Labor Day?

How do you turn it off? I have yet to find someone who has found that magical switch.

The lifeblood of any successful organization is not its technology or data, but its people. We as business leaders can’t be satisfied with a successful shift to remote working. We have to look out for the well-being of the people we lead.

Setting Boundaries and Expectations

Right now, the world of remote working is the wild west. The lack of structure is both unsustainable and unhealthy.

Not everyone has the discipline or skillset to work from home. Kids want attention. Spouses want attention. They’re surrounded by distractions. I’ve joked with my wife that I should rent an office so I can get more work done.

The real challenge, however, is creating a policy that establishes boundaries and sets expectations for a remote workforce and helps people turn it off. This will require most organizations to ask questions they’ve never had to answer until now.

For example:

What are standard work hours each day and week? Should remote teams be required to be online and available during certain times or for a certain number of hours each day? Are the rules different for those who use a hybrid model and split time between working from home and the office?

On the other end of the spectrum, do you “require” your team to disconnect at a certain time of day or on certain days of the week or year for their own well-being?

Expecting someone to be in a traditional office until a certain time is a lot different than expecting someone to shut down technology from their home office at a certain time, especially when that person owns the technology.

You also have to consider the client’s perspective. If clients are expecting your team to be available and responsive 24/7 with no boundaries, where do you draw the line? How do you draw lines that balance client expectations with the well-being of your team?

What information do you have, and what other information do you need to make sound decisions and get it right?

At this point, I’m not sure that anyone has the answers to these questions. We need to figure them out to ensure the health of the organization and its people.

Taking Action

I’m constantly meeting with senior leadership at Prager Metis to discuss how to help our people succeed while working remotely – not just to maintain and improve productivity, but to preserve the health of each individual.

We’ve already determined that coaching and training will be needed to help people improve time management, focus, collaboration skills, and technical skills with video conferencing and other collaboration tools. Internal and external resources can be used for such an initiative.

We believe these skills will help people work more effectively so they don’t feel like they have to respond to calls, emails, and texts at all hours.

Setting expectations and boundaries must come from the top. It’s too complex to leave to each individual or department to figure out for themselves. You need consistency, which benefits the organization, the team, and the client.

In addition to meeting with your executive team, send surveys to your team. Find out who would prefer to work from home and what hours they typically work from home. Get a sense of how much flexibility is too much flexibility and where lines need to be drawn. Learn about client expectations from client-facing team members.

The key is to not only establish policies, but to create a culture in which people don’t feel guilty or fearful about maintaining a separation between personal time and work time. Start taking small, practical steps to achieve meaningful, productive change.

For example, if enough snow falls to close the office, don’t expect people to work from home. If you’re composing emails on the weekend, schedule them to be sent on Monday so people don’t feel pressured to interrupt their personal time to respond. Encourage people to take mental health days when they need them.

Keep in mind that the changes and planning happening now may have been sparked by the pandemic, but the decisions you make will have nothing to do with COVID-19. This is about recognizing, embracing, and planning for what your business will look like and how it will function, now and in the future.

I suspect many business leaders love that their teams never really turn it off. It’s the same mindset that said working 80 hours a week and never taking a vacation was the only way to get ahead. Expecting people to work hard, however, is very different from working them into the ground.

In this age of virtual everything, people are still an organization’s greatest asset. Business leaders must identify a model for remote teams that allows them to achieve the work-life balance that technology was supposed to help them achieve.

That begins with knowing how to turn it off.