What we’ve learned about remote work and how your company can leverage it

Across industries some clear winning methods and principles have emerged.  Here is how we are winning in this new work environment.

During the onset of COVID companies rushed to implement virtual work environments as a matter of survival since the alternative was to shut their doors for an unknown amount of time.  This included enterprises where remote work was never considered an option such as the US military.  After the initial learning curve, experts were touting remote work as the way of the future pontificating that every industry needed to embrace it.  As the pandemic turned from weeks into months and years, many differing opinions began to emerge, including studies related to the impact of various virtual work strategies. 

As the pandemic wound down and now that we are in what could be considered the post pandemic world, we see continual headlines touting back to office deadlines at many of the largest tech, financial and similar sector companies.  Predictably though, headlines also regularly appear that walk back those deadlines as they meet resistance from the workforce.  “Who is right?” and “what will the future hold?” are all ongoing questions.  Here are a few things I’ve learned running QSRSoft throughout the pandemic and emerging stronger on the other side. 

Pre- Pandemic work environment  

Pre-pandemic, remote work options were increasing but continued to be dwarfed by in office work arrangements.  Larger companies were investing in lavish workspaces, perks such as free lunch, novel common work areas, gyms and so much more.  These perks and hip workspaces were viewed as a key strategy to attract and keep the best and brightest employees. From Apple’s “Apple Park” to Amazon’s “Spheres” it was a race to have the most perk filled and innovative office space.   Starting in February 2020 all of that changed as the pandemic and the uncertainty hit everyone.  Companies flocked to Zoom, Webex and other remote platforms as these offices sat vacant.  

The remote work disconnect 

Despite the reality of this transition, there is a massive disconnect between how employees and managers view remote work.  Studies show that 87% of remote workers think they are more productive working from home vs in office but only 12% of leaders/people managers think their employees are productive when not in office.  This disconnect or “productivity paranoia” has existed as long as remote work but has grown exponentially as remote work has grown.  Our culture’s long history of in-office work has bred a comfort level in managers related to visible productivity. That is, they are only/most comfortable if they can see the employee working and are in a common “workplace”.  Data from the Microsoft Office/Teams shows that weekly virtual meetings increased 153% during the pandemic, just one more data element highlighting how uncomfortable people managers are with remote work.  They appear to want to see and talk to their employees in person to verify productive work is occurring. 

Obstacles to effective remote work 

So, what are some of the challenges related to remote work and why are some companies such as Goldman Sachs and Tesla calling for a full back to the office deadline.   

The #1 touted obstacle is distraction.  There is some evidence that concerns related to distraction are founded.  At least 42% of employees admit to being distracted and multitasking while in virtual meetings. While this is technically possible in an office environment, it is much easier and arguably more tempting when working remotely.  Conversely the in-office environment can also be filled with distractions, from co-workers “stopping by” your desk, to water cooler chat, distracting noise, extended lunches and more.  In a remote work environment, co-worker interruptions by nature are more intentional. 

A second obstacle is the lack of connection and community that can and often does occur when all interactions at a company are virtual.  In our own experience at QsrSoft, lack of community and connection was the #1 concern raised be employees during a pandemic era company survey. 

Third is accountability.  I’d argue that this has always been an issue.  Whether virtual or not, there are always some employees that don’t put in their full, best efforts.  These employees tend to perform even worse when put in a remote situation.  Our view has been that these are not the type of employees we want on our team (regardless of in office or virtual work).  Our approach is to coach on performance and if not successful, we replace those team members with higher performance individuals. 

Benefits of remote work 

For all the detractors there are still many ardent supporters and believers in the future of remote work.  There are two chief benefits that are often raised to support this viewpoint.   

  1. Flexibility. A 2022 survey of 25,000 Americans showed that 87% of them would take advantage of remote work options and that would inform their decision on where to accept a job offer.  Americans have embraced the idea of work form anywhere, whether it’s at home or while traveling in another state or even country.  In QSRSoft we regularly have some of our workforce working from other destinations, whether it is because their spouse has travel for work and they are going with them, a family event in another country or one of a myriad of other reasons. Remote work enables them to stay more connected as a family and experience more of the country and world while continuing to contribute to our company.
  2. Access to a larger talent pool.  In 2019 we fully embraced remote work here at QSRSoft.  We saw an incredible opportunity to find talent from all over the US vs. just in the suburbs of Chicago.  After some corporate restructuring to enable these efforts and 2 years of hiring, we have employees in 25 different states and nearly 40% of our workforce is outside of our corporate office locale.  This has resulted in talent acquisition becoming astronomically easier – even during the tight labor market of the past 18 months.
  3. Trust and loyalty.  When you’ve built a good team, show them that you trust them enough to let them work remotely. When you respect their freedom, happiness, and wellbeing, they will in-turn respect you, tend to remain loyal and work harder to show their appreciation. 

Our most effective solution: Remote with hybrid option  

Our first-hand experience, information from peers in the industry and research led us to conclude that the hybrid work environment was the best path forward.  This meant not issuing any ultimatums related to office opening deadlines etc.  As soon as we were legally allowed to, we opened our office doors during weekdays and began providing free lunch on Wednesdays to any employee that wanted to come in.  We were very careful to communicate that this was entirely optional.  The office would be open but not a single employee was required to come in.  Since we implemented this tactic, we regularly have 10 to 20% of the team take advantage of the offer, including some employees that choose to come in every day.  Our leadership team has in-person leadership meetings twice a month but outside of that all work is allowed to occur virtually and at the team’s discretion.  

To combat the lack of connection that is prevalent with primarily remote work, we’ve implemented a host of options for connection, including: 

  • Special occasion virtual lunches/happy hours. ex. Halloween costume lunch 
  • A 100% virtual hackathon 
  • Virtual trivia and similar events 
  • Fitness challenges 
  • Book clubs 
  • Employee experience communication channels for any topic such as pet pics, cooking experiences and more 

So how do we know this is working?  While careful not implement any specific productivity measurement (be careful what metric you publicize because that can always be manipulated), we’ve seen substantial improvement in a few areas. 

  1. We’ve achieved an increased number of our monthly goals during our hybrid work years.  We attribute a lot of this to the increased talent density we’ve achieved by hiring all over the country.  
  2. We’ve had minimal turnover (less than 5%) over the past 2 years – even during the great resignation.   
  3. Employee satisfaction scores are the highest in QsrSoft’s history. 

While our approach may not fit every company, it’s hard to argue with these results. My belief is that if more companies would embrace an optional hybrid work environment, they would experience significant benefit. Companies would reduce overhead costs and the teams learn to trust and respect each other while enabling the most flexible options for each team member. I look forward to the ongoing dialogue around work environments and learning together to make a better workplace for future generations.  

Tim Burge