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Remote Work Ready

As more employees seek virtual environments, an active listening strategy can conquer many of its challenges.

By Alina Sarkissian

During the pandemic, employees and employers made many sacrifices in the interest of public health, with many viewing the necessity of remote work as one cost. But does remote work really jeopardize the bottom line? 

In 2019, 24% to 37% of office personnel worked remotely — compared to nearly 75% by May 2020. During this adjustment period, the efficacy of remote work improved as employees learned to focus and collaborate asynchronously. By 2023, over 90% of employees report their experience with remote work has been very or somewhat positive, and 63% of job seekers say it’s important that their next opportunity is remote-friendly. 

But employer and employee desires don’t necessarily align. According to industry research, 90% of companies plan return-to-work (RTO) initiatives by the end of 2024. Nearly 30% of these leaders say they will terminate employees who don’t comply. 

HR leaders should examine these trends and ask themselves: What is best for the company and what is best for its employees? In many cases, the answer is one and the same. Remote work not only widens the talent pool, appeals to top candidates, and retains high-performing employees; it also transforms how people work, improving satisfaction and productivity. 

Benefits of Working Remotely 

Globally distributed teams aren’t a liability—quite the opposite. Remote-first workplaces can hire the best person for the job regardless of time zone or location.  

A remote-first work culture offers several other benefits. According to Eagle Hill Consulting, 42% of U.S. workers say an RTO order would decrease their job satisfaction. Over one-third (34%) say their productivity would decrease following such a requirement. Employees specifically believe their ability to focus on long-form tasks would suffer, with research and deep-thinking activities taking a major hit. 

HR leaders must challenge their assumptions about remote work’s negative correlation with productivity. In the pre-2010s work era, remote workers were about 1% less productive than their in-person counterparts. But, as of 2015, this gap no longer exists. In fact, many remote workers are more effective and efficient than in-person teams. 

An alarming amount of cognitive dissonance is at play with the “remote work is less productive” myth. After the advent and improvement of asynchronous technologies like video conferencing and real-time messaging, remote workers can be successful, aided by deeper focus time, access to better technologies and greater workplace satisfaction (which corresponds to higher productivity). 

Managing a Productive, Satisfied Remote Workforce 

By enacting the right policies, leaders and managers can proactively address remote work challenges. How do they determine the “right” policies? Active listening is key. 

Active listening involves soliciting feedback with the intention of promptly addressing concerns. This strategy validates employee contributions and has been shown to increase retention by 22%. When employers practice active listening, they create programs and policies addressing the real-world needs of their workforce.  

When working virtually, it’s also important to set renewed expectations about communication. After transitioning to remote work, co-workers who previously approached one another at their desks must learn how to ask for help asynchronously. This transition requires level-setting from the top. People leaders must encourage employees to over-communicate using all available channels, including email, organization-wide communication applications, and video conferencing. 

Globally distributed teams require a particularly nuanced approach to communication. For example, in California, employees are working diligently from home at 11 a.m., while their co-workers in Russia are likely in bed. In this scenario, California employees must respect their Russian colleagues’ boundaries and vice-versa.  

People leaders should encourage employees to set working hours in their profiles. Sometimes, an OOO message may also suffice. These messages allow employees to understand when they can expect an answer to their question. 

It’s critical to actively listen and communicate expectations about remote collaboration. Leaders who internalize feedback and respect employees’ work-life balance will ultimately enable a far more productive, efficient remote working environment. That’s not only good for employees — it’s great for the bottom line. 

Alina Sarkissian is the director of people at Fingerprint 

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