If your company can’t adapt to remote work, it will die
In early March, just as the US was just coming to grips with the extent of the then-emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchell Colver was just returning from a trip to Seattle. He was in the city when a patient there became the first in the US to die from COVID-19. So when he returned to Utah, he found himself immediately ordered into quarantine for two weeks.
He returned to work for one half-day before the announcement came that Utah State University, where he oversees the Center for Student Analytics, would close and classes move to an online format, with other universities across the nation. At first, the change wasn’t a good one. “I got depressed,” Colver admits. “I wasn’t managing myself.”
But then, he recovered. Realizing his current mindset and work-from-home setup weren’t working, he reassessed the situation and began to rearrange his life. Rather than waiting for things to return, he, alongside thousands of other Americans, created a new sense of normalcy. And it worked.
By the first week of April, Colver says, students he interviewed at Utah State University expressed nonchalance about the question of the class format in the fall. Though attitudes varied, many students expressed a belief that they would be fine this coming semester, regardless of whether classes take place online or in person.
Workers, too, have grown comfortable with this new way of life; 74 percent, according to a recent survey by Robert Half, say they would like to have the option to continue working remotely after the restrictions are lifted. Experts generally agree that COVID-19 has accelerated what was previously a slow but steady trend toward more online education and remote work. But it has also exposed some rifts.
Though employees would like to continue working from home, employers have not necessarily shown an increased interest in remote employees. Skillsets and experience with technology have made a significant difference in the experience of those who still express trepidation about online work, illuminating the changes that may be needed to transition fully to the all-digital world futurists have envisioned for decades.
Employees want to keep working from home
When the COVID shutdowns began, companies in Utah and around the world had to make rapid adjustments to ensure continuity with employees working fully remote. Robert Half, according to Salt Lake City branch manager Tiffany Arcaris, had to transition more than 12,000 employees in less than 48 hours—and then had to help their clients do the same.
Remote work isn’t necessarily a new thing—15 percent of Americans worked remotely at least one day per week in 2018, according to the US Bureau of Labor. But most companies lacked the technology and protocol necessary to deploy remote employees at scale, Arcaris says.
The coronavirus changed that essentially overnight. Companies that had not already done so rapidly acquired laptops, online meeting services, and security software. For companies that could not do so, Robert Half itself deployed thousands of laptops and WiFi sticks to enable temp workers or recruits who didn’t have the capability to continue doing their jobs.
Arcaris believes this new equipment loan policy is here to stay—as is remote work. Although, she says the employers who work with Robert Half still think of the remote work phenomenon as a temporary situation, employees are increasingly comfortable with the new normal. Of the employees surveyed by Robert Half during the lockdown, 77 percent said they were working from home—and 60 percent said doing so had helped them achieve a better work-life balance. Nearly three-fourths said they wanted to continue working remotely.
“People have a taste of it now,” Arcaris said, “and they’re like ‘hey, this really works for me.’”
Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who studies remote work, believes this acquired taste for remote working is likely to become permanent, whether employers acknowledge that likelihood or not. Many workers continue to experience lingering anxiety about crowded spaces and urban centers, and companies have already sunk considerable resources into the technologies necessary for remote work. On top of that, remote work tends to increase employee productivity by about 13 percent on average.
“Firms will struggle to get their employees back into the office on a daily basis,” Bloom predicts. He estimates that 40 percent of US employees will work from home at least one day per week after COVID-19, with most working remotely 2-5 days per week.
(Most) students and teachers want to keep schooling at home
Education, too, has seen a sudden spike of interest in remote learning. Pearson, which operates the online Utah Connections Academy, experienced a 150 percent nationwide increase in applications as COVID-19 broke out, according to Tom ap Simon, managing director of Pearson’s online and blended learning division. “We don’t usually have that many kids wanting to transfer in March,” he says.
The company only just began accepting applications for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year, but web traffic is already up 45 percent as parents consider their options.
USU has seen a similar interest in remote learning from its students—and from the teachers who turn to USU for ongoing professional development in particular. The Logan university typically holds a three-day workshop each summer for teachers interested in online teaching methods. Though normally capped at 30 participants, the workshop filled up so quickly this year that they increased their capacity to 60—and then added a second event, according to Travis Thurston, assistant director of the office of empowering teaching excellence.
This isn’t to suggest that everyone is having the same positive experience with remote learning and working during COVID-19. Experiences have been very mixed, according to Colver.
For students at USU, Colver says, whether they have had a positive or negative experience during COVID-19 has depended largely on how comfortable their instructors were with remote teaching before the crisis began. One student told him, “before, if we had excellent instruction, [now] that has only been amplified. Excellent instructors have continued to go above and beyond. If instructors were mediocre before, then this experience has amplified that mediocrity.”
Some people, Colver says, have used COVID-19 as an opportunity to stretch themselves and gain new skills. Others—well, at least one instructor at USU outright refused to teach classes remotely, a rebellion that only lasted about 48 hours. “Remote work is definitely not for everybody,” Arcaris concurs. “I certainly have employees who are really craving to be back in the office and structure, and I have seen other employees just flourish.”
But we need to reinvent the “workday”
As both a manager and an employee, Arcaris says she’s found working from home differs from working from an office in ways beyond the obvious change in format and reliance on technology. Success as a team requires more communication, she says—she estimates her own company has at least two-thirds more meetings than they once did. Overall hours have also changed; tasks must be completed and meetings attended, but nobody expects remote employees to be actively online and tied to a desk from eight in the morning to six at night.
While this provides greater flexibility, it can also come with a bit of a curse, Arcaris says. The lack of defined hours in which employees are “on the clock” has work bleeding into home life, and the normal social engagements and little distractions that normally break up the workday are no longer present. As a manager, Arcaris says, she’s found she needs to “tell people to take a break if they’re working at their house. At the office, that becomes very normal, where you go get coffee with a colleague every day at 10:30. At home, we’re finding some people feeling very fatigued and not working that out.”
While this has resulted in a steep learning curve for some, Arcaris sees potential benefits for companies and employees who work out the kinks and make the transition permanent. Firms that are open to remote workers often have access to a broader talent pool― not only in terms of geography. Set hours and inaccessible office spaces have often prevented workers who need flexibility or physical accommodations from performing key roles, Arcaris says.
“One of the silver linings of this is employers are going to recognize what doors this opens,” she says, adding that many employees are willing to trade flexibility for some compensation. “So they could save a little on salaries and broaden their talent pool if they offer that as an option.”
But while remote work may open professional doors for some, educators say there are other populations who could be left behind in a digital workforce overhaul.
DeLaina Tonks, principal of online Utah charter school Mountain Heights Academy, says that since their opening in 2009, they’ve learned time and time again that online teaching differs from a classroom setting. “Our teachers work from home, and we had them put together a list of things they learned from working with kids at home,” Tonks says. “Systemic issues like communication emerged—like having a weekly deadline instead of trying to replicate the classroom online.”
As tempting as it may seem to try to maintain that sense of routine and normalcy, Tonks says, you can’t “try to replicate the classroom online. Don’t try to hold a class session every single day—that’s not going to work.”
Online education—and work—Tonks says, “frees you from the tyranny of time.” The bells and commuting that define the structure of the day in a brick-and-mortar world are gone, and in most cases, attempting to replicate those things in an online environment doesn’t work.
But there’s still a structure in online environments, says Erin Taylor, who oversees the Utah Connections Academy―it’s just task-based rather than time-based, and more propelled by inner motivation than exterior indicators. The transition can be rough for students without previous experience with online learning, which is why the academy has an extensive onboarding process. Still, some students fail to thrive in an online environment.
And we need to teach technical skills to our employees and students
Colver believes this failure to thrive is linked to soft skills such as cognitive flexibility—the ability to adapt to new situations or tools—and self-regulation, or the ability to manage one’s self. Self-regulation, he explains, isn’t just forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. It means knowing you write best in your lounge chair, but will fall asleep if you try to watch a lecture there. It’s knowing when you need a break or a snack—things that are unconsciously managed for us in a world with more physical cues.
In an online setting, Thurston agrees, everything has to be more intentional.
Take social media as an example. Where information and social engagement were once served to us in an orderly, controlled manner—on television or at structured networking events, social media can seem like a giant free-for-all, with all manner of information, feedback, and personalities flowing in all directions.
“The important thing to remember is that we can filter these things. If we just spend all day looking at all of the content out there, it would be overwhelming and destructive. Why am I there, what am I looking for, and who am I engaging with?” Thurston says. “Learning how to interact in a digital world is, I think, going to be essential to building some of these new social norms.”
Learning these skills, Thurston worries, is difficult for those who come from backgrounds or regions where access to technology is limited. If you don’t have access to a computer, smartphone, or WiFi, adapting to this self-regulated, online world can be especially challenging.
This showed up in Colver’s student surveys. Those students and instructors who were already comfortable with online environments—the computer science students, for example—had no trouble adapting to the shutdown. Others with less experience struggled; some expressed the opinion that their online education had become a waste of time and that if in-person classes did not resume, they would simply find a job next semester instead.
“I think we need to start thinking about how this new normal looks, and that starts with providing the resources to our students wherever they are,” Thurston says.
Taylor believes this is why COVID-19 has inspired greater interest in online education. Parents are realizing their students need to be equipped with skills they do not have to thrive in online environments. “The need for a workforce that is more comfortable doing this, is definitely where we are headed,” she says. “We need to do more than throw people into the deep end. We need to do more in terms of blended learning so that we can address hopefully not things like [COVID-19], but even something as simple as snow days.”
We can be successful remotely, and we’ll have to be
While it may seem as though some personalities were simply more likely to thrive during the lockdown than others—consider the extrovert, introvert social media debate—Colver says it’s not like that. All these skills, including soft skills like self-regulation, are things anyone can learn.
But developing the knowledge required to work in a self-driven environment takes time, just as most students need 6-12 years to learn to thrive within externally structured environments. “And unless people have that lead time,” Colver says, “they can’t develop that process.”
“What’s important,” he says, “is to pick a strategy and go with it. Because as soon as you pick a strategy, you can say, ‘here are all the skills you need to be successful, and here is how you develop those skills.’”
Likely the biggest change that will come of COVID-19, Colver says, is not a change from in-office to remote work, or from classrooms to chat rooms, but a change in leadership. Some organizations and individuals will fall, and others will rise to the top. Colver suspects the winners will be those who decide for themselves what ‘normal’ now means.
“One of the mistakes that leaders are going to make is, there is only a certain amount of contingency planning you can do,” he says. “At some point, you have to pull the trigger, and I am afraid that organizations that engage in wait and see planning are going to shoot themselves in the foot.”