Working Remotely - A Year in Review
Since March 2020, many organizations have moved to a work-from-home model to limit as much person-to-person contact as possible. And it’s stuck longer than many expected at first. In fact, in June 2020, S&P Global found 67% of companies expected the shift to stick, at least in some capacity.
In short, working remotely has become the norm. And in that time, some clear positives and negatives have emerged, as companies discuss how to bring employees back or whether to bring them back at all with vaccine rollout widely available.
Dan Bumblauskas, associate professor of management with the College of Business, has been following this trend for the past year. Beyond the obvious — like less commute times — a big positive has been the quickness of onboarding employees.
“The silver lining is the speed you can bring someone into the organization,” he said. “Before, it could take a week to three months to get access to computers, building systems, car and access keys, etc.”
But on the flip side is the complexity of folding new employees into a company culture. Bumblauskas said many organizations have tried virtual cocktail hours, but it’s hard to replicate physical interaction in an office or entertaining space. It’s also hard to track employee performance and gauge employee-to-employee relationships on a day-to-day basis.
“The biggest struggle is human contact,” said Atul Mitra, professor and head of management with the College of Business. “This whole idea of what it means to create a culture is a big, big struggle for both employees and employers.”
Mitra added another positive to the mix — lower overhead. Because employees are working in home offices, costs, like office space or supplies, have been reduced.
“Employers are learning that they can reduce costs, and productivity has not gone down in most cases,” Mitra said. “They can live with less mobility, equal productivity and create this win-win situation.”
Going forward, many big companies have decided to use a hybrid approach — having employees in the office some days and at home other days. One of the most notable organizations using this approach is Target in Minneapolis. Bumblauskas expects this trend to continue, particularly for large companies. In general, smaller companies will be more apt to return in-person because of lack of resources and the lowered risk.
Returning to the office also depends on industry. For example, manufacturing employees can’t do the same job from home — unless they have multimillion dollar machines installed in their backyards.
“The bigger the company, the more they lean toward staying at your house,” Bumblauskas said. “I don’t need you to go there if you’re doing your work at home. Now with smaller sized companies, there’s the opposite pushback, which is face-to-face interaction and culture. They don’t have the same resources, or they may not have the technical infrastructure because they may be in a small town in the Midwest.”
Bumblauskas said to facilitate some human interaction, larger companies might set up meetings in common places around the United States — post pandemic, of course. For example, a team based all over the country could fly and meet at a centralized location such as Dallas or St. Louis, places where Dr. Bumblauskas often meets with colleagues and collaborators.
Whatever the future looks like, it’s clear the work-from-home trend will continue in some capacity. And as we venture into this “new normal,” companies big and small continue to adapt, particularly with travel and management.
“I think adaptation has happened,” Mitra said. “There are reasons to believe this will continue, but how much? That’s hard to predict. Instead of people traveling to work, we’ll see a lot more work traveling to people. And we’ll have to see more trust in your employees and managing teams.”