In 2000, I led the efforts to pilot a work from home program for my corporate travel agency. We had made it through the Y2K panic and this was going to be viewed as a reward to top performers on the team even though I remember the contract the employee was made to sign was 3 pages long with rules and regulations. “You cannot work with dependents in the home”; “You cannot work from a common space in the home and must have a dedicated office space with a door”; “You must be willing for an onsite visit from your supervisor at any time during business hours”. On and on and on with the rules for our well-known top performers.
Over the years and with other Fortune 50 organizations, work from home was more likely to be viewed negatively and only in times of temporary need. Employees who worked from home were never the first to be thought of for promotions. How did so many of us miss the mark on the advantages and benefits of working from home regardless of role or job description? I think it’s split between an employee wanting leaders to see what they do and how hard they work to do it (face time) and leaders who either did not fully trust their employees or felt the need to know that 100% of their teams’ work hours were spent on 100% work. …because THAT has happened since the internet and cell phones entered the picture.
Here we are in 2020 with a pandemic creating the need for employees at all levels within all types of industry to work from home. For millions, this is the first time doing so and, more importantly, it’s the first time for many leaders leading a remote team. Sure, leaders have led remotely when on business trips and unfortunately from beach chairs and cabins while on vacation. But this… this is much different. Each and every person on that Zoom or Skype call has had their lives upended in a wide variety of ways. This is not business as usual via the home kitchen table due to a blizzard and we all return to the office in a couple days. This requires human leadership skills and the ability to look at each person on the team as an individual who may not be functioning at their normal level because they were just homeschooling their kids or searching online for anyone who will deliver groceries to the house. No, it should not be a complete abandonment of goals and business objectives, but the graying some of the borders should be expected and understood.
The questions that each employee, leader and organization should be asking is “What does the new normal look like?” It’s more than a when do we return to the office but how. HR teams and business leaders should review the successes that were achieved during this time working from home and communicate them broadly to internal teams and external customers. There are many successes to shout out! The gaps should also be identified, but under a much different lens than would have been used a few weeks ago. For some, a huge “Return to Work” party may sound like fun where all of the employees join in a 9:00 am Monday morning return with coffee, donuts and big Rah Rah. I cannot imagine a more uncomfortable scenario that would appeal to only the minority of companies or individual employees out there.
Let’s embrace the easing in of returning to work, and more importantly, embrace and support flexibility for employees to continue to choose to work remotely when needed. I would bet that with few exceptions, our collective employee base across the U.S. just performed at some of their peak level under some of the most stressful times they have ever experienced. Expecting them to return to a pre-pandemic work environment is unrealistic and unnecessary.