Woman at desk wearing mask
by Emil Heidkamp, founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Digital

The number of people working virtually has continued to grow over the years, with the pandemic accelerating that transition in ways no one could imagine. Will this trend reverse once the present crisis subsides? Will organizations summon remote workers back to the office? Will people book flights to attend conferences that they now know can be held successfully and at a lower cost, remotely?

For many organizations the answer is “yes”, as those that may have been struggling working remotely will rush to get back to “normal.” However, we expect many other organizations will take this opportunity to transform, and fully embrace virtual work as part of a new operating model.

Before your organization decides to call remote workers back to the office or attempt to make virtual work the new normal, consider the following:

  • In what areas did performance suffer or improve?  In theory, where performance remains equal or better, the financial savings from reducing sick days, travel expenses, and maintaining office space would favor remote work.   So you might want to demand a justification for bringing workers back on-site rather than demanding justification for continued remote/virtual work, assuming work is getting done.

  • Are certain teams adapting to virtual work better than others?  In our experience, we’ve found that a manager’s attitude towards remote work and their skill, or lack thereof, in managing virtual teams can significantly impact productivity. If it turns out certain teams perform better working virtually than others during this crisis, then it’s worth examining what those managers were doing differently.

  • Did any “problems” with virtual work also exist on-site?  Technology is a convenient scapegoat for human shortcomings. If anything, the virtual environment tends to magnify issues with communication, team collaboration and/or management that were hiding in plain sight at the office. If managers vocalize difficulties gauging productivity of virtual workers, ask how they were measuring it in the office. If remote workers are having difficulty locating important files and information, odds are your company’s repository was disorganized to begin with. Whatever the case, take a moment to consider if communication, organization, and productivity were really better on-site before faulting remote work.

  • Is the crisis a fair test of virtual work?  For many, the current shift towards virtual work was made with little to no preparation, at a time when everyone was already under extraordinary personal stress. Separating issues caused by the pandemic from those caused by remote work arrangements may be difficult.  To help answer questions, it may be worth conducting an extended pilot of working virtually once conditions normalize.