In March of 2020, businesses around the globe were forced to shift to remote work for all non-essential workers. Since then, as restrictions have changed and the pandemic crisis has evolved, a high percentage of businesses continue to use a remote-working model.
As we near the two-year mark, many questions arise about the future of remote work, whether it’s a sustainable model in the long term, and the impacts that it has on employees and businesses. Writer David Roe sums up this uncertainty well: “There is only one undisputed fact that can be said about the current debate around the state of remote work. That is that we have arrived at a seminal point in the evolution of the workplace. It is still not clear when many enterprises will return to the physical workplace or if they will at all, but what is clear is that we will not be returning to the situation we were in before COVID.”
While time will tell how the workforce will be impacted in the long term, here’s what we do know now and can use to inform decisions in the year ahead.
Some Form of Remote Work Is Here to Stay
Despite the disruptive nature of being forced into working remotely, most teams quickly found systems to make things work, and both employees and managers were surprised by how much they liked the remote model. Interestingly, data shows an increase in productivity following this shift.
Adam Ozimek, a labor economist at Upwork, has been studying trends in remote work since the beginning of the pandemic. He explains that “the number one thing that’s happened is that a lot of businesses and a lot of workers have found that remote work works better than they thought.” Based on the surveys he’s collected over the last 20 months, Ozimek concluded, “basically, everyone has figured out that this way of working is a lot more productive than they thought. There are a lot of important benefits to this way of working, and it makes sense as a longstanding change not just a short-term adaptation for a lot of roles.”
That said, there are certainly some drawbacks to working remotely, including reduced engagement, fewer connections, an increased sense of isolation and anxiety, more burnout, and less collaboration.
To help balance these issues, many organizations are utilizing a hybrid model, where employees spend some time in the office and some time working virtually. This is a model that is gaining popularity and that appears to be well received by employees and managers.
McKinsey data found that the majority of employees would like to work from home at least three days per week for the long term. Similarly, an Accenture study found that 83% of employees prefer a hybrid approach to a complete return to in-person.
How to Foster Creativity and Collaboration in a Remote Model
Given the emphasis that we place on collaboration and creativity, our team has been focused on the impacts that working remotely has on each. Interestingly, the data on the issue is somewhat mixed and there aren’t clear answers.
A Microsoft survey looked at how working remotely impacted their team’s collaboration and found that “the shift to firm-wide remote work caused business groups within Microsoft to become less interconnected. It also reduced the number of ties bridging structural holes in the company’s informal collaboration network and caused individuals to spend less time collaborating with the bridging ties that remained.”
Obviously, this is a troubling conclusion, yet many leaders and coaches pushed back on this data, arguing that it was not the shift to remote work that caused this shift, but rather internal practices and management.
Scott Hirsch, CTO and co-founder of TalentMarketplace, argues that while “[r]emote work certainly changed the workplace dynamic  it does not cause isolation — that happens because of poor management.” Hirsch advises that “In the virtual world, companies must adapt so their work culture is well converted to the online sphere.”
Interestingly, a BetterUp survey found that employees that have shifted to remote work report feeling more productive than they ever did in the office, and the survey finds a 56% increase in creativity and innovative thinking when working remotely. It’s unclear what accounts for this increase, but some potential explanations are less time commuting and in meetings, both of which can hamper creativity; the rise of asynchronous collaboration, which leads to more employees contributing and more thoughtful contributions; and the fact that home is a place of safety, strength, and reduced stress, all of which leads to more creativity.
What Teams Should Consider Going Forward
While there’s much uncertainty of what the workforce will look like in the years ahead, it’s important to communicate well with teams. Share your thoughts for work models and get their feedback. The more you can communicate, the better positioned you will be to come up with a model that works well for everyone.
Additionally, stay flexible. Situations change rapidly, as do workplace and workforce demands. The more agile leaders and organizations can be, the more effectively they can respond to changing needs and expectations.
Finally, stay focused on what your team values most and make that a priority no matter what your working model is. For us, in addition to valuing excellent delivery for clients, we also value creativity and collaboration. As a result, our leaders find ways to foster and encourage both no matter where our teams or employees are. And keep in mind, that while working models and conditions might change, great teams and leaders will find ways to adjust, thrive, and grow no matter the circumstances.