Purposeful Talent Development: Overcoming the Challenges of Sustained Remote Work

new normal red button on black keyboard
Jaime Bochantin, Ph.D. Photo
VP/Consulting Services

8 minutes

Ideas for managing meetings, networking and engagement when employees are only sometimes in the office

What has been the most frustrating aspect you have encountered working in a remote setting since the pandemic began? Lack of interaction or connection with others? Too many distractions? Too many unnecessary meetings? Issues with technology?

The truth is, you could probably make an argument for all of these being a hinderance to your everyday life in recent times, and you would not be in the minority. In fact, a study done by the Pew Research Center found that 89% of Americans have experienced at least one negative outcome to their life because of the pandemic and one in five people found it to have negatively influenced their career. From a leadership and talent development perspective, life in a post-pandemic workplace has likely changed forever.

Indeed, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath is one of the biggest business challenges of our time. To keep operations going, most companies adopted new ways of working that left their physical locations—offices, factories and stores—empty.

Two years later, the world looks much different. As business comes surging back, management teams are responsible for leading their companies through these fast-moving changes. Boards also play a role. Directors need to help management think critically about the development and execution of their return-to-work plans. This starts with understanding the workforce challenges executives face in a post-pandemic world so they can ask the right questions and act as a sounding board, especially if they want to stay on top of their talent management strategies. According to Rice University professor Ibraiz Tarique, talent analytics will play a larger role. Everything is being measured. The question then becomes, what do we do with this data? Real-time decisions will be increasingly made based on data.

As companies look ahead to life after the pandemic, many will soon be adopting a permanent hybrid work model that will undoubtedly bring issues and challenges. However, before discussing challenges in a remote/hybrid work environment, it is important to consider the current situation and the implications they have for both employees and leaders. Understanding the how, the why and the what just might allow you to retain top talent, keep employees engaged, and keep your credit union productive.

Current and Future State of Remote Work

Currently, research done by Upwork has found that 26% of employees (or 1 out 4) work remote. Furthermore, in October 2021, a Mercer study found that 70% of companies said they were planning to adopt a hybrid or remote model. Many companies have already made the switch, including prominent brands such as Adobe, Salesforce, Spotify, and Twitter. And Microsoft’s Work Trend Index (published in May 2021) found that 66% of employers around the world are redesigning their workplaces to accommodate hybrid work arrangements. It is estimated that within the next two years, 10% of all companies will have employees who work remotely all five days compared to 2019 when 10% of companies had employees working remotely just one day a week.

In addition, according to a study done by FlexJobs, 58% of employees report wanting to be full-time post-pandemic, while 39% want a hybrid work environment. That means 97% of workers desire some form of remote work! Moreover, only 12% of employees are in favor of a full return to office arrangement as of late 2021.

Workplace Implications

What we seem to know is that remote work is good for business. Research done by Global Workplace Analytics shows that businesses lose $600 billion a year to workplace distractions and that remote workers are 35-40% more productive than their in-office counterparts. Among performance-based remote work statistics in 2020, 94% of surveyed employers report that company productivity has been the same (67%) or higher (27%) since employees started working from home during the pandemic.

Furthermore, workers are more productive because of the lack of commute, have more focused time to devote to work, experience less distractions or interruptions and have a more comfortable work environment.

Additionally, 76% of employees report that workplace stress affects their mental health, leading to depression or anxiety. Of those who have flexible work options, 48% say their work-life balance and mental health is improved due to remote or hybrid work arrangements. 54% have the emotional support they need at work, compared to 36% and 45%, respectively, for employees without flexible work.

Thus, the bottom line is: Being physically present at the office full-time is not necessarily the only way to produce great results.

Benefits and Challenges of Remote Work

Remote work has had such benefits during the pandemic as an increase to safety due to less exposure to illness, better health and well-being; lower levels of turnover; cost-savings; and increased competitiveness given employees given 35% of employees have said they will leave their current on-site jobs to work remote.

Just as there are plenty of benefits to remote work, there are drawbacks as well. First, employees have complained at length about the number of meetings on their weekly calendar. According to research by the Society for Human Resource Management, employees currently have 10 meetings on their weekly schedule compared to seven back in 2019.

Second, leaders feel like there is a lack of visibility and influence in the organization with limited interaction opportunities. For many leaders, shifting from physical visits to remote meetings is an inconvenient if fairly surmountable issue when keeping teams operating. But in regular times, you aren't typically just spending your time meeting with your team. You are visiting stakeholders in other departments, external customers and generally cultivating your network of influence to get business done now and into the future. Social distancing has caused some leaders to worry about becoming isolated and losing the strength of connections they worked hard to develop. I have heard leaders say they feel “awkward” reaching out to a customer unless they absolutely need to since everyone is just trying to “stay afloat.”

The same risk of becoming too insular applies to a leader's internal network, not just external customers. Many leaders navigate the political landscape of their company by building meaningful relationships with influential and senior people outside of their immediate team. But now, without being able to meet up for coffee or having an “immediate” reason to chat, leaders are beginning to wonder whether their sphere of influence will stall in growing, if not diminish.

Lastly, one of the greatest challenges is employee engagement being put at risk. Many companies have had remote workers for years, but this is the first time a huge number of employees are either working hybrid or remote schedules. Thus, the concern is that remote workers are at a higher risk of becoming disengaged in the absence of an immediate community of peers. As a result, these staffers could slip into a mode of isolation inconducive to long-term engagement.

Some interesting research cited by Fast Company indicates that leadership teams who characterize themselves as introverted were less frustrated with this move to remote work than extraverted leaders, in part because introverts find leaner forms of communication (i.e., email, phone, text, etc.) less cumbersome than extroverts who crave the buzz they get from social interaction. These assumptions then transfer to their employees with introverted leaders believing their team functions fine without the need for several meetings per day while extraverted leaders believing their employees were likely not as productive as they would be in a physical work environment. Whether each of these sets of leaders was right in their assumptions (and whether they translated to employees themselves) is yet to be determined.

Overcoming the Challenges

So, the question of the day becomes, how do we overcome these challenges?

When it comes to the issue of having too many meetings, try adopting catchphrases like “no meetings without an agenda” because sometimes, when one begins to prepare an agenda, one quickly realizes a meeting is not actually required. Or “no unnecessary meetings.” Or perhaps an old favorite, “Could this meeting have been an email?”

Leaders can also limit the number of internal meeting hours allotted per week, which makes meeting time more valuable and worth conserving. Attendees will likely be more engaged, alert, and motivated to use their precious time wisely (i.e., allow for a “focus Friday” where no internal meetings are allowed and time can be spent on professional development, client calls or catching up on work from the week before the weekend. At the very least, have one day a week that allows half the day with no internal meetings allowed.

When it comes to lack of visibility and influence in the organization due to limited interaction opportunities, navigate this concern by staying focused on the “person behind the title.” Recognize the deeper purpose behind influence and networks. If there ever was a time to connect with people you genuinely care for and are wondering if you can help them, it is now. Be honest about your intentions and show some vulnerability because it’s the fears and anxieties that we all share that draw us closer. If you operate with integrity and focus on the person behind the professional identity, you may develop even more significant influence than you have in the past.  

Lastly, with regard to employee engagement, take the time to truly listen to your team, putting your fears and frustrations to the side for a moment. If you do this, you'll likely find that they will tell you exactly what they need to be personally engaged. Don’t miss the opportunity to let them get there because you believe their productivity hinges on the same kind of interaction you prefer. Another idea is to conduct engagement surveys at least once a year to assess the current situation so you can get ahead of any problem that may arise.

The pandemic is unrelenting and not going anywhere, anytime soon, so we will undoubtedly have to endure more change in years to come. But beyond addressing issues of safety and business continuity, leaders can benefit from reflecting on and acting to counteract these challenges. Doing so will help ensure sustained motivation into the future.

Jaime Bochantin, Ph.D.,is VP/consulting services at CUES. Ask her about talent development and CUES Consulting.

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