If one was to capture 2020 in a single word, “unprecedented” would be a good one. The rippling effects of the coronavirus pandemic have transformed all aspects of life, with how we work being one of the most salient.
Case in point: at the start of the year, 4.7 million Americans—or 3.4% of the working population—worked remotely. Just three months later, at the height of lockdown, 34% of Americans who previously went into the office every day were now working from home.
The overnight shift to WFH
This unprecedented shift is remarkable for its incredible pace, not so much the direction. Even before the pandemic accelerated the move from the office, remote work was on an upward trajectory with 159% growth since 2005. It’s estimated that by 2025, the vast majority of the workforce—at least 70%—will work remotely for at least one full business week each month.
At all levels of the corporate hierarchy, from admins up to the CEO, 2020 has represented a massive work-from-home experiment. As much of a rollercoaster as these last few months have been, the rapid shift to WFH offers a unique glimpse into the future of work, and to better prepare companies and their employees for life after the office.
The overnight shift to WFH marks the first time many employees have had to find ongoing and sustainable ways to work together while apart—and as a whole, teams are not doing too badly: according to a global survey of office employees during the pandemic, 68% said they’ve been “very successful” working from home. Employees are equally satisfied with their work activity performance at home compared to the office, and 70% of leaders say their teams are performing the same or better from home.
What working from home during COVID-19 says about the future of remote work
These positive assessments of remote work are quite remarkable given that workplaces were forced to transform themselves overnight and without warning. And sentiments about working from home have likely improved as teams adapted to working remotely and refined the processes and tools by which they do so.
Given that remote work is here to stay, it’s worth looking at the experiences of the last few months to evaluate what we’ve learned about remote work so far—and find ways to make remote work even better moving forward.
Here are five lessons we’ve learned about remote work in 2020.
1. It can be hard for employees to disconnect
Fear that employees would slack off was once many managers’ primary objection to working from home. As it turns out, the opposite is true. Since the start of lockdowns, employees at home averaged 48.5 more minutes of work every day.
But that may not be the win it appears to be. Nearly half of workers also report feeling more burnt out. To combat this, organizations need to make it a priority to help employees maintain work-life balance, even when the lines between home and office are blurred.
2. Projects can easily get lost or buried
It’s easy to take for granted the built-in ways with which employees share information in office settings. Shared drives and an ability to quickly touch base in-person help employees prioritize their projects and provide a unified sense of momentum. When everyone works separately, projects can all too easily become lost or buried.
The solution lies in increased visibility. To prevent key projects from falling off, all people involved need ways to easily access and share key documents and information, as well as project management and collaboration tools that make it easy to track progress.
3. Remote employee silos happen without communication
Whether within a team or across functions, silos occur when colleagues don’t communicate with each other about what they’re working on. And when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, it can be extremely costly for businesses.
Silos often result in duplicated work, blind spots, and other major business risks—and they’re more likely to occur when visibility is lacking, such as when everyone is working from home. Effective communication and collaboration, however, can cure employee silos—both formal (status meetings, progress reports) and informal (making it easy for workers to discuss work on the fly).
4. WFH improves many aspects of work but makes others harder
WFH does not have a universal effect on work—in fact, it improves some aspects of working while making others more of a challenge. According to the Global Work from Home Experience Survey, homebound employees have a significantly easier time managing distractions and disruptions, and doing the sort of deep-thinking work that relies on this increased focus. But with fewer opportunities to interact organically, collaboration and a sense of connection drops off. To get the most out of working from home, businesses should find ways to continue to protect employees’ ability to work without distraction when it makes sense—but to also better enable seamless connectivity between workers and teams for tasks that require it.
5. It’s difficult—but not impossible—to recreate the organic collaboration that happens in the office
When it comes to teamwork when working from home, it’s not all bad news. Though remote work fares worse than office environments when it comes to needs like getting timely information and collaborating with others, the results aren’t actually bad: six in 10 employees, a majority of workers, rate their ability to perform these activities from home positively.
This suggests that organic collaboration is possible when teams work remotely—but workers might need a little more help to do so. Setting up virtual “drop-in” office hours for managers, regular face-to-face team chats, and finding other ways to electronically recreate the easy communication that occurs in the workplace are key to fostering organic collaboration at home.
Communication and collaboration in the WFH era
What these lessons have in common is the theme of communication and collaboration. In a WFH world, the right tech becomes more than a communication tool—it’s the foundation upon which all work happens. This underscores the need for technology that’s accessible, seamless, and doesn’t create new challenges when it comes to helping employees connect with one another to get the job done.
A unified communications solution such as RingCentral helps to relieve many of the pain points employees encounter while they work from home. RingCentral combines team messaging, video conferencing, and cloud phone into a single platform, allowing employees to choose how, where, and when they want to collaborate. By breaking down the barriers to workplace communications, remote teams can master collaboration regardless of where they work and take productivity to new heights.