It’s been about a year since the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shuttered offices around the world, and companies sent employees home to work remotely. The sudden crisis meant that, on the spot, businesses had to decide how to make sure the work got done while their employees worked from home.
While it’s been a tough learning curve, we’ve learned several important things about remote work in the past year.
1. Employees are productive when working at home
Pre-pandemic, many companies did not allow employees to work remotely because they feared a lack of control meant efficiency would take a nosedive. Yet a survey by the HR and workplace benefits consulting firm Mercer found that 94% of employers called their employees just as productive when working remotely—or even more so—compared to before.
The University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics surveyed 10,000 employees and found they, too, reported being just as productive working from home. Thirty percent, in fact, said they were more productive.
2. Remote working helped companies weather the storm
Nearly three-quarters of small businesses in knowledge-based industries, for instance, transitioned all or most of their employees to work from home, and this helped them stay open. Because many employees had children and other responsibilities at home, many companies also allowed flexibility, such as around actual hours worked each day.
3. Businesses can adapt to crises at lightning speeds
The pandemic forced organizations to accelerate their digital transformations at a pace never anticipated. “In March, we all boarded a coronavirus time machine to the future,” Jeff Schwartz told Fast Company. He’s a founding partner of Deloitte Consulting’s Future of Work practice and author of Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience, and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work.
Kate Smaje, a senior partner and global co-leader of McKinsey Digital, agreed. “Business leaders are saying that they’ve accomplished in 10 days what used to take them 10 months,” she said.
As we begin to see an eventual end to the pandemic, we know a “return to normal” doesn’t mean returning to how businesses operated in 2019. Employees have gotten used to working remotely and organizations know it works. A PwC US Remote Work Study found that most U.S. companies are planning to offer their employees a hybrid work model that combines remote and in-office work.
Businesses will need to be agile in order to survive a switch to a hybrid way of operating.
What is business agility?
Agility describes a set of values that define a company. Those generally focus on considering individuals and interactions as more important than processes and tools, concentrating on customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change more than following a written plan.
Aaron De Smet of McKinsey defines agility as “the ability of an organization to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment.” It’s about redesigning your organizational structure, changing your operating models, creating new capabilities, and altering the way your business works.
Agility depends on a company being flexible. McKinsey describes an agile company as one that’s not a “machine,” with a top-down hierarchy, bureaucracies, and silos, but one that can instead be described as a “living organism.” It defines an agile company as one with flexible resources and the ability to make quick changes. It’s a company with leadership that shows direction and enables action, and builds its teams around accountability.
Being agile allows a business to adapt, respond quickly to changes, and find and eliminate errors and problems. Additional benefits are that agile companies can easily pivot, adapt to sudden market changes or crises, and weather other disrupting factors that crop up.
Harvard Business Review says agility is “the digital age’s competitive advantage.” Agile practices affect most aspects of a company. They allow increased collaboration and learning, let a company concentrate on customers’ needs, provide quick responses, and lead to a shorter time to market.
The need for agility is greater than ever
While many businesses survived the shock and change of the pandemic year, not every organization did as well as others.
A strong marker of success? Companies that already had at least two agile practices in place were 40% more likely than non-agile companies to report their remote teams increased their productivity. These practices include daily “stand-up” sessions, weekly team meetings, and demo days when employees shared results.
Agile businesses already had the right processes in play. Their teams were ready for the rapid switch to remote working that COVID-19 brought, and they were able to pivot quickly. They already had good practices in place around processes such as collaboration, even when employees were in co-locations, as well as autonomy and quick decision-making.
What happens when the pandemic winds down and it’s safe to return to the office? This unexpected year-long work-from-home experiment has shown us that remote collaboration can work, and many employees want to continue working from home at least part of the week. We have seen that many employers agree, and offer extended or permanent remote working opportunities.
Enter the hybrid workplace
It’s clear that working conditions have been forever changed by lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and that we are heading toward many organizations operating under a hybrid work model. Businesses will need to be flexible as they create their long-term hybrid business models and support new ways of working.
They’ll need to make sure they have the right technology in place so employees can collaborate comfortably, quickly, and efficiently with their fellow team members, no matter where they work. Leaders will need to redefine how they manage others who are not located where they are. Businesses will have to reassess how their teams operate and determine how to give them the autonomy they need to get the work done in a remote environment.
One way to ensure a switch to excellent, efficient collaboration no matter where your employees work is to bring on an enterprise-level unified communications platform. That ensures that your employees will have consistent voice, team messaging, and video conferencing functions, which will keep your company productive and efficient.
Originally published Mar 11, 2021, updated Jan 18, 2023