Flexible and Remote Work One Year Later—Surprises and Next Steps

On February 28th, one year ago, HBR published my commentary, “What’s Your Company’s Emergency Remote Work Plan.”  On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. In less than two weeks, we went from contingency planning to shutdown.

This milestone caused me to reflect not only on COVID-19’s catastrophic human and economic toll but also on how fundamentally the pandemic disrupted and will continue to transform the way we work and live. While it will take a long time to process this experience, here are three things that surprised me, and three steps organizations and leaders need to start to take next.

The Surprises

When I predicted the following last February, I never imagined just two weeks later this dramatic shift in work would actually happen: “The global spread of the virus may be a moment that reveals whether employers are ready to respond rapidly to unexpected workplace changes. Business travel could decrease or come to a full stop. More employees may need to work outside of local “business hours” and use video conferencing to operate across time zones. And, if it gets bad enough, many could indeed be asked, or request, to work remotely.”

I thought employers would have more time to prepare, but they didn’t. This brings me to the second surprise. Even though most were completely unprepared, people and organizations radically and rapidly pivoted the way they worked. Honestly, when I outlined the five steps to develop an emergency remote work plan in the HBR post, I wondered if the advice was too basic. This has to be commonsense most organizations already know.

Oh, how wrong I was. In fact, the response to that post was so overwhelmingly, “Wow, we hadn’t thought about that,” or “Thank you for giving us an idea of how to proceed.” I was worried and even prayed, “Please give people time to get ready, or we are in trouble.”

And yet, when the full force of COVID hit, the same people and organizations that had little time to even grasp the flexible and remote work basics made the dramatic shift required to stay safe and continue to operate, practically overnight. It was messy, stressful, and chaotic, but most of all, it was remarkable. We’re still in the middle of the crisis right now. So much so, we haven’t had the opportunity to step back and marvel yet. At some point, we will.

This brings me to the third thing that still surprises me. After all of that, some leaders think we will ultimately “go back” to the way we worked pre-pandemic. In the HBR post, the fifth step I outlined as part of an emergency remote work plan was, “Identify ways to measure performance that could inform broader change” because, “The data will prepare you in advance to answer the inevitable question once the crisis has passed, ‘Why don’t we do this all the time?’”

When I wrote that, I assumed, at most, people would have to work more flexibly for a few weeks, not for more than a year! I know one thing for certain–the pandemic permanently transformed how, when, and where we work. There is no going back.

What’s Next?

So, what’s next? Last week, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) published the results of a national study they conducted in an excellent article, “Half of Workers Wish to Remain Remote Permanently.” I shared the following regarding the SHRM research and what I thought organizations need to do next to prepare for a post-pandemic flexible business model:

  • The research confirms that the post-COVID workplace will be a hybrid onsite/remote work model; however, there’s a meaningful divide between what HR leaders say they expect the mix of full-time onsite, partially onsite, and full-time remote will be and what employees say they want. Closing that gap, aligning expectations, and then executing a new flexible way of operating will be the next-stage challenge for organizations.
  • As organizations move from the announcement of going hybrid to the execution of the exact mix of remote and in the office, it’s going to require a whole new way of operating supported by a framework of planning, coordination, and execution skills that need to be part of the implementation.
  • “Otherwise, it’s like giving people the keys to a new car without showing them how to drive it.” That is the mistake I see too many organizations making right now, and it’s one many made pre-COVID.

One year later, what’s surprised you about how we had to work and manage our lives? What are your next steps? These are questions we are just beginning to ask, answer and absorb. I’d love to hear what you are thinking.