Before the 2020 pandemic, 20% of workers who said their work could be done remotely had the opportunity to do so. According to Pew Research, by the end of 2020, 71% of those workers were working from home.

Some companies were more prepared than others for going remote, but to be sure, no one was fully prepared for the mass requirement to close office doors and halt travel and in-person meetings.

The result was a global test on the status of digital transformation and of the human psyche.

One has fared rather well. Collaboration/communication tools like Zoom and Slack have seen incredible adoption and proved their indispensability.

The challenges to remote work are mostly human 

The challenges to remote work have mostly revolved around human adaptation.

Many who were new to remote work have struggled with video conferencing, distractions at home, unplugging at the end of the day, and staying motivated. Remember that 50% of current remote workers never or rarely worked from home prior to the pandemic.

According to Harvard Business Review, a crisis of trust is also brewing. Less face-to-face time, not being able to view a co-worker prepare for a meeting or work on a project is creating a scenario where trust is at risk, even when managers are satisfied with the results.

Also at risk is greater marginalisation of people or groups that already struggled with inclusion and having equal opportunities in a traditional office setting. According to Evelyn Carter, Director at Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm, “Distance is reinforcing people’s tendency to favor people who are similar to them.”

And many workers are struggling with loneliness and isolation. Buffer’s annual report on remote work cites loneliness consistently being in the top three challenges each year they’ve done the survey – even before the pandemic.

Yet 68% of workers currently employed value the option to work from home, according to Fast Company, and they are willing to change not just employers but even careers for continued flexibility in their lives.

With 83% of employers reporting that remote work has been a success, plus executives and employees converging around a post-pandemic future that includes greater flexibility, according to a PWC study, it seems remote work isn’t going away.

Keys to making remote work really work 

The future of work will be more flexible than what we had pre-pandemic.

But how do we overcome the challenges? What does leadership look like going forward, in a world where some or all employees are remote full-time or even just a couple of days a week?

  • Rethink company policies and management practices. Harvard Business Review recommends leaders reject simply going back to the-way-things-were and take advantage of what has been learned in the past year. Consider whether the best approach for your business and employees may be offering the option to choose where workers work or perhaps allow the flexibility of working remotely at least a couple of days each week.

Junior and new employees would likely benefit from being in the office and having a good bit of face-to-face time, but it could be advantageous to cut back on real estate expenses when it comes to more seasoned employees.

Looking to the future, leaders should carefully consider the skills they prioritise when recruiting to assure success in a flexible work culture.

  • Equip your workers and managers with the right tools and skills. Setting your team up for success means making sure managers are trained to manage remote staff. All employees should be provided with the technology and skills training they need to succeed in a world where even if they are not working remotely, their coworkers, customers, and vendors may be.

HBR recommends including the following skills in future training: “…establishing working norms, building trust, effective virtual communication patterns, and incorporating social elements into virtual work relationships.”

  • Promote trust and inclusion throughout the organisation. Managers need to promote trust among their teams and assure that assignments and opportunities are being equally distributed or offered. This may require flexibility, especially with workers who may be dealing with issues outside work, like children, elderly parents, or struggling communities.

HBR recommends leaders help employees understand what they can count on by communicating what isn’t changing to reduce uncertainty and create a needed sense of stability.

Leaders also need to have greater sensitivity and empathy for those who may be having greater struggles than others because of how their communities have been impacted by the pandemic.

  • Provide clear expectations and guidelines. “Providing guidelines, setting boundaries, and reviewing the basics are among the most important steps to take when setting out on your project,” says Scott Bales, vice president of delivery and solution engineering at Replicon, a time management system provider based in the San Francisco Bay area.

It is essential to be clear about ground rules when launching a formal company strategy for remote or flexible working.

Expectations should be not only communicated, but also modeled. Leadership needs to lead by example when it comes to things like respect for personal time and trust in how work is getting done. The focus should be on meeting deadlines, not micro-managing.

If you can’t trust your employees, you’ve hired the wrong people.

As some areas of the work succeed in vaccinating their populations and moving toward full re-opening, developing your organisation’s workplace strategy will be an important step. If you anticipate it including a work-from-home component, consider the new benefits and challenges permanent remote work will present your organisation. We’ve learned a lot about remote work over the last year, and applying those lessons to minimise its disadvantages will ensure the organisation keeps its culture tight, people happy and performance high in the post-Covid era.