It seems like every day I read about the employees who are refusing to leave their homes. They so love being with their families and missing the commute that they won’t give up those advantages.
The media is obsessed with that phenomenon. And clearly, it is a trend worth noting.
Fantasy vs. reality
On the surface, working from home is a godsend. No commute, no business attire and a fully stocked fridge. How much better could it get? Seriously, for the most part there is total autonomy, the ability to fit in chores, no dress code (except maybe from the waist up), and no need for a dog walker.
For people with families, working from home can have enormous benefits. All the above are true, plus being home with the kids.
But the people enjoying those benefits are often older employees. They have been working long enough to have had experience in office. They have work friendships and have already met a mate, settled down and raised a family.
Yet even then, some of those employees find the isolation, monotony, and lack of immediate access to colleagues IRL to be a drag.
But, for the youngest or newest employees the stakes are different. And for most of them, after several months of working from home it is no longer the paradise it once seemed to be.
It is monotonous and lonely for sure. I hear that a lot. They miss their colleagues and the background activity of the office. They aren’t included in friendly happy hours and can’t stumble upon casual friendships over the Keurig.
Who’s My Boss?
Plus, a surprisingly large cohort of employees were hired shortly before the pandemic began. High-growth start-ups — because they are scaling so fast — are constantly hiring. The pandemic had little effect on that.
Pre-pandemic, tech companies regularly hired engineers from all over the globe. But engineers are a special class of employees. They often work alone and even in an office tend to choose solitude. Most importantly, their specific skills may be locally rare.
Now Everyone Can Work From Home!
But the pandemic changed the perception of non-engineering remote employees. It convinced lots of organizations that geography was irrelevant for all roles. So, the gates flung open for all kinds of work-from-home employees.
As a result of that experiment’s success, organizations are in no rush to drag everyone back. They’ve been encouraged by the productivity they saw in the midst of the crisis. Pre-pandemic, bosses thought their teams would slack off from home. The opposite is true. Employees worked harder and longer hours than before.
So, hybrid offices have gained traction. Remote work is often an option, and employees may live far away from HQ.
More Possible Hirees
HR departments are gleeful for the massive increase in prospective candidates. And finance folks are rubbing their hands as they calculate the savings on office space.
But the new hires can be young and may not have worked in a role more senior than an internship. Now, they have accepted offers of remote jobs, even though they have barely ever worked at all –let alone at home.
Many of those recent hires not only miss working with a team – they may never have met their colleagues in person. That includes their boss. From the start they have been remote, and there are no plans to change that.
Where Are My Work Friends?
If you are a young employee in a new company, that is disconcerting. It’s also not clear how much is lost in this changing landscape. But over the last 10 years we have discerned a lot about what works to generate employee productivity and retention. Those qualities include team cohesion, psychological safety, challenges, an experience of learning and growing –and connections to other team members. Can we reproduce all of that via Google Meets and Slack?
For non-engineers — whether marketing, strategy, sales operations, product management or others– being away from the “action” is difficult. It’s hard to collaborate the same way when a planned Zoom call is needed. Remote employees rarely get pulled into impromptu conversations about projects– or unexpected ideation. When you are remote, you are regularly “learning” about something that happened in the office after the fact. Something that happened in the office while you were alone at home.
Virtual Happy Hours Aren’t So Happy
Every now and then the company will host a virtual happy hour or strategy or update meeting. But these formally staged events do not substitute for being in the office. For young, remote employees, the last time they were part of an organization might have been in graduate school or as an intern.
During those experiences they had circles of friends, study groups or mentors teaching them the ropes. Now, in their exciting new jobs, they have none of that.
There is no casual eavesdropping. There are no unexpected social outings. They won’t end up dating the guy from down the hall, or meeting colleagues they don’t know on the elevator.
Along with that, they learn very little about teams outside their own direct work. Those diagonal relationships across the organization are important. They help in retention by illuminating future opportunities.
I am not alone in identifying the challenges of working together from a distance. I’ve heard from lots of my clients –both leadership and team-members about what is lost. Many of those conversations –especially with People Leaders – have been about how to overcome those challenges. Is there a way to both have remote employees and ensure that they are included? No one has had a good answer.
Never Quite Part of the Action
Even with the best of intentions, it’s a struggle to bring the at-home folks into the fold. Sure, they are included in scheduled meetings and off-sites. But how can you replicate the random collisions that build an organization’s social fabric?
None of this even addresses the personal cost for young employees: loneliness, sadness, lack of friends.
Bring Them In
Of all the possible remedies I’ve heard the most promising is the simplest. It’s also the most expensive. Having remote employees work in the office part time would obviate the problems. Even if it were one week a month or a quarter.
This is pretty feasible for those who are driving or train-distance away. But once airfare is involved it is financially daunting. And let’s not even consider internationally located employees! Maybe some of the real estate savings from fewer square feet of office space could be diverted. Instead, use it to keep all employees in the fold?
Hypothetically, it might ultimately pay off in the balance sheet.
There is no simple answer. Yes, virtual teams look like a panacea for employers and employees alike. But problems are lurking, whether obviously or not. They will affect employee retention, leadership development, strategic alignment, and team cohesion.
It’s easy to ignore insidious and creeping issues. They aren’t in your face every day. It’s unusual for an employee to distinguish what they’re missing; especially if they never had it. But the lost chance for all of all the in-person growth cannot but affect them. The impact will grow bigger. It will also be too hard to correct after too much time. Best to begin brainstorming solutions today.