Workplaces across the U.S. have undergone a total restructuring at a scale and speed that has never occurred in history. Offices have emptied, and a vast number of organizations have become remote operations. The rapid change has left many employers scrambling to assemble the technical infrastructure to enable remote working.
While technology has expanded the possibilities for remote collaboration, human factors play a more significant role in the success or failure of an organization’s remote work experience.
In the pre-COVID-19 era, the U.S. was experiencing significant growth in telecommuters and remote workers. Still, full-time remote work was practiced by a relatively small portion of U.S. employees. In many organizations, remote work was typically limited to certain functions and often informally implemented. Pure remote enterprises remained a largely peripheral model of business organization.
Aligning Management Values
While technological advancements have expanded possibilities for remote collaboration, in the pre-COVID-19 era, human factors more than technical infrastructure play a more significant role in the decision to adopt remote work and, if adopted, its effective utilization. These factors relate to the cultural and social dimensions of organizational life, such as values and implicit assumptions about human behavior that influence management. At a higher level, values and assumptions organize into mental models that define the circumstances and conditions of how work gets done.
In this rapid shift, few organizations have had the time to reflect on whether their approach to remote work operations actually fit the conditions. However, when remote work is adopted without adjusting mental models and management practices, it can inadvertently constrict organizing possibilities or lead to actions that are unsuitable for remote work conditions.
Indeed, misalignments between traditional management approaches and remote work arrangements are well documented. Studies have found extreme polarities in how managers deal with remote workers: from the abdication of managerial oversight to excessive control in an environment where only output can be fully assessed.
One source of the misalignment is the failure to adjust management values and approaches to the conditions of remote work.
Management practices rooted in distrust of employees are what Douglas McGregor, in The Human Side of Enterprise, called Theory X. This assumption that people need to be monitored and controlled is the opposite of what he called Theory Y, the assumption that work is as natural as play, and that a participatory and empowering work environment help employees to perform well and achieve organizational objectives.
McGregor famously said that if you “tune your ears” in a management meeting, you will quickly hear which assumption is being made, and you can then predict everything that follows.
Similarly, if you tune your ears to how organizations have responded to remote work implementation in recent weeks, you can see which assumption is at work. A Theory X approach can compel managers to intensify monitoring to ensure that remote employees do not deviate from traditional workday expectations. Indeed, the global shift to home-based work has brought to light stories of excessive employee monitoring and surveillance practices ranging from keystroke and inactivity trackers to always-on web cameras.
While these modes of monitoring might appeal to organizations inexperienced or uncomfortable with remote work, it can backfire by increasing employee dissatisfaction, burnout and turnover. Moreover, these practices can actually lead organizations to forfeit opportunities to leverage the affordances of remote work for better productivity. For example, disconnecting worktime from a place of work allows employees to sequence work and domestic responsibilities in ways that make sense for their lives. This advantage is significant as many parents are presently juggling working from home and childcare.
Clash of Mental Models
Adapting to remote work also requires organizations to accept a different mental model of how workplaces operate. In the pre-COVID-19 era, many remote workers functioned in the shadows of the predominant workplace paradigm that held co-location as the singular condition for social cohesion and labor optimization. When remote work is viewed as inherently inefficient, inferior, and sub-optimal, organizations can be myopic about the operational requirements of remote working and blind to new strategic possibilities of organizing in the remote environment.
These blind spots can be glaringly obvious when considering some of the more taken-for-granted aspects of organizational life.
Consider the role of informal interactions in the workplace. It is what management theorist Chester Barnard termed the “informal organization” or interpersonal relationships between individuals without “joint purpose.” Informal interactions operate like an invisible hand, sustaining the formal organizational system by laying the social groundwork for individuals to collaborate.
While co-location provides natural conditions for social connections, in the virtual office, the environment and mechanisms to foster informal exchange must be thoughtfully constructed. Indeed, pure remote organizations have long recognized the importance of establishing opportunities for “spontaneous” encounters. Despite the critical importance of informal interactions, skepticism towards non-conventional work arrangements can prevent organizations from approaching implementation in a comprehensive way. Even when management practices lean heavily in the direction of Theory Y, the absence of the informal organizational system within a remote work environment can contribute to social isolation and leadership deficits.
Absent formal organizational sanction or support, employees will create mechanisms for social interactions. However, organizational support can help these ecosystems thrive through investment in technological infrastructures and in processes that encourage learning and relationship-building remotely. When organizations are receptive to the idea that social aspects of office life can be successfully reproduced in the virtual world, they will have a much more holistic perspective of how to reconstruct the organizational system in the virtual world.
In short, organizations must recognize that shifting to remote work requires far greater consideration into its implementation than simply shifting employees’ location. However, designing for the remote office will require organizations to critically re-examine their traditional workplace regimes and the values and assumptions that have carried over into their remote work operation.