The Future of Remote Work: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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Before the global pandemic in 2020, remote work wasn’t the norm for most people.

In what felt like an instant, many North American (and global) populations shifted to remote work.

Those ‘two weeks to flatten the curve’ turned out to be ~ two years, and because of this, some workplaces made semi-permanent and permanent transitions to remote work.

Approximately 14% of Canadians currently work from home [in 2023].

This number was closer to 40% during the pandemic, and understandably so. Of course, these numbers vary by industry and education level.

While the number has decreased significantly, millions of Canadians continue to work from home.  Many studies and sources report that remote work is here to stay…at least some of the time.

For those who spent years eager to achieve a better work/life balance and dreaded their daily commutes, remote work may have once felt like an unattainable luxury. For these people, normalizing remote and hybrid work probably feels like a dream come true!

But, for others, navigating the hasty pivot away from an in-office workspace to remote work was tough and isolating.

Some people thrive socially and professionally in their office setting. Many feel distracted at home and struggle to feel motivated while working from the couch in their track pants.

…And certain employers had issues transitioning to and from remote work, too.

Just as there were business owners who were equipped with the tools and knowledge to create a thriving remote work environment, there were leaders who could not adapt and lost key players on their teams when they lost control of their teams in remote settings, or perhaps when they issued a return-to-office mandate.

So, no matter where you stand – whether you’re currently operating your business remotely or debating what your next move should be regarding a ‘return to office mandate’ –  it’s essential to understand the implications of your decision!

While Castle HR operates remotely, we believe that the good, the bad, and even the ‘ugly’ side of remote work should be discussed. There is no such thing as a flawless workplace, but knowing what challenges you might face can help you make the best of your workplace environment.

What is Remote Work?

Remote work involves employees performing tasks from a location outside the traditional office, fueled by digital connectivity.

Its evolution accelerated due to technological advancements and changing work dynamics. The normalization of remote work was also accelerated due to the recent global pandemic.

As noted above, remote work has existed for many years. Still, before 2020, it was more commonly associated with smaller businesses, upper management roles, or other very niche ones, as a tiny percentage of the population worked remotely in the 2010s (4% in 2016).

How Have Remote Work Trends Transformed the Global Workforce?

Remote work has transcended; it went from being a trend to reshaping how work is conducted worldwide.

It’s no longer a perk but a fundamental way of operating, offering flexibility and broadening talent pools for many organizations!

Let’s break it down:

The Good: Positive Impact on Productivity and DEI

Remote work often enhances productivity by minimizing commuting and providing a customizable work environment.

The ability to better balance tasks unrelated to work, such as childcare, chores, errands and appointments whilst working from home can drastically reduce stress levels and improve the quality of life for some people.

In turn, this means people will be happier and allows them to designate time to focus on completing their tasks efficiently.

Remote work has also done wonders for DEI initiatives. It has opened doors for people who may not have had as many opportunities to be employed in in-office settings.

Remote work is a catalyst for creating more inclusive workplace environments.

Currently, there are more disabled employees in the workforce than ever before [in the United States], and workplaces are becoming more diverse and inclusive by providing remote options.

Employees with mobility issues, sensory issues, and even chronic illnesses or pain can be a part of a remote team and set up their workspace to fit their needs.

Collaboration is critical to success, and a broader talent pool is something employers only dreamed about a decade ago. Those who were once limited to hiring people who lived ~50km from head office have shifted to remote work and may find that being able to hire people from anywhere in their country (or the world) brings them more A-Players.

Combining different experiences, education levels, backgrounds, and abilities can help build successful teams!

The Bad: Blurred Lines and Numerous Challenges

Remote workers grapple with isolation, blurred work-life boundaries, unclear professional boundaries, and potential distractions.

Collaborative challenges, like communication gaps and misalignment, can also arise due to physical separation. These can be mitigated, but some leaders struggle with leading remote teams and keeping everyone aligned.

The consequences of these challenges are vast.

The Ugly: Unforeseen Consequences of the Remote Work Surge

While remote work offers numerous benefits, its rapid adoption also unveils new issues like Zoom fatigue, potential information security risks, and disparities in access to remote work resources.

For instance, specific roles may involve sensitive or private information, which can easily be leaked or revealed to external parties when employees work at home.

It’s also no secret that many people’s children appeared on Zoom calls during the pandemic and may continue to distract their parents while working at home. Along with this, issues surrounding professionalism and ‘Zoom etiquette’ have prevailed since the surge of remote work.

One potentially ‘ugly’ side of remote work is that you, as a leader, cannot control each employee’s working environment nor dictate who is in their immediate surroundings daily. But you can have conversations about this and prepare!

The Solution: Be Prepared

Ample preparation is required when starting a remote company or transitioning from in-office to remote or hybrid.

Remote work requires different leadership tactics than in-office work did decades ago.

Setting up a remote work environment that fosters an inclusive and communicative culture can be done with adequate planning and with expectations set out in your Employee Handbook. You can also outline privacy policies, NDAs, and all other vital policies here. Always consult with an HR Professional or Lawyer when creating your handbook!

Additionally, conducting quarterly, modern performance reviews is an excellent way of having a two-way conversation with each team member throughout the year. When you connect, you’ll discuss their progress in their roles, goals, culture and value alignment, and overall wellness. This allows your employees to ask for help if needed and for you to address specific issues before they escalate.

Firm policies, and regular conversations (even outside of your performance reviews) can help mitigate and minimize security risks, along with disengagement and other disparities.

What Technological Advancements Have Revolutionized Remote Work?

Imagine trying to work from home in 1990…how would you fare?

How about in 2000? 2010?

While it may not have been impossible (depending on what you do for a living), remote work has become more practical thanks to numerous technological advancements in recent years.

Advanced collaboration tools, cloud computing, and high-speed internet have revolutionized remote work.

These technologies enable real-time communication, seamless file sharing, and virtual collaboration.

Tools like video conferencing, instant messaging, and project management platforms bridge the physical gap, allowing teams to communicate effectively, share updates, and collaborate without ever leaving their homes.

But, as with anything, there are pros and cons associated with these advancements:

The Good: Leveraging Digital Communication, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality for Remote Collaboration

Virtual and augmented reality transform remote collaboration by simulating in-person interactions. This technology enhances training, online meetings, product design, and immersive meetings.

Digital communication – via Teams, Slack, Discord, or even Zoom – means that teams can engage in conversation and maintain a balance of socialization and professional conversations with their colleagues and leaders.

Along with this, documents and presentations can be shared, edited and discussed digitally within seconds.

This allows for instantaneous feedback and potentially more efficient operations.

The Bad: Overreliance on Technology and Its Impact on Human Interaction

While technology facilitates remote work, an overreliance on digital tools can lead to reduced human interaction and less spontaneous creative exchanges, potentially affecting innovation and relationships.

The Ugly: Potential Downsides of AI in Remote Work Environments

While AI streamlines processes and other forms of technology can improve efficiency and automation, it’s essential to understand that this can raise ethical concerns, such as job displacement and biased decision-making.

Striking the right balance between automation and human involvement is crucial.

The Solution: Communicate Your Expectations and Encourage Interaction

Setting expectations from day 1 is key is ensuring your team is aligned and using all technology and digital tools responsibly and to their benefit.

These things can be outlined formally in your Employee Handbook and during onboarding, but you can also actively set examples for your team on a daily basis.

At Castle HR, we encourage employees to interact with one another about work-related and non-work-related topics. For instance, we share photos of pets, outings, and other exciting events in our lives, on Slack –  it might not be exactly like ‘water cooler talk,’ but, spontaneous exchanges and authenticity can still exist in a remote environment – and we value this as an organization.

We also clearly state that our team members must always respect one another’s space and time. We have clear privacy policies, too.

This is important and should be emphasized in all workplaces, especially in remote settings where boundaries are blurred.

Just because a Google Doc can be shared and edited within mere seconds doesn’t mean that the person on the receiving end should drop their tasks to tend to it.

Finally, if your team is encouraged to utilize resources and tools that can help with automation, ensure they know how to do so responsibly.

You may wish to have a policy (and conversations) regarding technology and AI usage at your company and clearly outline what is and is not acceptable or how each tool should be used.

How Has the Notion of Work-Life Balance Changed in Remote Work?

Remote work has blurred the boundaries between work and personal life, demanding new strategies to maintain balance.

Depending on the individual and their level of discipline, this may or may not be a problem.

Flexibility and self-discipline are essential to prevent burnout; some employees will fail to thrive in a remote environment without it. Let’s go a bit deeper…

The Good: Flexibility and Improved Work-Life Integration in Remote Work

As mentioned earlier, remote work offers the flexibility to align work with personal responsibilities, potentially reducing stress and enhancing overall well-being by eliminating lengthy commutes and tight schedules.

Some remote workers enjoy working from bed, wearing their pyjamas all day, or (if their employer allows it) opting to work at an atypical time. For instance, they may find they are more productive than they were in the office if they’re allowed to work between 2 pm and 10 pm.

On the other hand, some people may be early risers who take advantage of their mornings that are no longer spent sitting in traffic. Remote workers can walk their dogs, enjoy quiet time, take their kids to school, or exercise before clocking in.  Some may stick to a strict work schedule, have a home office that they use daily, and dress professionally.

Remote workers typically enjoy a lower-stress, flexible work environment where they can simultaneously be productive in their professional and personal lives and have the freedom to create a workspace that works for them.

The Bad: Difficulty in Disconnecting from Work in a Remote Environment

Some remote workers find it challenging to disconnect from work due to the absence of physical separation.

This constant connection can lead to overworking and hinder relaxation.

For instance, people may feel pressured to reply to emails or other messages on weekends. They may work well into the evening and put in more work hours than they once did at the office.

The Ugly: Addressing Mental Health and Burnout Challenges

The result of overworking and not setting boundaries?: Poor mental health.

Remote work can exacerbate mental health challenges, including feelings of isolation and burnout…but it can be hard to notice as a leader if you don’t see people on a daily basis.

It can be equally difficult for the person suffering to recognize, too.

Employers must prioritize mental well-being through support mechanisms and resources. Which, brings us to the solution…

The Solution: Talk to Your Team!

There’s no surefire way to mitigate these issues, but there’s also no point in dancing around conversations about burnout and mental health.

It’s best to tackle them head-on and privately address any signs of poor performance or worrisome behaviour with your employees.

At the same time, your employees do operate with a fair amount of autonomy at home (compared to when they are in the office), so while you cannot force changes on them, you can suggest that they:

  • Consider setting up designated workspaces
  • Prioritize setting clear schedules
  • Embrace time management techniques
  • Set clear boundaries between work and leisure

This is also where *drum roll* quarterly, modern performance reviews can be a lifesaver!

Normalizing discussions around wellness, encouraging our team to take time off, and asking one another for help and support when needed is a big part of who we are at Castle HR – we also provide our team with access to InkBlot Therapy.

Modern performance reviews allow you to discuss performance and any issues with your A-Players before they have the chance to escalate.

Finally, conducting team surveys can provide an avenue for anonymous feedback, and you can assess this to get a sense of how your team feels about remote work and other aspects of your organization!

How Does Leadership Differ in a Remote Work Context?

Some leaders thrive in remote settings…but it’s no surprise that others struggled (or continue to struggle).

Remote leadership requires a shift from traditional micromanagement to result-oriented approaches emphasizing trust, clear communication, and outcome-driven management.

Simply put, many old-school management techniques disappeared when remote work became the norm for many organizations in 2020.

This isn’t a bad thing, but in some cases, this either a) resulted in much of today’s workforce realizing they preferred remote work – and arguing return-to-office mandates, or b) specific teams falling to shambles due to the lack of leadership and direction.

Along with this, some leaders have trouble adapting to managing a team virtually and may have had issues slip through the cracks.

That’s why regular check-ins, transparent communication, and fostering a culture of open dialogue are essential to lead remote teams effectively and build trust. Understanding how to respect autonomy and boundaries is also essential.

Let’s get into it a bit further…

The Good: Enhanced Autonomy and Trust Building in Remote Leadership

Remote leadership empowers employees by granting autonomy and focusing on outcomes rather than processes. For instance, apart from attending scheduled meetings or calls, some employers only have specific deliverables in mind.

So long as their employees meet those expectations and complete their work on time, these employers might not care if their employees are seated at a desk from 9 until 5 every day.

This autonomy can foster a sense of ownership and professional growth.

At Castle HR, we call this, ‘adulting.’

The Bad: Challenges of Miscommunication and Lack of Face-to-Face Interaction

Remote work amplifies the risk of miscommunication due to the absence of non-verbal cues.

Ensuring concise and unambiguous communication is vital to prevent misunderstandings.

Additionally, some leaders may have tried/try to micromanage their remote teams. In the early days of the pandemic, Zoom fatigue became a trendy term for a reason.

Some leaders may have (wrongly) assumed that because their teams were spared a few hours of commute time, they could attend meeting after meeting each day.

Although in the comfort of their homes, people inevitably grow tired – and even burnt out – after attending 6 hours of Zoom calls back-to-back. This can lead to poor performance, low productivity and low morale.

This may be nothing more than an unpopular opinion to some, but being on camera can be draining, and many Zoom meetings could likely be summed up in briefly in an email.

This can help keep your team engaged, on track, (and sane) when working remotely.

The Ugly: Overcoming Remote Team Fragmentation and Disengagement

At this point, it is clear that remote teams may struggle with disconnection and disengagement.

Remote work can lead to feelings of isolation and a lack of camaraderie. Interpersonal bonds sometimes (unfortunately) fail to exist in some remote work environments.

The Solution: Work WITH Your Team And Adapt

Transitioning to remote work can be difficult for anyone, especially for leaders with decades of experience managing in-office teams.It’s only natural that a sense of disconnect and unknown comes with one’s initial remote work leadership experience. But resisting change won’t get you anywhere.

Shifting from a traditional ‘9-5’ mindset and micromanagement leadership style is key.

Try to adopt a more inclusive, flexible style that encourages autonomy. Asking for support and assistance from a trusted HR Professional or advisor can help with this transition.

Along with this, being transparent with your team is always beneficial. As a leader, you can set a great example, and part of that is exhibiting the same behaviours and values you hope to see from each person on your team.

Team-building initiatives, virtual social events (or even the odd in-person one if most of your team resides in the same area), and recognition programs are crucial to foster a sense of belonging.

Having fun and appreciating your team and their efforts is essential, even if you never meet them in person.

Finally, rethink strict RTO mandates.

Are Return-to-Office Mandates Necessary?

…depending on your feelings about remote work, this answer may surprise you!

Issuing strict mandates without warning- such as a return-to-office one with minimal notice- can aggravate your team and lead to a spike in turnover.

But, that doesn’t mean you should avoid returning to the office altogether if it’s what you feel would benefit your team and business the most.

Unispace reported that of the 72% of surveyed businesses who issued RTO mandates, nearly half struggled with higher-than-expected attrition. [This was a global survey of 16,000 people].

So, what’s the solution?

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ strategy to return to the office that prevents pushback or turnover; however, hybrid teams experience the best of both worlds.

Offering a hybrid work model as a solution to a team working from home for months or years is a great middle-ground for you and your employees.

So, mandates may not be necessary, nor the best course of action if you hope to retain people, but you can still ease your team back into the office if needed.

Have conversations with your team, provide adequate notice, be flexible, be transparent, and make time to hear their concerns (if any).

Along with this, if you’re making your decision based on data – such as a decrease in productivity and profit during the time you operated remotely – share your reasoning with them.

Remember, being a flexible employer can help attract and retain top talent; if you need to return to the office, consider offering your team something to entice them to return…and make those lengthy commutes worthwhile.

(No, not just free donuts or lunch…but perhaps the ability to work from home 2 days a week or take flex days).

Hybrid structures are appealing because they provide teams with flexibility and autonomy while still requiring in-office interactions.

…an excuse to wear pants and shower before noon is something many might not realize they miss!

What Does The Future of Remote Work Look Like?

Is remote work the ‘new norm’?

It depends on who you ask. Statistically, only small portions of the population (14% of Canadians) currently work from home.

For obvious reasons, this peaked at record highs during 2020-2021, with ~40% of the population working from their couch.

But, just as remote work felt like a dream come true for some employees (and an easy switch for prepared employers), many struggled with remote work and continue to struggle.

While remote work offers flexibility, a better work-life balance, and a sense of autonomy, it brings severe imbalance and chaos to others who thrived (or had their company thriving) in-office.

That’s why the hybrid model has gained so much traction from 2022-2023. It combines in-office and remote work, offering flexibility while fostering collaboration. It addresses diverse employee needs and balances remote benefits with in-person interactions.

In the Remote Work and Compensation Pulse survey, 48% of employees preferred working remotely, and 44% preferred a hybrid option. As for employers,…half responded in favour of hybrid, while only 5% felt remote work was feasible.

A different study by Buffer revealed similar results: 98% of people wanted to work remotely at least some of the time.

So, it’s clear that while remote work has declined in the years following its peak, hybrid workplaces are on the rise and are preferred by the masses…employers included.

Today’s workforce and modern employers have had time to adapt to remote work. While in-person interactions are still beneficial, it’s evident that remote/hybrid work has not hindered productivity and profits. It’s led to happier, less stressed leaders and teams more likely to experience a better work-life balance.

…less stressed, happier people will be more productive and bring good energy to your workplace.

How HR Foundations Can Impact Remote and Hybrid Work

Solid HR foundations and strategies based on proven processes can go a long way no matter what your business is, or how you operate.

Fostering a culture, demonstrating your values, hiring the right people, investing in their growth, and understanding retention strategies can be hard to balance in a remote setting without the tools or support to do so.

HR foundations can help with all of this, and it’s what we do best here at Castle HR.

We put a senior HR expert in your corner on a Fractional basis to help you establish and implement these foundations and cultivate a thriving workplace – whether your team is remote, hybrid or in-office.

…your success is our success!

We often work with businesses that are growing but not yet ready to make an internal HR hire and want processes established by experts who have been in their shoes.

This means we’ll take a look at your current HR landscape and, from there, help you harness the power of your HR strategies to help you foster a winning culture (this is still vital within remote environments),  learn how to attract and onboard new talent successfully, understand what steps you can take to retain them, and provide you with unlimited advice along the way.

You CAN build a thriving remote/hybrid organization, but, you need the right strategies in place… and it doesn’t hurt to learn from those who use proven processes and understand the ins and outs of the modern workplace.

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