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When Remote Work Doesn’t Work — and How to Make Sure It Does

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citrixIt can be tempting to think that workplace innovation is a one-size-fits-all proposition. That at any given time, there’s one best way for people to work, so all you need to do is read the prevailing wisdom and then follow suit. Of course, life is never that clear-cut. There’s no doubt that technology is transforming what’s possible, giving organizations more options in the kinds of work experiences they can allow and enable — but you’ve still got to make the right choices for your own business, and someone else’s right answer might not be yours. What’s most important is to make sure that whatever direction you take, you’re in a position to make it a success.

I’ve seen this dynamic at work before. An HR leader gets wind that employees are frustrated by time-wasting rush hour commutes and wish they had more flexibility. She responds proactively by drafting a work-from-home policy; it’s well thought-out and positively received by managers, and it gains quick adoption. So far, so good … but as time passes, it becomes apparent that productivity among remote workers has actually declined instead of improving. Now it’s the managers who are frustrated. They demand that their teams return to their traditional schedules. Employees feel cheated. How did this well-intentioned initiative go so wrong?

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Beyond Good Intentions: Tools Matter

The scenario I just described isn’t a matter of slacking remote workers or reactionary managers. Remote work may well have been the right answer for this company. The problem is that they lacked an effective way to make workplace flexibility successful — specifically, a technology infrastructure that lets people become just as efficient and productive at home as they would be in the office.

Conventional HR wisdom can be a sea of anecdotal evidence, but there’s good research showing this gap between intentions and capabilities. Earlier this year, we conducted a survey to better understand how companies are thinking about remote work. We found that many managers are fully on-board in concept: more than a third of the managers we contacted said being able to work remotely two to three days per week would give them a more positive work experience, and nearly half believe that allowing employees to work remotely to avoid commuting would be the best way to improve their productivity. But managers are also aware of how difficult it can be to put this premise into practice. Only two-fifths believe that remote employees are actually as productive as those in the office.

Drilling into the details of the survey, we see just how important it is to think through the technological aspect of flexible and remote work initiatives. A full 95 percent of employees believe the technology they have access to positively impacts their productivity levels at work, and 51 percent of managers say they see a direct correlation between technology available to workers and their productivity — but only 31 percent of remote workers say it’s easy to maintain productivity while they’re away from their desks.

Whatever choices you make about workplace flexibility, the last thing you want to do is leave employees less able to get their work done. When there’s a gap between the remote work policy you’re introducing and the infrastructure you provide, you run a high risk of dissatisfaction among both employees and managers, and that can derail what could have been a highly valuable program. Instead of helping improve productivity and retention, you end up undermining both.

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Don’t Forget About Culture and Management

As you think about the technology infrastructure needed to make remote work successful, you also need to consider the organizational infrastructure — the policies and practices that help remote workers do their best work. Teams need to collaborate cohesively and function effectively regardless of distance, while managers and employees need to feel connected no matter where they’re working.

Here are a few management practices I’ve found especially useful in remote work contexts:

  • Make time for face time: Even in an age defined by digital communications, in-person contact remains essential. Schedule regular, one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports, and make sure they do the same with their team members. If you can do it often, all the better.
  • Turn your cameras on: People can be shy about video calls at times, but seeing the faces of colleagues goes a long way for team bonding — especially for remote workers who can also feel isolated and disengaged. It also enhances communication through the kind of non-verbal cues and expressions that can’t come through in a voice call. Even when most of the team is in the same room, they should be on video so that remote participants can see the entire group on their screen.
  • Invite questions and feedback: Keep communication flowing by proactively checking in from time to time both on specific tasks and projects, and on the remote work experience in general. Use this as an opportunity to review deliverables, invite questions, and brainstorm ideas. The insight you gain can save you time and prevent problems further down the line.
  • Choice is a big deal: With so many communication tools, work with your team to find the best format that works for them. Email, chat, text, messaging apps…these are all powerful bursts of communication that give employees the flexibility to connect their way. Add in the power of gifs and memes and you’ve got a lot of subtext in text messages.

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How We Can Help

The good news, as I’ve spoken about before, is that today it’s easier than ever to deploy simple technologies that help employees become more engaged and productive no matter where or how they work. It’ll come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of Citrix digital workspace solutions, but that’s my view as an HR professional as much as a Citrix executive. As work becomes more dynamic, people need to become more adaptable. Citrix workspaces meet that need by combining best-in-class access, networking, and analytics that let people work however they choose with a secure, contextual, and unified experience anywhere, on any device and any network.

That’s as good for businesses as it is for users. The changing face of work now favors organizations that trust employees with flexibility, and that give them personalized tools to boost their productivity, engagement, and creativity. Businesses that can recruit, retain, and empower the best talent gain a powerful edge in today’s intense digital markets.

By backing your workplace policies with the infrastructure needed to make them effective, you can deliver the flexible experiences your employees want and need while also making sure they can still deliver for their teams.

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