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There was a palpable sense of confidence in the air when companies announced their return-to-office plans this spring. Goldman Sachs ushered their employees back into the office in June; Blackstone followed suit, asking fully-vaccinated staff to return to the office full-time no later than June 7. Apple, meanwhile, asked its employees to return onsite three days a week in September.
But as Delta—a highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus strain—continues to sweep rapidly through the country, many companies are having second thoughts.
Earlier this week, after the CDC recommended even vaccinated individuals wear masks inside again, Google and Apple announced they were pushing back their official return- to-office date from September to mid-October. Asana went a step further, changing its return date for all San Francisco and New York employees to February 2022.
Facing continued delays, employees are once again looking at work-from-home and hybrid work environments—at least for the near future.
As part of our Back to Work series, we’ve covered work from home essentials such as employee burnout, the need for corporate flexibility, the benefits of working from home, and how employees have been managing differences in a post-pandemic work environment. Now it’s time to check in with the key players of the workplace to see how they’re adjusting, staying motivated, and adapting to this continued change of work plans.
Jeremy Coleman, a UI/UX designer, started working at SmartGift remotely during the pandemic. While he has been able to meet his employers in person, he has yet to interact with the rest of the team in the flesh. When asked about his experience, Jeremy said, “since training for this new career (going through General Assembly’s immersive UX Design course) also happened nearly 100% remotely due to COVID, this experience hasn’t been all that strange to me.”
“Under normal circumstances,” he added, “I’d say that, yes, getting a job, working with folks you’ve never met in-person, and trying to feel some sort of ‘camaraderie’ or ‘teamwork’ would be much more difficult. But, quite frankly, I think culture has changed, and ‘remote work’ doesn’t have the same meaning it may have once had. [It’s no longer] a strange, risky concept that exposes one to judgments of being less ‘engaged’ than ‘in-person’.”
Since a large portion of Jeremy’s development team is already remote by default, he thinks remoteness has brought its own kind of camaraderie to the company. “In some ways, our always-in-front-of-our-computers work postures has made connecting and building relationships easier: someone recalls a story or experience and, using Slack, videos, photos, weblinks, or (my favorite) GIFs, they can share that experience in real-time, without awkward phone-fumbling around a conference table.”
Communication tools like Slack and Google Meet for the broader team or client-facing video meetings have helped the team significantly with daily communication. According to Jeremy, “Slack affords a level of informality for asking questions, bouncing ideas back and forth, all the stuff that might happen more naturally in an in-person setup. And [it’s] fun, that just makes it easier, and more efficient to get work done.”
Bobby Ellingwood, also a UI/UX designer for SmartGift, has been working remotely for the team from California. Bobby currently works east coast hours, typically starting his day at 6 AM and working through much of the afternoon.
When asked about his hours, Bobby said his experience couldn’t be any better. “It gives me an opportunity to start my day earlier. Some people are more productive during the afternoons or nights, but, for me, I feel like I do my best work in the mornings.”
Overall, Bobby thinks it’s important for remote workers to be part of a results-based work environment so they can have the flexibility to work their own hours—as long as predefined goals and contributions are being met. “Of course, it’s important to be available to communicate and contribute during the workday,” he says, “but having that flexibility would be great for overall employee retention and happiness.”
Bobby is not the only one who feels this way. According to CNBC, flexibility in the workplace (especially with work from home jobs) is not only likely to reduce employee turnover, but it also improves overall employee motivation, employee development, employee health, and productivity levels.
Ariel Schleicher, SmartGift’s Lead Designer, has been working remotely for the Brooklyn startup from Prague. Like Bobby, she finds bringing ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) principles into her and her team’s work a successful strategy for navigating WFH, “especially because we are based around the world, from Istanbul to Prague, New York City to California.”
For Ariel, a results-only work environment allows her to take an hour or so to wake up and water her plants every morning, spend four hours each week learning Czech, and start her workday anywhere between 11 AM to 2 PM, then go late into the evening, depending on the day’s assignments.
When asked how crucial she considers flexibility in the workplace, Ariel said it was among the most important factors to her employee experience.
“As a person who recently uprooted her life to move to a different country, there are so many small little life things that I need to deal with and those get compounded when I need to run things quickly through Google Translate. Having flexibility in my work schedule and where I can work is the only way I was able to move and start living my best life.”
SmartGift Account and Marketing Manager Marleigh Sizemore, who has been working for the startup remotely from New York, feels similarly. “I have much more balance in my work and life responsibilities than before the pandemic,” she says. “For the first time in my professional career, I am starting my morning routine at a comfortable time, and I can conveniently work late, if required, and not sacrifice my dinner time or time spent with loved ones after work.”
Marleigh also notes that working from a home office has given her the opportunity to take breaks during the day and run household errands or squeeze in an appointment at the dentist’s if needed. “One of the biggest changes with working from home is my access to food,” she says. “I found that I saved more time and money by preparing food for meals and snacks in my own kitchen, plus I am not wasting my breaks getting fast food or caffeine.”
Like much of the remote workforce, Marleigh finds her ideal work environment to be one where she can have more control over variables such as noise levels, access to privacy, ability to prepare food, commute fluctuations, and sufficient space to pace or move around.
While remote work can lead to countless employee benefits, the team finds that it’s not without its own set of drawbacks. “Some days it is easy to slip into past habits of working long hours, not taking breaks for food, or not leaving my desk all day,” shares Marleigh. “I have been practicing putting my phone with the ringer on high in another room after I sign off for the day, so I only check it if there is an alert.”
Marleigh also takes other measures to separate work hours from her personal life, like using her breaks to video chat with her significant other. “We both work and casually discuss our days or things we need to get done after work,” she says. “Even something as simple as calling a friend or family member after work helps to separate the day and leave my computer so I can be present with them.”
When asked if the WFH model felt sustainable in the long term, Marleigh said, “I do think it is...but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all-solution. Factors like company culture, employee needs, industry requirements, and the ability to access affordable internet and technology can be barriers to a fully remote workplace.”
Given the opportunity, improved vaccination rates, and fewer restrictions, Marleigh added she would “enjoy being able to meet with co-workers for social time or to discuss big company objectives in-person.”
Another common disadvantage of working remotely, by and large, has been employee connection. Jeremy Coleman cites the inability to accurately judge when to enter or exit a conversation, or jump in and share an idea, as a relatively small, but recurring issue encountered in remote work. “The word ‘sorry’ gets used exponentially more in a remote, Google Meets conversation than if we were all physically sitting or standing around a table in person,” he says.
“It’s a frustrating reality, unfortunately, but I think we’re all able to find the lighthearted absurdity in it, too...I mean, it is pretty ridiculous that the most difficult part of managing our highly futuristic telecommunications technology is trying not to interrupt each other.”
Jeremy also misses the ease with which ideas and creative conversations happen effortlessly offline. “With in-person communication, there’s an immediacy and confidence to the moment that can be easily, and helplessly, hindered by remote communication,” he says. “I never have to question whether you’re physically able to hear me or not...when we’re standing right next to each other, the ‘technology’ is always working.”
When asked how he felt about the lack of commute to work, Jeremy answered this question by saying, “though some people may not agree, I actually do sometimes miss the commuting experience.” He added, “it’s a reason to get out of the house and get the blood flowing, yes, but also because, out there, where things aren’t so ‘controlled’, there are surprising thoughts to be had, and new things to see that I’d be missing out on if I just stayed at home all the time.”
Given the choice between different work environment types like remote and onsite, Jeremy’s answer was similar to Marleigh’s: he was likely to pick a hybrid option, an alternative that would afford both highly focused and highly collaborative time.
Attesting to the results from several studies, employees feel at their happiest when they have flexibility, and that applies especially to remote jobs and other work-from-home opportunities. And after an extended period of time (sixteen months and counting!), it’s safe to say remote team members are growing accustomed to the benefits and challenges that arise with virtual collaboration.
The uptick in Covid-19 cases, both nationally and globally, tells us that uncertainty in the future of work is here to stay. Challenges with virtual teams are likely to arise as companies scramble for new plans, but with the right tools, engagement, leadership, and communication, team members can continue shifting their strategies to create a better work environment than the one they had in place before the pandemic.
Back to Work is a series that explores the challenging, exciting, and unprecedented time of transitioning back to work through the lens of those involved. As part of our mission to recognize workplace heroes, SmartGift aims to spotlight how fostering connection, transparency in communication, and workplace appreciation can affect company culture and the bottom line.