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A Year of Remote Work: What’s Been Hard, and What Employers Can Do

boss and employing talking

As an employer, manager, VP, boss, or leader of people, the wellbeing of your employees (and yourself!) matters a lot. As Generation Z—the most populous generation since the boomers—begins hitting the workforce, companies have no option but to cater to a shifting audience. And while we don’t know a ton about how Gen Z will operate in the workplace, we do know that they’re looking for a place where they belong, and are looking for a company that allows them to bring their authentic selves to work.

I’m not a culture expert—just a millennial who happens to be on the younger end of the spectrum. I’ve seen the early-2010s idea of company culture (ping pong tables and beer in the fridge) shift towards a push for an inclusive workplace.

Enter: a pandemic.

Enter: remote working.

Enter: Zoom becoming a household name.

Enter: The death of real-life, spontaneous interaction and the short-lived virtual happy hours.

What I’d like to explore in this blog post is how remote working and a pandemic have impacted company culture. In this case, I’m referring to employee engagement and a sense of belonging—where I believe the emphasis is going based on a new generation hitting the workforce. Then, I’d like to propose a few solutions.

Here we go.

The problem with full-time remote work

There are plenty of companies that operate in a fully remote environment, have been doing so for years, and have built a thriving, engaging culture. The real problem with remote work is for the companies who didn’t operate that way before the pandemic hit.

When the pandemic first hit and companies switched to remote work, I think most employers were somewhat surprised that while it was difficult, it wasn’t impossible—and work was still being shipped. In our case, it was certainly easier than expected to move to Zoom. Personally, I knocked out projects faster from my “home office” without the distractions of coworkers stopping by to chat about the Liverpool game over the weekend. In fact, when we interviewed our employees at the end of 2020, most felt the same way—and reported that they’ve felt more productive this year than ever before.

So, what’s the problem?

How are you measuring success?

As any marketer or business leader knows, success is largely dependent on the goal. If the goal of moving to remote work was any of...

  • Did we do it?
  • Did we sustain our business goals?
  • Were we just as productive?
  • Did everyone understand what the plan was?

...then moving to remote work could be, in and of itself, a win! Although I might be making it sound simple, it is a massive feat that employers should be proud of.

If you’ve successfully migrated to remote work, the next question you need to ask yourself is, “Are people as engaged as they were when we were in the office?”

That’s a totally different challenge that doesn’t just focus on work operations, but employee well-being and belonging. On one hand, employers might see the pandemic as a temporary situation and don’t believe they need to solve the short-term “culture” problem. It’s the belief that culture will “get back to normal” once the pandemic is over and employees start coming back into the office. I’d argue that waiting out the pandemic and choosing not to solve it could lead to a dip in culture and employee happiness. Plus, the new-new-new normal might involve more remote employees going forward.

A couple of pieces of advice for managers, leaders, and employers

  • Make employee engagement a priority during times of major change.
  • Try your best to solve problems even when everything is changing.

Why remote work can be hard on employees

It would be entirely misleading to state that all employees hate remote work—many people absolutely love it, and studies show that remote employees may be some of the happiest. They don’t have to commute. They have more time to do life things. It’s convenient. And for these reasons and more, they might feel engaged, motivated, and excited to go online each and every day.

But for others, especially those who aren’t accustomed to working remotely all the time, it can lead to feelings of isolation and burnout, as well as the age-old miscommunication that often occurs when relying heavily on Slack and email.

When everyone goes remote, bumping into someone at the watercooler doesn’t exist. And if someone doesn't work directly with another coworker on a daily basis? There’s probably not a ton of information sharing or camaraderie between both parties—unless someone makes it a priority to reach out.

On top of feeling isolated, burnout has become a new concern. Research shows that remote employees report working longer hours, likely due to the fact that it’s hard to unplug at home. Simply put, the office gives employees an obvious boundary—they can leave work at work. That’s harder when work needs to take place at home.

A few pieces of advice for managers, leaders, and employers

  • Check in with your employees about more than just work. Our VP of Talent made sure to schedule meetings with our people throughout the pandemic to see how they were doing.
  • To the best of your ability, schedule safe activities for employees to participate in. Our events team scheduled a few small group activities like hikes and picnics.
  • Encourage employees to unplug when necessary.
  • Show that you care. Our team kicked off 2021 with generous swag for our employees. It’s not a perfect fix, but it does show your employees that you’re thinking about them.

Communication breakdowns

When we asked our own employees what was the most annoying thing about working remotely, many replied that it’s more difficult to solve problems with others quickly. Whether that’s collaborating with a whiteboard or rolling over to a coworker’s desk to ask them a question, our own team has found that Slack and Zoom are helpful, but not a perfect solution.

Here’s a quick story.

Our Digital Marketing Director had feedback on a few pieces of content and a case study the Element Three marketing team recently published. At this point, I’ll be honest and admit that both of us were probably a little on edge, a little burnt out, and definitely both busy.

When I received the Slack, I instantly got annoyed, but tried to handle the situation with grace. The next time, I got a little more annoyed than the first. The third time, I knew this was unhealthy and I was overreacting—the feedback was rational, after all.

I scheduled a virtual lunch for the two of us to meet. We talked for an hour about work and not about work. We both expressed respect for one another, laughed a little, and moved forward on making the work a little better.

The point is, talking through a situation with someone on a Zoom call (even when it’s probably not 100% “necessary” and could be solved with a few messages on Slack or through email) helped create empathy and understanding, and we both felt better and heard after the call.

A piece of advice for managers, leaders, and employers

  • If you’re sensing tension, schedule time to chat through it via Zoom—and bring your emotional intelligence.

Listen, understand, and try your best

Needless to say, 2020 and beyond has been hard on a lot of people. The pandemic has uprooted personal and professional lives, and the influx of Gen Z into the workforce has created a need for employers to create an inclusive workplace. I didn’t go into the BLM movement...but that too has (rightly) put pressure on employers to do more.

If there’s a perfect company out there, I’ve never heard of it. Striving for perfection is overrated (and unrealistic) anyway. But, as a leader or even just a good team member, the main thing you can do is listen to your people, seek to understand, and try your best to create an environment where everyone feels like they belong.

Mollie Kuramoto Headshot

From competing with her brothers while growing up to captaining Purdue’s soccer team, Mollie seeks out challenges wherever they may lie. That’s why she’s perfectly suited for her role as Brand Marketing Manager at High Alpha—building a brand from scratch is a challenge, and supercharging an existing brand isn't exactly a piece of cake. Mollie knocks it out of the park every time. When she’s not hard at work, Mollie’s usually playing or coaching soccer, traveling, or drawing, and she hopes to become a part-time cheesemonger someday because “the title is funny.”