Not just for a day or two, as many Chicagoans experienced when they hunkered down during last year’s polar vortex. But potentially for weeks, if COVID-19 concerns shut down offices or authorities announce a preemptive lockdown.
How it goes, especially at ill-prepared companies that now face trial-by-fire, could determine if remote working gets adopted more broadly long-term — with potential ramifications for office space, commute patterns, how people balance their work and personal lives and where people opt to live.
“I think this is a watershed moment in terms of wider acceptance and implementation of work-from-home,” said Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, the Chicago-based workplace training subsidiary of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw. “Employees that have tasted the benefits of more freedom and autonomy are going be hard-pressed to let it go.”
About half of U.S. workers have jobs that could at least partially be done remotely, according to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting firm focused on new ways of working. A good share — 43% of workers — telecommute sometimes, but on average only two days a month, according to a 2016 Gallup survey. Just 3.8% work at home at least half the time, a share that’s nearly tripled since 2006, Lister said.
When a crisis like the new coronavirus temporarily forces companies into remote work, it tends to show them that it can be done successfully, she said. But it can also demonstrate the benefits beyond disaster preparedness.
“What many organizations learn from the experience is that a remote work program, when approached strategically, can deliver far greater organization benefits such as improved (talent) attraction and retention, increased productivity and engagement, reduced real estate costs and environmental impact and more,” Lister said.
Whether a pandemic-driven plunge into remote working spurs a more permanent paradigm shift depends largely on whether the experience is positive for employers and employees.
Melissa McEwen, a software engineer who lives in Logan Square and has worked remotely for five years, worries the conditions are not ideal given the anxiety around coronavirus and the fact that many companies may rush into it without the proper setups. Some people will have to juggle homebound kids while trying to get work done at the kitchen table.
“People are going to get a bad impression,” said McEwen, 33, who works at Glitch.com, which usually has half of its workforce working remotely but, because of coronavirus, has encouraged everyone to do so. “I hope they give it another chance.”
McEwen finds she’s more productive at home, because “you have to send signals that you’re actually working” whereas at the office you can feign work by just sitting at your desk. The apartment she shares with her boyfriend has an office with a desk and a good chair paid for by her employer, but often she finds herself working from the couch in pajama pants — inadvisable, according to experts who promote ergonomics, but it works for her.
Conference calls are the biggest headache when working remotely, she said, because technological issues arise and background noise can be disruptive. Her cat, which friends advised her to get for companionship when she started working from home, “meows constantly in the background,” she said.
Those calls can feel especially fraught when her boyfriend, a college lecturer, also works from their 900-square-foot home and has a simultaneous call. But she prefers it to the alternative.
“People should explore different ways to work,” McEwen said.
Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, a Chicago-based software company that allows all 56 of its employees to work remotely as often as they like, said he expects a bumpy ride at first at companies scrambling to get their systems in place to accommodate remote working. But the likelihood that the emergency won’t be over quickly means they’ll have a chance to smooth out the wrinkles and get comfortable with such arrangements long term.
“Eventually people will go back to offices,” Fried said. “But I think that remote work will now be a tool in the toolbox. They won’t be afraid of it.”
The key, he says, is not just to implement the right video conferencing tools, but to shift the mindset about what it means to work collaboratively.
“The ones who stumble are the ones who try to emulate what they do in the office,” said Fried, who estimates less than 10% of his workforce is at headquarters on a given day. “This is an opportunity to finally not have so many meetings, to write things down instead of saying them out loud.”
A big reason many companies have resisted allowing employees to work from home, despite technological advances that have made it much easier to do so, is the fear that managers won’t know if their employees are really working if they can’t see them, Weiss said. They have suspected remote work requests were excuses to run to the bar or watch the game.
“That’s been a sea change for managers,” he said. “Manager myths are falling by the wayside because their people have had to come front and center.”
Weiss said Seyfarth at Work has been getting a lot more training requests recently on how to supervise remote employees, which requires a different approach than when they are sitting in a nearby cubicle or when casual conversations can be had en route to the elevators.
Managers must set clearer expectations, offer more frequent praise and have more purposeful check-ins on progress when their workers are remote, he said. They should overcommunicate, he said — but not too much.
“This one manager kept sending his people half-hour reminders to stay on track,” Weiss recalled of a client. “Three people asked to switch departments.”
Communication was the most difficult adjustment Susan Brenkus encountered as her employer, Healthcare Financial Management Association in suburban Westchester, transitioned to a remote-work environment over the last seven years.
The organization opted to allow all employees to work from home, subject to manager approval, in order to provide them with greater flexibility and to expand its talent pool, said Brenkus, senior vice president of people and culture. About 20 of its 100 employees now live outside of the Chicago area.
Brenkus’ own “aha” moment about the communication challenges came when she joined a conference call remotely and discovered everyone else was physically present, making it difficult to break into the conversation without the benefit of body language. It made her conscious of the need to keep remote workers feeling connected, which looks different for everyone. With one woman based in St. Louis, Brenkus sends a daily morning instant message to go over her agenda.
Most days up to 40% of the staff works remotely — on Fridays far more do so — and the option has made them happier as a result, Brenkus said. Appreciation of the work-at-home policy is the top comment in employee engagement surveys, and it has helped with hiring, she said.
“If people are mindful and purposeful as they go through this and they give people the tools and the right environment, they will find there are real benefits to it,” Brenkus said.
The movement toward more remote work in recent years has started to reverse at some companies that strive to encourage in-person interactions.
Modern offices are being designed with collaboration and spontaneous encounters between employees in mind. As Mondelez International moves its headquarters from Deerfield to Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood next month, the manufacturer of Oreos, Triscuits and other brands plans to nudge more people to work from the office to create a culture and promote “free-flowing communication,” CEO Dirk Van de Put said during an interview last month with the Tribune unrelated to the coronavirus.
But those priorities aren’t in conflict, said Kate North, vice president of workplace advisory at Colliers, a real estate brokerage. People who work from home several days a week may not need a permanent desk, which allows the office to become a place where they congregate to find a sense of belonging, she said. Office footprints shrink as a result.
The flexibility also allows companies in high-cost cities to hire people who may prefer to live in towns with a lower cost of living, saving money for both parties, with just occasional travel to sow real-life connections, North said. Research shows that you can can maintain a connection with someone if you see them in person every 40 to 45 days, she said.
“You can maintain that tonality with that person virtually,” said North, who was based in Chicago until moving in October to Park City, Utah.
The solitude of working from home can be difficult for some people. North, a “huge extrovert,” makes it a point to travel weekly to one of the company’s offices to meet with people, but that won’t be an option for many during the COVID-19 crisis.
To create community remotely, North, who has learned that one of the biggest reasons remote workers don’t turn on their webcam for video conferences is because their hair looks bad, organizes meetings where everyone wears a hat.
“It’s fun because people will share more about their personalities,” North said. “This weekend I am going to go out and find some vintage hats and surprise them.”
But Vonaire Daly-Mark, a department administrator with an industrial paints and coatings company, said the quiet has been good for her work and life. She started working remotely in October, when her company moved its North American headquarters from Chicago’s Loop to Nashville, Tennessee, setting up her desk in a corner of her Wicker Park living room where the Christmas tree usually goes.
She feels liberated from the Monday morning question she always dreaded — How was your weekend? — and the coworker visits that could lead to 45-minute discussions about the Real Housewives.
“I’m all systems go now,” said Daly-Mark, 42. “I’ve gotten so much more done than than I have ever gotten done in the office.”
She says she also has been sleeping longer, going the gym daily during her lunch break and eating healthier without the temptations of the office kitchen. In between tasks she tosses in a load of laundry or makes a grocery store run, relieving the stress of trying to do all the household chores on Saturday.
“I have so much more peace of mind because there’s a better balance between work and my life,” Daly-Mark said.
Stella Garber, who works remotely from her Lakeview home as product marketing lead at Trello, a New York-based software firm that makes task management platforms, has been managing a geographically scattered team for six years. She spends much of her day in meetings on Zoom, the video conferencing tool whose stock is up about 60% since the start of the year, which can be configured to show everyone’s face like a “Brady Bunch” grid so colleagues can see each other’s reactions.
The No. 1 thing companies have to understand is that remote work is just going to be different, and as a result teams have to agree to new rituals and norms, she said. For example, everyone might agree to set their status on Slack, a messaging tool, to say when they’re off to lunch. Slack might also become the virtual water cooler when people just need to gab.
Creating a good work environment at home is also important. Her company’s rule is that anyone who works from home must have an office space with a door that closes, and dedicated child care.
Garber suggests people choose a spot with a nice view and natural light, and maybe decorate it with plants, though that’s not always an option in tight quarters. Garber has a friend who uses a closet with a desk in it, and even that goes a long way to creating separation between professional and personal space in the absence of a commute that typically transitions people from home to work life.
Her life has found much better balance with her remote work routine. She wakes early with her 3-year-old son, hands him to the nanny before she does her morning Peloton workout, then goes into her office until lunch time, when she pops out to give her son a kiss. She works again until 4 p.m., when she shuts her office door for the day and shifts her focus to being a mom.
“This is an exciting time for those of us who are dinosaurs who have been doing this for a while,” she said of the potential for the coronavirus preparation to usher in a work-from-home revolution. “I think remote work has the potential to transform people’s lives.”