Remote work is here to stay. Planning how to integrate remote workers as others return to the office will be critical for tech leaders.

Image: iStock/Anna Chaplygina

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, remote work seemed a temporary and novel approach to keeping productive, and I was among the many people who thought it would be a couple or three-week experiment. As the pandemic wore on and many companies embraced remote working, I heard sentiments like, “We’ll never go back to the old way of working,” a feeling that was particularly resonant among many of my colleagues, for whom the “old way” involved a dozen hours each week shuffling through overcrowded airports and cramped airplanes.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

A funny thing happened shortly after several promising COVID-19 vaccines were announced and ultimately began to be administered around the world, whereby people seemed more or less equally divided among those who wanted to return to the old way of working, and those who were content to continue working remotely. There are certainly nuances between industries and demographic factors, but even along these lines I have yet to see an overwhelming majority of workers who want to return to in-office work, or remain remote.

This division has flummoxed some leaders, as several companies issued bold proclamations that “remote was the new normal,” while others returned people to physical offices as quickly as possible. Like most things in life, it appears that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how and where workers will perform their activities.

Avoid becoming a petty despot

In the absence of a clear-cut majority wanting remote or in-person working, it might be tempting to channel your inner dictator and mandate 100% remote work, or a return to pre-COVID policies where remote work was prohibited or a rare exception. The problem with this approach is that most of the factors used to deny remote working have been roundly disproven, with mental health perhaps the most enduring challenge rather than employee productivity. On the other side of the ledger, your company probably still owns physical facilities and has a majority or large minority of people who will happily seek work elsewhere if you demand they remain in their home, staring blankly at endless talking heads on Zoom.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Where and how you allow employees to work has quickly become a competitive differentiator, and demographic data show that your employees and potential employees have migrated around the US in ways that are still being analyzed and understood. Rather than addressing this dichotomy and potentially sending current and potential employees looking elsewhere, IT leaders have an important role in defining the future of work at their organizations that’s best served by developing capabilities that support employee choice in where and how they work, rather than policy dictates.

Start by assuming that you’ll be required to support approximately similar-sized groups, one that wishes to work in company facilities, and another that wants to work from anywhere.

Think beyond the tech

Many tech leaders understandably started with technology as they equipped their employees to work remotely. By now most of us have deployed a suite of collaboration tools, VPNs, and laptops to address the tech, but the real challenge will be helping workers use these tools when a significant portion of their colleagues are remote or grouped together in-person.

SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team’s mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Many organizations are experimenting with new ways of working, ranging from rotating teams into a physical office on a scheduled basis, to having “screen meetings” where even in-office workers participate via individual video feeds. Your executive and HR colleagues are certainly considering some of these options; however, they not only lack your understanding of technology, but they also could benefit from how your teams collaborated and experimented, as IT was likely one of a handful of teams that required a physical presence, and had the longest history of collaborating remotely. Don’t be afraid to bring this knowledge to bear in addition to the technical knowledge.

Finally, remember that no one has definitively solved the mystery of how we’ll work together in a COVID-free world, save for the broad realization that it will probably include a significant mix of in-person and remote workers. Being willing to rapidly experiment, learn from failures, and be open to different approaches will make you a valuable asset as we collectively redefine how we work together.

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