Jobs and the Future of Work

This simple solution might help with one of the biggest challenges of working from home

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Remote working requires strong leadership for best results. Image: Unsplash/StartupStockPhotos

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Future of Work

  • Employees working from home feel 200% less committed when their managers fail to engage with them, says a new study.
  • Even small gestures like sending out a staff survey can boost morale, it found.
  • In another survey, 80% of managers said they were supporting staff well-being, while only 46% of employees agreed.
  • Yet more than two-fifths of employees in the US say they love the switch to home working.

What do you miss most about not being in the office? Chances are that it’s not your colleagues – you’re probably digitally connected to them most days. But when was the last time you had a positive interaction with your boss?

A new study has found that it’s lack of engagement with our managers that creates most alienation when we are working from home. And, the research suggests, that lack of interaction can be fatal to the morale of everyone in the business.

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Social capital – an essential component

Leadership training company VitalSmarts interviewed more than 2,000 employees and over 200 business leaders to discover the impact of remote working caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their findings contain some surprising insights.

More than half of executives said their firm’s culture had come under strain as a result of enforced home working, and the researchers found a clear link between morale and the behaviour of those same managers.

The crucial factor in maintaining an organization’s social capital – essentially, how willing employees are to work together successfully – turned out to be what the bosses were, or more importantly, were not doing about maintaining communication with their employees.

High social capital is demonstrated when colleagues help one another, avoid giving and taking offence, work together as a team, take the initiative to solve problems and put in more than the minimum needed to hold on to their jobs.

Simple actions go far

Something as simple as sending out a staff survey, was found to have a very positive impact, the researchers found. Asking people about their well-being, offering counselling and providing virtual training and digital tools to allow employees to connect were highly valued.

The researchers say it’s vital to recognize the additional pressures that working from home imposes; for example, by introducing flexible working to allow employees to cope with childcare, or encouraging employees to hold non-work-related virtual gatherings.

“All you have to do to destroy social capital is to do nothing,” VitalSmarts co-founder Joseph Grenny wrote in an article for Fast Company. “We were encouraged to find that almost every intervention leaders used had a positive effect on social capital.”

Morale was highest where communication was strongest, the research found. “If leaders invest in increasing social capital, they can largely offset the cultural downsides of working from home,” said Grenny.

One of the discoveries of “the forced work from home experiment of 2020”, as Grenny describes it, is that it’s leadership, not location, that is key to a good work environment.

“It is possible for leaders to create strong social capital without physical proximity,” he concludes “and doing so is absolutely vital.”

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Engagement drives productivity

Other studies have shown similar results. One found that where communication was strongest between remote-working employees productivity improved by 47%. The flipside is that failing to communicate can reduce commitment by 200%, according to Grenny.

But managers need to be wary of believing their own hype. A study by IBM found a serious mismatch between what managers thought they were doing for their employees and what the workers perceived on the ground.

Although 74% of bosses said they were helping staff learn the skills they needed to work in new ways, only 38% of employees thought that was actually happening. Eight out of 10 managers said they were supporting staff well-being – only 46% of employees agreed.

Research by business data analysts Statista found that almost 80% of employees in China, Germany, the US and the UK were satisfied with working from home last year. Of these, the US was the most keen, with 42% of employees saying they loved remote working and could see themselves doing it indefinitely.

A graph which shows people's different views about working from home across a variety of countries
Remote working is a current trend - but it doesn't suit everyone. Image: Statista

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 said the future of work had already arrived for millions of office workers, thanks to advancing digital technology – the adoption of which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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