The Future of Work is Here
If there is one outcome resulting from the pandemic, it is the emergence of working remotely. While many of us treat this shift to “home work” as a welcome new development in our busy lives, working remotely really isn’t as novel as it seems.
Up until the early 1900s, working from home was a normal way of doing business. Farmers, tradespeople, and even some factory production employees worked in or around the home. Most people didn’t have the time or money to go back and forth, and travel was difficult. Life and work had no boundaries.
“You don’t know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent [up] walls without relief day after day.”
This sentiment of monotony might be from a modern office worker. Quite the opposite: They are the words of the eighteenth century English poet and essayist Charles Lamb, a clerk in the East India Company. Through the centuries, early versions of the office centered around government, law, trading, or religious organizations—anyplace where documentation was needed to record or do business. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the office environment as we know it gathered steam as rows of desks gave way to the open office to, finally, cube farms. More important, there was a line of distinction between home and work, with many employees finding they spent more time at work than they did at home.
Working remotely has been around for decades
In 1973, Jack Nilles, a NASA engineer, proposed a new model for work with his book, The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff. It was called telecommuting. Nilles researched and developed a case that showed how telecommuting could offset traffic congestion, help with resource conservation, and lower stress for workers. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the idea never caught on—the nine-to-five mindset was firmly embedded in businesses and organizations and only a small percentage of people could take advantage of this concept.
Fast-forward thirty years, when the emergence of the internet and personal computers transformed the workplace, as well as how we conduct our lives and communicate. Nilles’ team predicted this, noting that new technologies “have the potential for acting as catalysts that could radically change the structure of American society in much the same way that the automobile acted as a catalyst on our way of life during the first half of this century.”
The pandemic has let the proverbial cat out of the bag
It happened quickly. Management was uncertain it was feasible. Suddenly, humans were asked to trust one another when it came to the process of work. Overnight, the pandemic made companies and organizations change the way they did business.
COVID-19 sparked an incredible exodus of office employees, often with just laptops and cell phones, to work from home. Remarkably and unexpectedly, most Americans embraced their new environment. The fears of decreased productivity and absenteeism were unfounded. More important, employers and employees both like the advantages of remote work, including lower office costs, increased productivity as cited in a KPMG survey, greater flexibility, enhanced work-life balance, and less stress. There is no turning back, and as Americans return to a post-pandemic world, hybrid remote working will most likely win out as indicated in a 2020 Pew Research Center survey.
As we look to the future, what should we expect? How do we prepare for this new work climate? What are some best practices to keep us fresh and connected? Bay Path faculty, community members, and alumni offer their perspectives on how to navigate the remote work world—the new norm.
A Pioneer in Remote Learning and Teaching
“In 1964, I believe I might have been one of the first people to be a remote learner. It was eighth grade, and I was burned in an accident that required me to study from home. It started my fascination with technology.”
As the director of digital marketing programs, Dr. Saunders lives what she teaches. She is one hundred percent remote. Her office is a command center for online learning: desktops with large screens, movable desk, special lighting, and audio equipment. All her classes and programs are taught online—even before the pandemic pushed higher education to frantically adapt on ground courses to online.
“I have been a big proponent of online learning and working remotely. I could see where technology was leading us as a society. In February of 2020, I launched a new website, Faculty Toolkit. It was a primer available to everyone on how to teach online. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Within one month, I had six thousand subscribers. The site is still going strong.
“Online teaching can be very engaging for students. You have to think of it in terms of multi-modal content: videos, podcasts, and augmented reality are some options. Communication with students is also critical. Remember, I am working remotely, and they are learning remotely. With my online students, I share my cell phone number so that way they can chat or text me if they need help. Frankly, they have never abused it. I feel very connected to the students.”
Keep Yourself Mentally Fit
The flip from office to home caught many people by surprise. Those in-person connections so important in the day-to-day workflow were replaced by a new form of communication: Zoom.
“There are many benefits to working either fully or partially remote. For some, it is a better work-life balance, or it could be the flexibility that takes the stress out of people’s lives. Of course, we are all concerned with human interaction.
“To meet that need, you have to have your own personal support system. They could be friends, family, or co-workers that can provide you with that interaction to combat feeling disconnected.”
In the office, our interactions can take many forms, such as weekly group meetings, water cooler chats, or unintentional breaks. Some are productive, and others can absorb an enormous amount of time.
“A personal support system is much more intentional in nature, unlike casual interactions at work. I recommend, for example, reaching out to someone to have a Zoom coffee, or have a weekly chat. Another important element in working remotely is to set up a routine. In the morning, make sure you get up, shower, and dress appropriately. Create a structure and routine that works for you.
“Also, use your time to benefit you. If you had a commute that was thirty or forty-five minutes, use that new time—the time you gained—to take a walk, do some mediation, or stretching. Instead of being in a car, you are doing something for yourself.
“Finally, I emphasize taking breaks at home. Use your lunchtime. You don’t have to feel guilty. Peak performance literature indicates that if you get up every fifty to seventy-five minutes, it will reset your brain. It will refresh and energize you, and you will be more productive.”
Over time, people have become acclimated to Zoom. We have learned to read people’s facial and microexpressions. We are, for a lack of a better term, recognizing the humanness in each other.
“When working remotely, we all have to be more attentive to kindness, compassion, and empathy. By practicing and following those emotions, we feel good about ourselves. It offsets the lack of in person interactions. Zoom has already had an impact on our behavior. For example, when an in person meeting would end, many people would just get up and leave. When Zoom meetings end, many people now wave and say, ‘See you later!’ It’s a small thing, but it brings the essence of the real world, our best selves, into the digital space.”
The Genie is Out of the Bottle
For over 25 years, Andrea Hill-Cataldo has been the president of Johnson & Hill Staffing. As a businessperson, she is always planning for the worst-case scenario. Never in her wildest imagination would she have predicted a pandemic.
“In the beginning, we did see some decrease, but slowly over the summer things picked up. Now, our numbers are above pre-pandemic. This is a good time to be looking for a job.”
In her own company, her employees went fully remote. Cataldo-Hill has found what many employers have discovered: Her employees are incredibly productive.
“With working remotely, the genie is out of the bottle. Employers are seeing cost savings with utility bills and a need for less real estate. Employees love the work-family balance. And, of course, the impact on the environment is a tremendous positive. There is no doubt that hybrid, at least, is here to stay.
“Our temp employees have adjusted incredibly well. There has not been one single problem, and they have been very responsible with their work. Not one of our employer partners have complained. In fact, I just did a webinar about employee expectations: Their overwhelming request is for hybrid, and given the current job market, there is no doubt it is heading in that direction.”
When matching employers with potential employees, Johnson & Hill Staffing looks for a specific skill-set for remote workers: maturity, organization, and comfort with technology, particularly Zoom. They also ask if they have a quiet place to work.
“Things are definitely shifting in the work culture. Across the generations, people want a work culture that aligns with their values. They need to believe they are doing meaningful work, and the organization they are working for has a strong social consciousness.”
Making the Space Work for You
Working remotely gives you the power over your own office space. In general, traditional office spaces were designed to fit people into prescribed places, often with no thought of light, air, or movement. You worked in standardized layouts where the only personalization is your family or pet photo, and other reminders of your life “outside.”
With working remotely, you have the opportunity to create an environment conducive to the work you are doing. You can make the space work for you. You can make it flexible.
“Your physical space is one of the most important elements of your work life. Two of the most important qualities for your workspace are simple: good light, and, if possible, fresh air. Studies have shown the natural light improves productivity and improves mood. Fresh air keeps you awake and stimulates your senses.”
The transition to working remotely, combined with incredible advances in technology, have shown the office set-up can be much simpler, such as a home office, kitchen, or den. Even a closet. Nevertheless, there are still best practices you can follow to have a comfortable workspace.
“Your desk and sitting area need to fit your body. In general, whether you are sitting or standing, your joints should be in a neutral position. While working on a keyboard, your wrists should be straight and not cocked. Your back should be upright, and your shoulders relaxed and back, not hunched forward. When sitting, your hips and knees should follow a ninety-degree angle. And your feet should be able to flat on the floor.”
Occupational therapy is a holistic approach to healthcare that promotes your overall well-being and quality of life. Bottom line: Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.
“The key to successfully working remotely is variety. You have to get up and move around. Even if you have invested into a state-of-the-art office set-up, you should get out of your chair every hour and walk around the house, do some stretches, or engage in some kind of activity. This might be easier to do at home than at work. It might be why we are seeing people becoming more productive working remotely. Regardless, it’s not good to be sedentary. When you move, blood flows to the brain. You should make movement a mandatory part of your remote work routine.”
Manage With Your Strongest Muscle
Laura Lynn Dant Meyer '87 G'06 is the head of technology operations audit and compliance at MassMutual. She has worked for the company for over thirty years and has had nineteen different work opportunities for the insurance giant, amassing an enviable skillset in both the technology and managerial areas.
If you do a Google search for “managing remote workers,” the list is endless. From tips to best practices to special apps, they advocate a mind-boggling recipe for managing. So how do you manage remotely? Is there a one size that fits all?
“At this time, we are all one hundred percent fully remote. The transition was very smooth. We continued to do what we did in person: weekly meetings, check-ins, and working sessions. We had to adjust our style somewhat, and we had to employ more emotional intelligence than ever before…we worked at keeping connected.”
Today’s leaders are challenged with managing technology just as much managing people. With remote workers, the issues of keeping up to date with technology changes, maintaining privacy, and protecting data are paramount. Still, it is the people factor that makes remote work a success.
“As we have worked remotely, we have produced as much as if we are in person, and maybe even more. I see that my group is on at all hours, but we joke about it. Yet, it tells me people are very responsible about what needs to be done.
“My management style is based on my core values, and that has not changed with this shift. My core values are very important and guide me in my role: trust, believing in people, building relationships, collaboration, and learning from others.
“The days of micromanaging are out, and a good manager needs to be a player/coach. When the work is hard and challenging, you need to do the right thing and work right beside them. Or stand right beside them. You also need to know when to step out of the ring. If you have a good set of core values, and these values are aligned with the working environment, then everyone doesn’t just do good…they do great. It won’t matter if you are managing remotely.
“I had a mentor who once said to me: ‘Laura, if you learn to lead by your heart, you will be successful in any role that you are asked to step into. Your heart is your strongest muscle. If you do this, then you will be fine.” Sage advice.
What Does the Future Hold?
A December 2020 survey from KPMG, an international consulting and accounting firm, published results that confirmed what many companies and organizations have learned—seventy-one percent of workers prefer to have a hybrid work arrangement.
COVID-19 has also given rise to an increased desire among a new generation of mobile and savvy employees to have greater flexibility and work-life balance. The pandemic has proven that for many workers across the generation, they can indeed work anywhere and anytime, an unanticipated benefit for our increasingly global world.
Companies and organizations must especially be bold and embrace this new reality to retain talent. The new step is critical—how to make it work post-pandemic for employers and employees. The future of work is already here.