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Leading Teams Forward, Advised by Gallup Remote Work Trends

Leading Teams Forward, Advised by Gallup Remote Work Trends

by Jennifer Robison and Adam Hickman

Story Highlights

  • Now is the time to solidify your post-pandemic plan
  • The number of remote employees doubled in early 2020
  • High-performing managers are clear about expectations and priorities

If you're a leader, you're worrying about your employees' productivity -- whether they're in the office, at home or a hybrid of both -- particularly if productivity is as high for remote workers as for those on-site. After a year like 2020, decisions about productivity take on a whole new dimension.

The problem is that in six months, the world won't look like it does today, and it'll look different six months after that. Today's decisions may not fit next year's needs -- but revising a strategy introduces disruption.

You -- and your employees -- have probably had more than enough disruption.

Gallup's data -- reflecting the experiences of more than 20,000 remote workers -- can guide your current and future-focused decisions. What remote workers say they need to perform is what you need to know to make good decisions.

Below you'll find analysis, sorted by individual contributors and managers, contextualized with Gallup research -- including data from our workplace and news resources regarding remote work and wellbeing -- to help you decide the next steps that lead you steadily forward, wherever you want to arrive.

Current Issues for Individual Contributors

The number of employees working remotely doubled from mid-March to early April 2020, from 31% to 62%, and most don't want to return to the office full time. Many new remote workers have established their remote-work rhythm and are more productive from home than from the office.

However, humans are social animals, and reuniting with their team will fulfill a very real need for social wellbeing. Home offices may seem awfully lonely in comparison. As people begin to return to the office, expect to see new energy behind collaboration and innovation (and maybe a brief dip in productivity) during the first few days.

But when the novelty of the workplace reunion wears off -- and, more specifically, when schools and childcare centers are all safely open -- many employees may well lobby to return to their home office. Don't be surprised to find millennials at the head of that pack. They've done especially well working remotely, though Gallup finds similar wellbeing and engagement for older remote workers.

The number of employees working remotely doubled from mid-March to early April 2020, from 31% to 62%, and most don't want to return to the office full time. Many new remote workers have established their remote-work rhythm and are more productive from home than from the office.

Hybrid work seems like a good solution. True, your company will forfeit many of the advantages of a remote workforce -- a global labor pool, lower infrastructure costs and geography-adjusted salaries -- but sustained engagement, productivity and retention may justify a hybrid solution.

Moreover, Gallup finds that employees who work remotely 60% to 80% of the time are more engaged than those who work exclusively in one place. Their wellbeing is higher too, which is a top concern among leaders right now.

Whatever model makes the most sense for your organization, pulse surveys can help you track your employees' changing feelings and stay ahead of the trend.

Future Issues for Individual Contributors

Unfortunately for some employees who want to work remotely, Gallup finds that some roles flourish best on-site. That doesn't mean you can't have a flexible workplace -- it just means your plan will need to include selectivity and individualization.

For instance, according to Gallup's database of more than 550 jobs summarized into 35 roles across 20 industries, an optimal remote work role can be performed off-site, has inherently well-defined tasks and processes, and doesn't require highly interdependent work.

Knowledge workers tend to fit those criteria, but not across the board. The engagement level of accountants, CPAs and auditors, for instance, does not improve when they work from home more often -- but finance, insurance and real estate roles thrive off-site. The difference is related to meaningful feedback and collaboration, which the first group seems to lack out of the office.

Meanwhile, some accountants have flourished at home, while some real estate agents desperately need to work with others. The constant variable is the need for good managers. The right solution must account for the demands of the role, the personality of the individual and the capacity of the manager to coach performance flexibly.

But beware: Employees' definitions of flexibility may soon be about work hours as much as work location. That's a dicey proposition. Irregular hours make work-flow handoffs and collaboration vulnerable to lapses in accountability, and employees can seem irresponsible and uncommunicative to their coworkers on a standard clock.

On the other hand, more and more studies show a correlation between wellbeing, time flexibility and productivity. Finland changed its labor laws to maintain that productivity gain -- employees can now work 50% of their hours whenever and wherever they like. And aligning work across time zones is already the norm in global companies.

So, if a fully remote workforce wins out for your company over a hybrid model and you want to ramp up productivity, time flexibility may be a beneficial offering. Just make sure the roles are right for remote work and managers can support workers dispersed by time and location.

Managers: What You Should Know Now

Most managers are open to permitting remote work post-pandemic, Gallup finds. And both before and during the pandemic, managers of remote workers have had the most highly engaged and productive employees. That may explain why a majority of managers think today's remote work policies will outlast COVID-19.

Bar graph showing predictions of remote work policies after the pandemic, and most respondents expect they'll allow more remote work going forward.

Still, some managers of remote workers are more effective than others. Gallup finds that the highest-performing remote managers are crystal clear about expectations and priorities, give meaningful feedback, hold themselves and others accountable, and make sure workers have opportunities to learn and grow. In fact, among millennials who have worked remotely since the start of the pandemic, a staggering 75% are engaged in their job. These same millennials also strongly agree that their manager keeps them informed and that they feel well-prepared at work.

Many of those managers struggled to prevent employee burnout, though. Before COVID-19, the more people worked off-site, the less burnout they suffered. Now the opposite is true. Some of that can be blamed on pandemic-era conditions, such as kids at home, stress, and the lack of a proper workspace and boundaries. But remote work can exacerbate what Gallup finds are the root causes of burnout: unfair treatment, unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, a lack of managerial support and unreasonable time pressure. If wellbeing is a priority, that's crucial intel.

Bar graph showing that, before the pandemic, the more people worked remotely, the less often they very often or always felt burned out. Now, those who work remotely all of the time are more likely to feel burned out.

Managers: What's Coming

These challenges will not disappear with the pandemic, so heading off burnout may require manager development focused on navigating remote work conditions. Actually, development may help managers do a host of things better, and coaching employees is at the top.

Gallup research shows that today's employees want development, purpose and in-the-moment feedback. In other words, they prefer "coaching" over "bossing." Data also show that well-coached teams tend to considerably outperform less ably managed teams on engagement, retention, safety, productivity and profitability metrics.

The world's largest work-from-home experiment was certainly proof-of-concept for coaching. The only way managers could inspire and motivate high performance was through ongoing coaching conversations -- and remote workers are more liable than in-house employees to say they have opportunities to learn and grow. Many managers achieved record-high engagement levels and productivity while maintaining the consistency, clarity and authenticity of their cultures.

Gallup research shows that today's employees want development, purpose and in-the-moment feedback. In other words, they prefer "coaching" over "bossing."

Next-gen videoconference technology built with behavioral science gleaned from a year of online meetings will surely alleviate today's communication difficulties. Still, nothing beats great management. Regardless of your path forward -- sans remote work, fully remote or a hybrid approach -- reskilling managers from bosses to coaches may provide inestimable long-term gains.

Incidentally, if your future does include remote work, those managers will star in an unbeatable recruiting message. Flexibility is no longer a rare benefit now, but highly developed remote coaches will become your new unique employment brand differentiator.

That matters when smaller cities are paying remote workers big bucks to move to town, and good coaching increasingly defines a good job.

A Final Thought for Leaders: Organizational Wellbeing

One of leaders' chief concerns right now is employee wellbeing. And rightfully so: Gallup finds that negative emotions like stress, worry and anger are up, especially among remote workers -- which affects people's wellbeing and organizations' performance. Your employees' wellbeing really matters.

But remember: Yours does too. And "Leading During a Pandemic" was most likely not a class you were required to take in college. So, as you plan the next six months -- which won't be like the six months before them or like the six months after -- plan to take your own wellbeing as seriously as your employees.'

Employees can only be as successful as managers enable them to be. But your company can only be successful if you are. Think about that as you strategize your future. Now and in the months to come, your wellbeing is as important as everyone else's.

Navigating the future of work -- whether remote, in person or a hybrid -- doesn't have to be frightening.

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