The virtual workplace is not a new concept. As of 2018, according to Global Workplace Analytics, there were 5 million employees working from home at least half-time. By April 2020, early in the pandemic, this number had skyrocketed. Gallup Panel Data reported 62% of all employed adults had engaged in work from home due to the virus. COVID-19 has forced employers to adapt, and also created momentum for remote work that will likely remain in the wake of the virus. There are studied positives of remote work: a Stanford University study found a 13% increase in employee productivity among remote workers, and Owl Labs determined remote workers to be 13% more likely to remain in their jobs for the next 5 years.
In order to reap the full benefits of remote work, management must acknowledge and remedy certain negative effects of the virtual workplace. Buffer.com asked remote workers to identify their biggest struggle with remote work in 2019: 22% reported problems in “unplugging” after work, 19% complained of loneliness, and 17% focused on diminished collaboration. Furthermore, Harvard Business Review reported that those working remotely believe themselves to be disadvantaged in having their priorities addressed, that they are subject to being spoken poorly about behind their back, and that their projects are edited without an opportunity for input. These sentiments illustrate that communication is a major issue in an online workplace. Accordingly, management should focus on enhancing organizational communication skills─ with and among employees─ in order to improve remote relationships, enhance collaboration, and productivity.
Even before COVID-19, businesses had adjusted their management practices to address the new communication barriers erected by remote work. In 2018, MIT’s Sloan Management Review conducted research on effective communication tactics in virtual workplaces. They found the five best practices to be “matching the technology to the task, making intentions clear, staying in sync, being responsive and supportive, and being open and inclusive”. Since the spread of COVID-19, the attention of experts in the field has turned to similar concerns. Harvard Business School Professor Michael Beer encourages organizations to facilitate honest conversations. Beer believes that the “antidote” to discouragement in the workplace is allowing the easy spread of information from bottom to the top. Beer recommends that managers interview employees for feedback, and to pass the information to executives. Professor Amy C. Edmonson emphasizes the importance of establishing “psychological safety” first, which lets employees feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts. Similarly, McKinsey advises leaders to use more empathy; COVID-19 is a widespread tragedy and management cannot fully know who has been affected by it and to what extent. Leaders should be conscious of the possible struggles their employees confront and respond with empathy. Establishing an empathetic attitude will help foster honest conversations between employees and management, which will help mitigate the negative impacts of remote work on communication.
It is vital that organizations adapt to changing times and new necessities by implementing these approaches to organizational communication. The new norms and expectations that the COVID-19 pandemic have forced upon the workplace will change management strategies permanently. If companies do not begin restructuring communication pathways now, the failure to adapt will leave them disadvantaged.