The shift to remote work has led company leaders to think about how to treat employees fairly and monitor productivity when most workers are not in the office. A lot of startups that have gone “remote first” have policies that let employees work and show up to the office when they please – assuming there is still an office to go to. Other companies hoping to keep their employees happy and compete with companies that let people work from anywhere are meeting in the middle with policies that ask people to come in a few days a week. Only a rare few are demanding a return to pre-pandemic norms.
Just like there are a variety of ways to balance remote and office work, there are a variety of solutions to make sure that whatever the company goes with, employees are productive and the company can get ahead of security and risk issues in this new era. The fact is that different industries have vastly different security requirements, workflows, and cultural standards. As a result, an individual business’ culture must dictate the standards managers set for remote productivity and security.
Let’s explore these three dimensions of remote work — security, workflow, and culture — to understand how businesses should be thinking about remote management and why an individualized approach is the only tenable strategy.
I have helped hundreds of businesses figure out how to use technology to safeguard security in a remote work environment. What I have discovered is that the rules businesses must put in place to accomplish that mission vary according to the sensitivity of the information with which their employees engage and the regulations to which their industries are subject. These factors outweigh the importance of any one manager or chief executive’s philosophy.
For example, some companies allow employees to use their work computers for recreation and socialization as long as they do not download viruses or access sites that are unsafe for work. Others forbid personal activity on work laptops altogether. Some monitor all activity on company laptops; others simply turn off monitoring outside work hours.
But what determines the right approach is less a strict or free-wheeling manager and more so the demands of the industry. Banks, for example, tend to be strict, forbidding access to financial records outside work hours. By contrast, a lifestyle media site might be more lax. The task for managers is not to implement arbitrary rules, which are likely to solicit employee skepticism and invite disobedience, but to research the risks and regulations facing their business and craft security and monitoring policies in response to them.
The same individualized logic applies to required workflows. Some companies need employees to work synchronously from, say, nine in the morning to six in the afternoon to maximize collaboration or interact successfully with customers. Others can afford to go all in on the flexibility remote work can grant, allowing employees to work on their own schedules as long as they produce the desired results.
For example, the aforementioned bank may limit employees to nine-to-five hours due to restrictions surrounding access to documents. When it comes to businesses with high-volume customer interaction, a call center might expect continuous work from one set time to another, as opposed to eight hours whenever an employee chooses to put that time in, in order to ensure consistent outreach or availability. On the contrary, a team of developers or writers who can work in relative isolation might permit its employees to work from midnight to four in the morning as long as the work gets done.
Working “any time anywhere” might be an enticing new standard for post-pandemic work, but those standards are impossible for many businesses to implement. Companies have all sorts of business requirements to consider. They may need teams to be able to work closely together, to support customers at specific hours of the day, or to access data securely. For managers, the key is to be transparent when setting standards and to provide employees maximum freedom within the reasonable constraints of company and customer demands.
Even companies with seemingly “old school” cultures have learned a lot about how they can operate in the future. During the pandemic, Walmart CTO Suresh Kumar noted, “As we’ve moved to virtual work, we haven’t just coped, we’ve actually thrived.” If Walmart can embrace remote work, so can many other companies.
Managers can certainly implement policies and use technologies to ensure workers are productive and their behaviors are secure outside of the office. But it is culture — setting transparent and intuitive standards, securing employee buy-in, and fostering maximum possible freedom while safeguarding business interests — that ultimately determines the success of remote collaboration.
In my experience helping companies enforce security and productivity standards in remote settings, I have increasingly seen businesses abandoning ‘hybrid work’ and embracing fully remote policies. Knowledge-economy workers learned during the peak days of the pandemic that they could work without being in the office, and managers are largely learning to comply with those demands. Those who allow employees to feel safe, trusted, and free while explaining the imperatives of their particular businesses will be most successful at preserving productivity and security as well as employee satisfaction.