Remote workers must not be left behind, workplace design experts warn

May 23, 2022, 8:08 PM UTC
U.S. Department of Labor chief innovation officer Chike Agu, IBM general manager Katrina Alcorn, Boston University organizational psychologist Connie Hadley, and Slack senior vice president of design Ethan Eismann speak with Fortune executive editor Kristen Bellstrom at the Brainstorm Design conference on May 23, 2022 in Brooklyn, New York.
Rebecca Greenfield for Fortune Magazine

Employers will have to proceed gingerly and be transparent in their thinking and policy implementation as they figure out what return to the office means for their companies and staff, lest they risk losing top talent and demoralize the troops, a panel of experts in workplace design told a Fortune conference.

“We were all enlisted unwillingly in this massive experiment,” Ethan Eismannsenior vice president of design at Slack joked at the Fortune Brainstorm Design conference in Brooklyn on Monday. The way he sees it, the shift to more remote work even as the pandemic begins to lose urgency is as tectonic a shift as the moves from the Industrial Age to office work to knowledge work.

And employers have to get this right, he noted, citing surveys conducted by Slack finding that 94% of knowledge workers wanted more scheduling flexibility but 65% saying there weren’t getting it.

What’s more, another concern for workers is anxiety among remote workers that they could be left behind because of “proximity bias” among bosses that leads them to favor people they see in person. And bosses in person can sometimes be less clear in their communications and expressing strategic goals, said Chike Aguh, chief innovation officer at the U.S. Department of Labor.  

“In person, you actually can be a little sloppy, as a manager. You can be less clear about your strategy than you should be because, you say ‘I can see people. I can see when they’re off task and get them back on. I can be sloppy about communication because I can see you every day,'” Aguh warned.

This desire for flexibility in work arrangements, particularly for parents or caregivers, was already there before the pandemic forced the issue, meaning it won’t go away even if COVID finally recedes. “These are conversations that a lot of people were trying to have before the pandemic, and it was falling on deaf ears. There was a ton of data that showed that working from home, for example, people are more productive,” said Katrina Alcorn, general manager of design at IBM.

Conversely, another challenge with return to work is that the flexibility people seek is sometimes not conducive with the camaraderie and collegiality many seek even as they want to be able to work remotely more. “That collides with their other desire for collaboration and connection at work,” said Connie Hadley, an organizational psychologist at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.

Managers have a lot of work to do to rethink the value of in-person work in an office and make it be about more than keeping tabs on workers. “How do we tackle a new world where management is less about observation and more about empowerment?” asked Eismann. At the same time, he said companies need to remember that there is an element of caretaking and reassurance people get from colleagues in person. That can mean things like immediate feedback after one has given a presentation to a team, for instance.

And it is important for bosses’ bosses to change their outlook and avoid infantilizing workers. “For too long, managers have been expected to be glorified babysitters, and now we’ve seen that we can’t do that anymore, and we never should have, so now is our opportunity to change that,” said Alcorn.

But whatever path companies go down in the new approach to work, being upfront and clear with workers will be essential. As Aguh put it: “Transparency impacts retention. So people who don’t feel that their company is being transparent about their remote working policies are four times more likely to look for new positions in the coming year.” And in this tight labor market, no company needs that.

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