Brock’s Niagara Community Observatory examines remote work as a long-term strategy

Remote work shouldn’t be for every organization, but when it’s done right, it can be a boost for worker well-being and help maintain “a healthy and productive work culture,” says new Brock University research.

“For those organizations that do choose some form of remote work, our research suggests that success depends on building a culture rooted in human connection, supported with clear communication plans, the right digital tools and a compatible managerial style,” says Kate Cassidy, co-author of the latest brief produced by Brock’s Niagara Community Observatory (NCO).

To be, or not to be, remote? Examining the essential factors needed for ongoing remote work success,” explores the benefits and potential downsides of remote work.

With stay-at-home orders instituted in March 2020 having wound down, “we are now at a key transition point that requires deliberate discussion and planning,” says Cassidy, adjunct professor within Brock’s Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film.

Cassidy says the research brief is meant to guide management in deciding whether or not to implement work-from-home strategies, some kind of hybrid approach or a full return to the physical location in the long term.

To do this, Cassidy and co-author Mackenzie Rockbrune, an undergraduate Communications student at Brock, identify seven themes and a series of questions attached to each that managers should consider during their decision-making process.

These include:

Fit: Different personality types, situations and workers’ needs are some of the factors that determine if employees desire remote work and how they’ll cope. Employers are encouraged to ask: Do employees have a quiet home office space and a fast, reliable and secure internet connection? How will we ensure everyone feels like a valued and equal part of the team if some work remotely and others don’t? How will we help staff combat the isolation?

Tasks: Many activities need to be done at a specific location that has specialized equipment, and require hands-on teamwork or mentoring. Work that involves deep problem solving, uninterrupted concentration and individual effort do well at home. Employers are encouraged to ask: Is remote work a good fit with client and customer needs? Are there issues — security, legal or other — with letting work materials leave the physical office?

Communication: Creating a virtual office involves ensuring everyone is informed about what’s going on through clear, timely, consistent communications that create a sense of unity and collegiality. Employers are encouraged to ask: When and how often should we share organization and team-wide information, so everyone is in the loop? When should a video call be used rather than a quick text?

Relations: When people don’t see each other daily, relationship-building must be more intentional in building social bonds and a sense of belonging. Employers are encouraged to ask: What role do serendipitous and informal encounters play for us and should we try to recreate those moments in a new way? How will we maintain team cohesion when some people are working remotely while others are on site?

Organizational Culture: This is “the collection of stories, traditions, values and expectations that sets the context for everything an organization does.” Employers are encouraged to ask: How should our desired culture influence our decisions about whether, or how, to adopt remote work arrangements? In what ways should we redesign our onboarding process for remote or hybrid workers?

Tools: The most appropriate and effective technologies used in remote work need to “best support the people, tasks, communication, relationships and culture of each unique organization.” Employers are encouraged to ask: Have we ensured there is an appropriate level of data security to go remote? What steps should we take to help employees manage the cognitive overload of constant digital interaction?

Support: Remote management must support an atmosphere of trust, empathy and understanding. Remote work calls for a shift in supervisory focus from activity to results that are clearly defined. Employers are encouraged to ask: What additional training do managers need to support remote employees? Will remote employees have results-focused performance metrics? How will we support employee well-being?

The themes and questions are based in part on interviews Cassidy and Rockbrune conducted in early 2021 with more than a dozen executives and interns from 24 different Ontario-associated organizations in a broad cross-section of fields.

“The NCO is pleased to continue to be a platform for Brock researchers to share their current research interests with the larger Niagara community,” says NCO Interim Director Jeff Boggs, adding that the research “zeroes in on one of the most important changes it has wrought on the workplace: reliance on working from home for many office-based jobs.”

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year saw an estimated 70,000 people in Niagara leave their offices and work primarily at home for the first time. Meanwhile, labour force reports indicate that about one third of Ontario businesses anticipate some remote work to continue after the emergency ends, says the brief.

Remote Work: By the Numbers

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately one in every three Canadians were working from home, almost three times more than those who worked remotely, at least occasionally, in 2016. (Source: Statistics Canada, April 1, 2021)
  • A Canadian Labour Force Survey conducted in February 2021 found that 80 per cent of new remote workers would like to perform at least half of their hours remotely once the pandemic is over. (Source: Statistics Canada, April 1, 2021)
  • It is estimated that just over 70,000 Niagara workers were working primarily at home for the first time during the pandemic. (Calculations by Cassidy and Rockbrune)
  • Labour force reports indicate that about one third of Ontario businesses anticipate some remote work to continue after the emergency ends. (Source: Statistics Canada, April 1, 2021)
  • Approximately 61 per cent of Canadian jobs cannot be regularly performed away from a specific location. (Statistics Canada, May 28, 2020)

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