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March 31, 2021

Remote Work: Top Social Challenges Facing the Staffing Industry

Humans are social creatures. It’s always been in our best interests to surround ourselves with others – we feel safer, happier, and more fulfilled when we’re part of a tribe.

It is this fact that has made the last year of isolation such a challenging one. And as the most human of human industries, in which everything revolves around relationships and connections, nowhere have the isolating effects of COVID been felt more acutely than in staffing.

In this four-part series we’ll take a look at the social challenges faced by staffing in two key areas: remote work and diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI). We’ll take a look at the shape of the challenges that the industry currently faces, how these might evolve into the future, and the things we can do both now and then to mitigate the effects.

In our first article, let’s take a look at the most glaring challenge that COVID has forced on staffing teams: remote work.

 

Defining and quantifying remote work

‘Remote work is when you work remotely’ you understandably say. But in reality, out-of-office work and remote work can be two very different things.

For the purposes of this article, remote work is classified as any role that sees a worker spend more than 50% of their time out-of-office. Anything less than that would be classed as flexible work – jobs where you might do a bit of travel, or work from home from time to time, but where the office is still very much treated as home base.

The informal nature of flexible work means that we don’t have much data on it. But because remote work is more clearly delineated, we do have some hard numbers to play with.

“We know that 1.5% of the US workforce worked remotely 10 years ago,” begins Jeff Wald, Founder of WorkMarket. “We know that 3% of the workforce worked remotely pre-COVID, we know that the natural limit in the United States for people that can work remote or flexibly is 42%, and we know that at the height of the pandemic, 40% of the US workforce worked remotely.”

This means that almost everyone who has the ability to work from home has been able to dip their toe in the last year or so, and has learned whether or not it’s for them in the process. Often the WFH dream – the money and time savings, the comfort of the couch, setting your own schedule – didn’t align with the WFH realities – the kids running around, the melding of personal and professional lives, and, most pertinently, the feelings of isolation.

This accidental trial has blessed us with some incredibly valuable data. “When we look at surveys, very few people want to go back to 100% in-office,” explains Wald, “but very few people also want to go back to 100% remote working.”

In the end, the consensus is that there isn’t really a consensus at all. The post-COVID workforce will look for flexible work arrangements: the type where they get to decide where they work from, and how often they work from there. They’re looking for options, and smart employers will grant them, although they look set to face a number of challenges in the process.

 

Culture: the defining challenge of remote work

Offering flexible work post-COVID will come with a number of challenges, such as ensuring system security and worker accountability. But most organizations have largely managed to solve these challenges over the course of the pandemic, putting technology, systems, and processes in place to ensure that disparate teams run every bit as smoothly as those in office.

Many organizations are finding that there’s one piece of the puzzle still missing: culture. Creating a sense of cohesiveness and togetherness within a disparate team is a significant challenge. Sure, you can have regular Zoom meetings, and a channel within Microsoft Teams or Slack dedicated to non-work chat, but without the Friday-night drinks, the in-office jokes, and the impromptu watercooler chats, replicating an in-person culture in the virtual world has proven difficult.

“We are a very close-knit team – we always do things together,” says DeLibra Wesley, Chief Operating Officer of The Delta Companies. “Team building is a big part of our culture, and we can't wait to get back to that.”

Wesley has seen the effects of COVID on her team’s culture firsthand. These don’t bear out purely on a human and interpersonal level, but a professional level too. “If you're a new recruiter, and you have seasoned recruiters around you, you pick up on things. You overhear something and think to yourself ‘ooh, I'm gonna try that on my next call.’ These important pieces of professional development are currently missing.”

To some degree these pieces simply can’t be replicated remotely. That being the case, Wesley and her team have put a focus on bringing the team together, in a COVID-safe way.

“We currently have an optional flexible schedule. 90% of our staff don’t want to come into the office for safety reasons. 10% come in for one to five days a week, depending on circumstances.

“We have safety procedures: everyone needs to sign in, sign declarations, and have temperature checks. If you’re away from your cubicle you need to wear a mask and stay six feet apart. We’ve installed step pulls on doors so people don’t have to touch handles (on a personal note, these should be in every gas station bathroom.) We wipe down printers after every use. There are just so many things that you have to think through.”

One can only hope that the sheer weight of these considerations will reduce over time, making the process of bringing your team together a less taxing exercise. But even post-COVID, flexible working arrangements will mean that staffing firms will have to work hard to engender a sense of culture and camaraderie into a workforce that will be disparate to some degree.

 

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Ensuring remote performance

Finally we come to the business of remote work. With less oversight and control, how do you ensure that the performance of remote workers remains at a healthy level?

“A function like sales is easy to measure,” says Wald. “We know how many calls are made, how many deals are closed, and the quality of those deals. But for almost every other job, measuring productivity is far more difficult. I’ve built multiple tech companies, and I still have no metric to measure the productivity of software engineers. In coding, as in so many other jobs, quantity doesn’t equal quality.”

There will therefore be remote working roles that you’ll struggle to apply key metrics to. In place of hard data, these situations will demand constant communication and healthy levels of trust.

This is a subject that we tackle in our second piece in this series: the social challenge of diversity, equality, and inclusion.

If you’re ready to learn more about the most pressing social problems faced by staffing, and how to fix them, stay tuned for part two!