Denis Leclerc

It’s an understatement to say that COVID-19 has changed how we approach culture and communication in the workplace. As vaccines were rolled out and the dangers of being together in enclosed spaces became less severe, employers started looking ahead to a return to the office. But how? What was that going to look like?

Perhaps the biggest question is this: How can business leaders create a successful workplace with employees who now realize that they can be efficient and successful because they have had flexibility in their work roles, schedules, routines, priorities, and locations? 

One short answer is that business leaders have no choice. Employees have had a taste of workplace flexibility and are willing to change jobs to continue working from home, from the office, or a combination of both.

To keep those employees satisfied and productive, global business leaders must maintain their focus on basic business principles, especially on cross-cultural communication. Technology may have opened the door to new, flexible ways of working. But tried-and-true business basics will be necessary to make a work from home (WFH) culture successful. It will be increasingly important for leaders – especially global leaders – to facilitate smooth communications across time zones, cultures, and generations. And it’s very doable. 

Flexible work by the numbers

Before 2020, remote work was primarily reserved for tech workers – think digital nomads living on Caribbean beaches or working from their favorite coffee shop. However, the pandemic showed us that working from home was not that attractive. It was balancing the realities of a busy home while presenting a professional image in video calls. And it took some time to get used to. 

Some of the complaints about WFH, according to several studies, included the increased number of meetings or phone calls, problems with communication technology, distractions at home, and uncertainty about when to end the workday.

Homebound employees needed both trust and support as they navigated this new, more independent world. And they needed clear communication from their leaders.

As COVID-19 cases have fallen and working patterns are being reestablished, many companies around the world are giving employees increased flexibility. But there is still some reluctance from management.

Data from a 2022 McKinsey survey shows that 58% of employees from across the U.S. and working in a wide variety of jobs said they had the chance to work from home at least one day a week. Thirty-five percent of respondents reported having the option to work five days a week. They also found that when employees were offered the opportunity to work on flexible schedules, 87% jumped at the chance. 

Researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that full-time employees around the world are interested in continuing to work from home at a rate that surpasses what employers would like. Most employees reported being favorably surprised by their WFH productivity during the pandemic, and they are willing to negotiate a slight pay cut to continue the flexibility of working from home.

Flexible work varies by industry and role within that industry. For example, the vast majority of employed people in computer and mathematical occupations report having remote-work options. And the people in sectors that are not really open to very flexible options – teaching, healthcare, food prep – may also request flexible schedules. 

Work from home options are becoming important to employees across jobs and sectors as we emerge from COVID-19 era lockdowns. McKinsey researchers found that workers’ third reason to look for a new job was to find a place that would allow them to work remotely. That was behind greater pay ranked first stand better career opportunities coming in second. 

Power shift toward employees: Opportunity for true leaders

The old days of requiring everyone to show up at the office at 9 a.m. are gone. But far from being a problem, this is an opportunity for global leaders. 

There are many reasons that flexibility helps employees be more productive – different personality types, a lack of distractions, and the ability to balance work and life needs. Workers save money, and eventually, employers save money when they can rationalize their real estate needs. Employees in control of their time and talent are happier. 

Creating a flexible workplace where employees have a say in how, when, and where they complete their work can be a win-win for everyone. Employers traditionally have been resistant, fearing that employees will not be available when needed or t will avoid responsibilities if they aren’t being watched. 

When lockdowns closed offices all over the world in the early days of the pandemic, many employers were very clear about their mistrust of having employees sitting at home. Stories were shared widely about employers who installed surveillance software to monitor employees through their communications, application usage, and webcams. 

Leadership is often either about controlling people or influencing people. Many organizations were concerned about having people work from home because they worried that they would lose control of those employees. 

But several studies in the past few years have found that remote work actually translates into more time working. 

It’s a matter of trust and communication 

The pandemic showed us that people not only still worked while at home, but they did their best to communicate well and, in most instances, worked longer and harder. 

The advantages of offering remote working generally outweigh the disadvantages. Yet as remote working grows, there will be some problems. The largest being challenges in communication. 

Once employers can let go of the idea you have to see an employee to know they are being productive, they can begin to develop ways of engaging with their teams that make sense in a post-COVID-19 world. It’s important to establish ways to maintain your company culture in ways that make remote employees feel part of the team. And remember that your team is made up of individuals with diverse needs. 

For the first time in history, there are five generations in the workplace. Each generation has its own unique set of traits and characteristics that they bring to the workplace. This is important because those differences impact the way people communicate and how they want to be managed. The gap in access to technology is one of the key differences between generations. Millennials are digital natives, while baby boomers are digital immigrants. Since working remotely drives employees to communicate using technology, some members of the workforce will be at a natural disadvantage. 

Another generational issue in the workplace is how different generations define success at work. Baby boomers tend to believe that working long hours is what defines success and value face-to-face interactions with co-workers. In contrast, millennials believe that innovation and flexibility are key ingredients for success at work. Relying on Zoom calls and Slack messages across global time zones can make it difficult to bridge those gaps. 

Management styles to accommodate generational and cultural gaps

The most effective managers and leaders understand that different generations and people from different cultures bring unique strengths to the workplace. This is where we come back to the basics, especially when communication is primarily technology driven. It’s important for leaders to be far more inclusive and to pay attention to the audience in online communications. This is not like being in a meeting around a table which allows for several conversations at once or during which you can pick up on non-verbal cues. 

Technology is not the answer. Whether it is Zoom, Skype, Facetime, or whatever new tool comes along, people need to use interpersonal skills they have perfected offline.  

  • Leaders need to be very observant to ensure everyone is included and all points of view are heard. 
  • Managers must understand cultural behavior and language differences that might be misunderstood in a video meeting. 
  • It’s essential that a leader knows their audience and can manage the new environment. 
  • It’s the leader’s responsibility to gain an understanding of the technical tools, for example, something as simple as making sure that team members can all see each other.  

To avoid a feeling of losing control of or distrusting colleagues and employees as 

businesses begin to become more flexible with people working from home, managers need to be willing to be uncomfortable. Leaders will need to take on the responsibility of making sure the new technology works in everyone’s favor. Some basic cultural communications tools to do so include: 

  • Help other leaders become successful.
  • Take on responsibility for diversity and inclusion. 
  • Keep others from checking out.
  • Make sure all parties are heard.
  • Encourage constructive conversations.
  • Stop exclusionary behaviors.
  • Prove individual feedback and coaching.

The global transition from building relationships with colleagues in corporate hallways and conference rooms is disappearing. Gone are the conversations over coffee or quick coaching while walking out of a meeting. For many in the business world, we no longer have predictable processes and structures for communicating. So, we must invent it anew. 

Successfully leading a work from anywhere in the world

The subtleties of communication are lost over Zoom and Slack. And working from home has proven to exacerbate the need for recognition and understanding. Business leaders can help bridge the distance by creating systems for frequent communications. They can provide stability by establishing new communication rituals. 

It will fall on managers and business leaders to ensure that a worldwide network of people working from home – or from a beach in Aruba – are supported and enabled to do their best work. 

And although technology and new tools for communication are making work from home life possible, it’s important that global leaders lean on basic business communications tools to make sure that both employers and employees thrive in this new world.

Thunderbird Clinical Associate Professor Denis LeClerc

Denis Leclerc

Clinical Professor of Cross-Cultural Communication and Global Negotiations

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