Virtual First: Maximising the returns of remote work

By James Ang

Almost two years into the pandemic, the future of work in Singapore continues to remain uncertain.

Organisations continue to grapple with getting their employees back to the office full time, or rapidly updating their digital infrastructure to support their largely remote workforce. Some predict that it is the end of workplaces as we know it, while others continue to vouch for the importance of office spaces in building office culture and human connections. 

Despite the uncertainty, a survey by 451 Research shows that 75% of companies have already implemented, or will implement, expanded work from home policies. With the Singapore government viewing the Covid-19 situation as endemic, remote working for many employees is the new normal, with many acclimatising to and even preferring these changes. 

Perhaps the solution is not so clear cut as “either/or”. With physical safety, mental wellbeing and work-life balance coming through as priorities in the new normal, organisations have an opportunity to redefine what a ‘workspace’ can be. 

Worldwide pilot on remote working

It seems like the world is participating in a worldwide pilot on remote work, and we are learning new things everyday about its benefits and challenges. A global study by GitLab found that one third of workers surveyed would leave their jobs if remote work was no longer an option, citing that they feel more focused at home than in the office. Yet, many also find themselves facing interruptions, ineffective communication, and technological issues at home. 

A larger point of contention, however, is autonomy and trust. The immediate shift to remote working at the beginning of the pandemic caught everyone off guard, and many employers have not been trained to manage distributed teams, resulting in this need to monitor their employees constantly. Naturally, managers need to ensure that deadlines are met and positive results produced, but a fine balance needs to be achieved.

Adapting to the challenges of distributed work amid a global crisis will require all organisations to retool their operational structures to be more fluid and agile, or risk losing talent. This could be fully in-person, completely virtual or a delicate mix of both. A ‘virtual first’ model, includes the best of both worlds: employees will primarily work remotely, but there will be days of the week where in-person collaboration occurs. This model allows more freedom and autonomy, enabling people to schedule their work around their lives instead of the opposite. Fine-tuning the relationship between autonomy and trust will then allow businesses to ensure sustainability and thrive from the virtual first experience.

Entering the new paradigm

There has been a shift in mindset when it comes to the mobility of work. Most organisations know they can be productive, but few have prior experience in managing a fully remote or even hybrid workforce. Many CEOs (84%) of companies based in Singapore believe that the remote working trend due to the pandemic is irreversible, and are looking to downsize office space. This will reshape what a workspace landscape is for many, particularly for those who transitioned between jobs during the pandemic, or those who have jumped onto the digital nomad bandwagon. 

The challenge for these groups then, is building and cementing the human connection with their new colleagues. Essential to making virtual first a seamless experience would be changing support systems and technology - adopting new processes, best practices, and communication/team norms are critical to making distributed work a success. These tools allow new colleagues to build up rapport within and across teams, despite being unable to meet in-person for most of their working time.

Advancements in technology are also critical for seamless collaboration and connection in a distributed world. With emails and online meetings constantly flowing in, it’s hard to keep track of all the tasks at the same time. Having the right online collaboration tools will play a crucial role in this new era, helping teams to stay in sync with workflows being streamlined.

Company culture and productivity — a new intersection

While upper management makes the ultimate decision if the virtual first workstyle functions best for their companies, it is also pertinent that employees have the opportunity to give feedback or be given the flexibility to decide what works best for them. In addition, companies should be shifting to a mindset of digital transformation, if they have not already, to mitigate and streamline work processes. The adoption of digital tools and technology make remote working much more convenient and improves communication amongst distributed teams.
According to KellyOCG’s 2021 Global Workforce Agility Survey, 85% of Singaporean employees share the sentiment that technology adoption is key to an organisation’s success, yet a majority of employers feel that their workforce lacks the skills to do so. It is important to consider training and upskilling employees to better integrate them into post-pandemic ways of working. This further fosters company culture, that helps to boost morale and productivity in the long run. In the short term, digital nomads, and new-comers alike both get to enjoy the sense of familiarity and interconnectedness, even on the off-chance that they have never met their coworkers.

As companies plan for the post-COVID era, they have an opportunity to move away from the old status quo. Adopting the virtual first approach to reduce the number of workers in the office could result in a best-of-both-worlds outcome that preserves focus while still allowing for collaboration and cultural cohesion.

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