Emotional Intelligence at Work
By Michael Miller
Remote Work Has a Trust Problem. Here are 4 Rules to Fix It with Emotional Intelligence
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Big feelings about remote work
The debate about remote work is getting people all fired up.
Elon Musk called remote work “morally wrong” and wants people to “get off the god*mn moral high horse with the work-from-home bullsh*t.”
LinkedIn influencer and work-from-home advocate Tim Denning shot back that “blaming work-from-home in a lot of companies is just a cop out for bad leadership and a lack of trust.”
Let’s dig into the facts and feelings of the remote work debate – and how emotional intelligence can help.
Remote work stabilizes – and polarizes
Flexible work is no longer a temporary pandemic response but an enduring feature of the modern working world. Remote work has stabilized post-COVID at about 25% of all paid working days, per the Global Survey of Working Arrangements. Globally, that means full-time workers spent an average of basically 1 day (.09) working from home. That’s a fivefold increase from 2019.
There are some important regional variations in how often people work from home. Levels are higher in English-speaking countries, for example: Full-time employees worked an average of 1.4 full paid days per week from home across Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US (compared to 0.7 in Asia, 0.8 in Europe, and 0.9 in Latin America).
But when asked how many days employees would like to work from home, those regional differences disappear. On average, employees want nearly double (2.0 days per week) what employers are currently offering, a gap that is present in all 34 countries in the survey. That leads us to the heart of the remote work dilemma:
Most employees like hybrid and remote work and, on the whole, want even more of it. Many leaders feel threatened by it and want to go in the opposite direction. CEOs are increasingly calling employees back to the office, even against employee’s wishes, and in some cases, seemingly without any evidence as to why.
How can we apply emotional intelligence to the remote work debate?
4 rules for remote work – and how emotional intelligence can help
Here are 4 principles about remote work and how to apply emotional intelligence:
1. There is no one-size-fits-all solution
When given an option to work remotely, 9 out of 10 employees take it. This dynamic is widespread across demographics, occupations, and geographies. But in terms of how many days employees want to work remotely vs. in person, there is almost no consensus. Check out this graph:
No matter what remote work policy a company lands on, if it’s the same for everyone, well over half the employees won’t get their first choice. And even if everyone was magically satisfied, it wouldn’t last long: Research suggests that employee preferences vary by age and life stage, with workers in their 20s, 50s and 60s working a smaller percentage of days from home than people in their 30s and 40s. This makes sense. Young workers in their 20s often benefit from professional development and mentoring, which is best carried out in person. And people in their 30s and 40s with young children need the schedule flexibility to meet child care demands. There is no one-size-fits-all solution – and there won’t be.
How to apply emotional intelligence: It’s essential for organizations to differentiate and personalize. When possible, provide flexibility and space for people to develop authentic, powerful, individual solutions – that honor and work with the complexities of real people!
2. Choice is critical
Research suggests there are many benefits to letting employees have a voice in where and when they get work done. CEOs may genuinely believe that the company’s culture is under siege by work-from-home, but is a culture of dissatisfied compliance what you’re going for? “Rarely have people embraced culture when they’re forced to do something,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice.
In fact, research from Gallup found that when employees are required to work fully on-site, but they would prefer to work hybrid or fully remote, employees experience:
- significantly lower engagement
- significantly lower wellbeing
- significantly higher intent to leave
- significantly higher levels of burnout
Failing to offer flexible work arrangements is a significant risk to an organization’s hiring, employee engagement, performance, wellbeing and retention strategies.
How to apply emotional intelligence: Give employees autonomy and flexibility whenever possible. Switch from a top-down mandate to a team-driven approach.
3. Remote work has its pros and cons
Is remote work an excuse for lazy workers to stay home and do nothing, or the bridge employees needed to be more productive than ever and have better work-life balance?
It is neither – and both. It’s a strategy with benefits and challenges. Let’s look at a few of the most contentious topics.
“I’m a big believer that people tend to be more productive when they’re in person,” Elon Musk told CNBC’s David Faber, voicing the most common argument against remote work.
Is he right? Does remote work lower productivity?
The answer is a little complicated. Fully remote work is associated with about 10% lower productivity than fully in-person work, per a research paper published in July. Hybrid working, however, appears to have no impact on productivity.
Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University, one of the world’s top researchers on working arrangements, has found that employees working from home and from the office take more or less the same number of breaks, but do different things. WFH employees take more breaks for exercise, childcare and home chores. Office employees take more breaks for phones, reading and gossip.
Overall, the research suggests that workers are just as productive on hybrid schedules as they are in-person.
There is still an argument to be made that, especially for new teams, face-to-face time is critical. But even on that, the data is mixed.
Modern scientific research is a fascinating example, with research teams often spanning many universities and countries. Groups working without face-to-face interaction have historically been less innovative – up to five times less likely to produce “breakthrough” science. But in the past decade, the innovation gap between on-site and remote teams suddenly reversed. Today, the teams divided by the greatest distance are producing the most significant and innovative work.
For new teams and new ideas, however, at least some in-person time seems to improve performance.
Are flexible work schedules good for employee wellbeing? Employees tend to say yes.
Consider these statistics from a 2022 Cisco survey of 28,000 full-time employees around the globe.
- 78% of respondents say remote and hybrid work improved their overall wellbeing,
- 79% of respondents felt that working remotely improved their work-life balance
- 74% report that working from home improved their family relationships
- 51% strengthened their friendships
Some research raises concerns about the impact of remote work on employee mental wellbeing, suggesting it leads to a sense of social isolation, meaninglessness and lack of work-life boundaries. This seems to be a concern particularly for younger workers.
Overall, the evidence suggests that hybrid work is better for employee wellbeing – leading to higher engagement and lower levels of burnout.
How to apply emotional intelligence: Avoid the temptation to live on the extreme when it relates to remote work, and weigh the pros and cons for each specific individual, team and situation. When implementing return-to-office mandates, keep in mind that if employees are concerned that the change will negatively impact their wellbeing, work-life-balance and family relationships, that conversation needs to be handled with care.
4. The real problem is trust
The most fascinating part of the remote work debate to me is how differently managers and employees can perceive the same exact situation.
Per research from Microsoft’s Work trends Report, 87% of employees report they are productive at work, while only 12% of managers say they have confidence their team is productive.
This trust gap is at the center of remote work debate.
Many leaders have responded to that lack of trust by increasing the number of days employees are required to be in-office. That’s a Band-Aid. Or worse. It certainly won’t help trust if employees aren’t on board.
Flexible work is an opportunity
In some form, hybrid and remote work is here to stay. The smartest leaders and organizations will recognize that and develop the internal policies and capacity to take advantage of it. To use it build trust. To prioritize employee wellbeing. To provide both the sense of autonomy and connection that most employees crave.
That requires both courage and emotional intelligence – but the organizations that do it right will have a real competitive advantage.
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