Even when the pandemic ends, many Capital Region workers won’t go back to five days a week at a cubicle. (Shutterstock photo)

Remote Work Is Here to Stay

So how do you keep your team productive?

Back Longreads Jan 4, 2022 By Steven Yoder

This story is part of our January 2022 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

When Jamie Von Sossan became CEO of 3fold Communications in December 2019, she couldn’t have known she’d be steering the company through an unprecedented global emergency. Earlier that year as director of operations, she’d spent months having the company’s headquarters at 21st and K in Midtown Sacramento redesigned and repainted. But her 25-person team had only a few months to enjoy the new look before the statewide shutdown sent them home to work.

Von Sossan herself had children ages 7 and 9 home from school, so in the following months she’d often go to the office to work by herself. At times it was all too much: There were many days she’d cry at her desk. “It’s a cold, dark, gray building, and it’s usually so bright and full of life and creativity and energy, and all of the clients coming in and out,” she says.  

Still, with no end to the shutdown in sight, she made plans to keep the company productive at a distance. In July 2020, she hired a vice president of operations to set up client relations software that would let the team better manage workflow remotely. It would take six months and didn’t bring in money on its own, so it was a tough investment decision at a time companies like hers were closing everywhere.

And in fall 2020 Von Sossan surveyed her staff to ask how they’d be most effective going forward: working fully remotely, in person or some combination. Some wanted to be at home most of the time, another group wanted to be mostly at the office and a third wanted a mix. But everyone needed a central office they could come to for meetings or when home wasn’t conducive to work.

So 3fold radically downsized, subletting the 6,000-square-foot 21st and K Street office and moving to a 400-square-foot layout at Spaces R Street, a coworking center where they have eight workstations — a big cost savings. Today when 3fold teams need to brainstorm, they meet there. Von Sossan keeps everyone connected through regular events, such as an outing to a River Cats game last September. So far it’s working. “We’ve never been more creative, more productive,” Von Sossan says. “Deadlines are met. Everything’s getting done. Honestly, operationally there are no challenges.”

“We’ve never been more creative, more productive. Deadlines are met. Everything’s getting done. Honestly, operationally there are no challenges.”

Jamie Von Sossan, CEO, 3fold Communications

Even when the pandemic ends, many Capital Region workers won’t go back to five days a week at a cubicle. In a July​​–August 2021 survey by nonprofit regional civic organization Valley Vision, more than three-quarters of employers from six Capital Region counties who responded said they expected to have their workforces on a hybrid schedule — employees working partially off-site — 12 to 24 months from then. In the new world, how supervisors work with their remote teams will be essential to business success, management experts and employers say.

Many employees say they prefer the flexibility that comes with remote work. (Photo by Terence Duffy)

When remote work doesn’t work

 A lot can go wrong. Last year, San Francisco startup Chef Robotics missed a key product deadline by a month because its remote team of engineers had trouble integrating and testing software and hardware at a distance, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The chief executive said problems that took an hour to solve when everyone was in the office took a day when they were remote. In the end, the company gave up on remote work and moved to a bigger office to get everyone on-site. 

 In her 2021 book “Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere,’’ Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley describes a remote-work failure at one of the country’s fastest-growing real estate companies. When a sudden dip in interest rates brought in a flood of new customers, the virtual team tasked with processing loans got behind. One customer Neeley profiled lost his loan because of the long delay. It all happened because the company didn’t reorganize its remote work procedures to meet surges in customer demand, she writes. 

Some virtual workers are struggling. The number with mental health issues is spiking as they spend more time alone and companies have trouble keeping teams connected, says Renee John, Valley Vision’s 21st Century Workforce project leader. Employees have kids learning from home, making it tough to focus. In the new environment, some companies don’t have metrics to measure performance and productivity, she says.  

Then there’s the legal risk. Under California law, employers must provide a “safe and healthful” workplace whether staff are at the office or at home, says Mike Letizia, president and CEO of Stockton-based Letizia HR Solutions. So if someone working at home trips and breaks a leg while answering a work call, it’s a potential workers’ compensation claim. The insurer will ask whether the company inspected the employee’s work site and made sure unsecured cords were taped down. The answer had better be yes, says Letizia, a former director of CalSHRM, the state affiliate for the Society for Human Resource Management.   

Keeping productivity high

Still, the early returns from the pandemic’s remote-work experiment indicate employees can be as productive as before or more. In a survey last year by international employee health care and investment consulting firm Mercer, more than 90 percent of employers said productivity had stayed the same or improved with staff working off-site. “The productivity of the bank has been really exceptional during this period,” says Stephen Fleming, president and CEO of River City Bank, and a member of the Comstock’s Editorial Advisory Board. “So there really hasn’t been a compelling reason to kind of force people to come back into the office.”

In a survey last year by international employee health care and investment consulting firm Mercer, more than 90 percent of employers said productivity had stayed the same or improved with staff working off-site.

Todd Larrabee, president of Gold River-based Employer’s Guardian, says when his company went remote in March 2020, productivity went up because the number of interruptions fell. Instead of stopping in unannounced at a colleague’s office, staff with a question learned to send chat requests over Microsoft Teams. “If you come into my office, you’re forcing your agenda and presuming your priority is greater than mine,” says Larrabee, whose company provides human resource outsourcing support to about 100 employers, most of them in California. “One of the big wins was learning to use the chat features effectively.”  

Remote hybrid workplaces — with staff on-site only part of the time — take endless forms. At the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Mondays are a collaboration day, with all staff on-site, says President and CEO Amanda Blackwood. At Microsoft, employees are allowed to work remotely as long as it’s less than half-time. And at River City Bank, working from the office has been entirely voluntary, Fleming says.

Many employers worry that their staff won’t work hard out of sight of the boss. But management experts say remote work or no, supervisors should be setting goals instead of measuring seat time. Daniela Devitt, vice president of workforce development at the California Employers Association, says managers should know roughly how long projects take, create milestones and then check in with their staff daily — not to micromanage but to see how they’re doing and what they need to stay on track.

When it’s hard for an employer to measure individual output, they can make department managers responsible for measuring it in their own units, Larrabee says. If a department head knows a project should take 30 hours but the staff person took 50, they’ll let them know it can be done faster and how, which is healthy. “If the department’s not keeping productivity up, they’ll figure it out. They’ll challenge each other,” he says.

Jamie Von Sossan, CEO of 3fold Communications, downsized the office during the pandemic. She keeps her team connected through online meetings and outings such as a River Cats game. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

Those manager check-ins also are essential to figuring out when staff aren’t doing well emotionally, which hampers output. An October 2020 survey of 2,000 workers in the U.S. and U.K. by HR tech services company Hibob found a 27 percent drop in self-reported mental wellness since the pandemic hit. Blackwood says in the first six months of going remote in 2020, her staff were working 12-hour days and she was doing team check-ins mornings and afternoons to determine who might be struggling so she could follow up individually.

Employers rightly fear an off-site team will lose cohesion, so managers need something to replace the in-person exchanges at the printer. Neeley, who’s studied remote work for 20 years, sees effective managers creating virtual coffee and tea chats that rotate among different team members. They allot extra time before and after virtual meetings so employees can visit. They plan regular in-person gatherings outside work. Or they pair up employees to check on each other once a week. 

Creating a plan

Whatever model a company chooses, a remote work policy is essential, experts say. It covers issues such as when staff are expected to be in the office, whether off-site employees still get a desk, who pays for equipment, whether remote employees are allowed to live out of state and more. (HR rules for out-of-state employees get complicated: Among other requirements, the employer has to adjust the payroll tax withholding of an out-of-state employee to reflect the other state’s rules, though the amount has to at least equal California’s.) Just as important, project teams need to regularly revisit, at least once a quarter, how well their systems for working together are functioning, writes Neeley. 

In devising a policy, most experts suggest getting input from staff. Blackwood says starting in March 2020, she sent her staff Google surveys every two weeks to check in: How were they feeling mentally? Was the frequency of communication with the team and managers working for them? How were they doing at home, and could they be effective working there? She’s also a big fan of Gallup’s Q12 employee engagement survey, which asks staff questions about factors influencing their level of engagement that Gallup’s research shows affect productivity — whether they clearly understand what’s expected of them, whether managers are talking to them about their progress and more.

3fold Communications is using a hybrid of remote and in-office workers during the pandemic. Christie Pierce, media director, left; Darrell Chambers, campaign manager; and Taylor Toledo, planning director, at their coworking space in Sacramento. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

Planning for the new virtual-hybrid world also might mean redesigning the office space. With so many more video calls, companies are setting up “Zoom rooms” for on-site employees working in open layout spaces, says Naaz Alikhan, principal at Williams + Paddon and a member of Comstock’s Editorial Advisory Board. They’re a bit bigger than phone booths, offering privacy in a minimal footprint, she says.

Employers can turn to many local resources as they develop a policy. Devitt says the California Employers Association has a full remote workplace toolkit, and it provides member training on developing remote work policies. The Society for Human Resource Management offers remote work policy templates and agreements companies can use or adapt, Letizia says. And Blackwood says businesses — including those not members of the Sacramento Metro Chamber — can call its free hotline. “We can tell you what people did that worked,” she says. “We can tell you what didn’t work. You don’t have to figure it all out.”

Giving employers more choices

Legally, employers can compel their staff to come back to the office full time as long as they’re taking reasonable measures to prevent COVID-19’s spread in their space, Letizia says.

But in this labor market, reeling employees back in might not work. In a March–April 2021 FlexJobs survey of more than 2,100 remote workers, 60 percent of women and 52 percent of men said they’d look for a new job or quit if they weren’t allowed to keep working off-site. The majority also said remote work options are among the most important factors they’ll consider when evaluating a new job. “Flexibility is king or queen for retention,” says John of Valley Vision.

The flip side is that companies that stay remote can hire from anywhere. As hard as 2020 was, Von Sossan says that aspect of the pandemic will make 3fold a better company: They’re recruiting nationwide to fill positions and were able to keep two team members who moved to other states. “The talent pool is amazing,” she says, “as long as you’re open to people not having to sit right in front of you to work.”

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Christopher T (not verified)January 9, 2022 - 6:20pm

I was working at 3fold during this time and what has been written here is not altogether true. Although Jamie did a great job in transitioning the company to remote successfully as far as operationally, we still could not fix a broken culture and keep good workers. Many of us felt isolated, far removed, and targeted by the work culture that was dominated by a few. I had team members that were even afraid of meeting the other workers because of this and a lot of us were under constant fire from "culture policing." Also, we had to let go of many coworkers, not based on their work, but because they did fit the existing culture. Working remotely was a factor in overcoming poor relationships because we couldn't talk face-to-face. Management attempted to have Zoom meetings where we could all meet but that could not keep out the discrimination. Also, our creative did suffer but so did our client relationships. Most of that was due to inexperience on our part, but our client-facing talent was very hesitant to talk to our clients because they were fearful. I'm proud to say we survived but not without it's hardships.

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