... And any Map is better than no map
Over eight months ago, with haste and necessity,
workers and organizations across the globe were thrown
into “the great remote work experiment.”
What was arguably an adequate short-term solution is
now showing signs of wear and tear: Remote workers
are burning out, organizational cultures are under threat,
and leaders are fretting about the loss of creativity and
While some companies are beginning to forge ahead
with longer-term plans – like proclaiming that remote
work will go on indefinitely or bringing at least some
employees back to the office in a COVID-19-safe way –
most organizations remain in a holding pattern: intent on
returning to the physical office in some capacity, but
repeatedly kicking the can down the road.
This is understandable, given the amount of uncertainty
about the pandemic. Although a vaccine seems to be in
sight, health officials are warning of a grim winter.
As management scholars actively researching and
advising companies on their responses to COVID-19, we
believe the consequences of just continuing to wing it
are piling up.
This doesn’t mean the only solution is an immediate
return to the office. Based on research in our field and
lessons we’ve learned from our work with companies
during the pandemic, we believe there’s a way to make
the best of a tough situation. It requires acknowledging
the real costs of the remote work experiment – and
charting a path forward.
The remote work experiment seemed to offer an initial
boost in productivity. But sustaining such productivity
has been difficult, in part because the home wasn’t
designed for work and the consequences of “Zoom”
fatigue are real. Indeed, emerging evidence suggests
burnout is plaguing remote workers across the board.
Yet managing employee burnout is particularly difficult
during a pandemic, when people are asked to mostly
isolate at home, away from colleagues whose mere
presence can often ease work-related stress. Recent
research suggests that even small interactions like going
out to lunch together and taking a walk can help reduce
Even if re-creations of after-work rituals help in the short
term, poor communication from company leaders is a
primary cause of burnout. Without some sense of
direction, burned out employees simply can’t be
reengaged via another virtual happy hour.
Another downside of the lack of interaction with
colleagues is the impact on organizational culture.
We know from research that organizational culture is a
key contributor to job satisfaction and organizational
performance. Initial hopes of strengthened cultures as
employees navigated the unprecedented shift together
are dwindling as time wears on without a physical
anchor for sustaining shared cultural beliefs.
What’s worse, corporate policies meant to monitor and
control employee behavior – whether while they work
remotely or as means to make the office safer – risk
eroding worker trust and undermining cultural norms.
And the impact of these policies will likely endure long
after the crisis subsides, making it very important for
companies to think carefully about the lasting impact and
strategies for dealing with COVID-19.
A third major cost of this sustained remote period of
work is the lack of collaboration and its disruptive impact
Sure, some collaborations and idea generation can take
place via Zoom meetings, but innovation still largely
happens in physical spaces: at lab benches, alongside a
3D printer or in unintended office interactions that spark
interdisciplinary collaborations. These initial steps
become the source of intellectual property, new startups,
future commercialization and ultimately consumer value.
But when workers can’t get into their labs and research
centers, they can’t plant the seeds for future innovations.
Overall, patents have fallen almost 10% year to date,
with patents in the life sciences down 20%.
A purpose-driven plan
Though the pandemic is still with us, organizations and
workers need a plan now – and can’t wait for a vaccine
to allow everyone to come back to the office.
To us, this isn’t simply about logistics, such as deciding
whether, when and how to return to the office, but
starting to address the downsides of this sustained
remote work experiment by reengaging workers around
a sense of organizational purpose.
And honestly, it really doesn’t matter all that much what
goes into the plan. A long history of scholarship on
organizations emphasizes that even the most imperfect
plan can have positive effects on morale and team
confidence. When conditions are uncertain, a plan
provides direction, a sense of purpose and foundation
for unity. Moreover, it’s a great way to turn a crisis into
For example, some companies we’ve worked with have
crafted plans that focus on addressing pre-pandemic
threats such as how automation and AI are changing the
very nature of work. They’ve been conducting a top to bottom
review of jobs and roles to better understand
which ones are providing the most and least value and
adjusting accordingly. Others, such as local health care
organizations in the Boston area, are focusing on
accelerating their adoption of technologies to improve
the level of care they can provide patients.
Making a plan doesn’t require certainty about the path of
the virus or committing to a return to the office. Rather,
it’s about creating a shared sense of purpose to lead
workers through one of the toughest periods in world
The value of having a plan reminds us of an anecdote –
frequently shared by management scholars – involving a
Hungarian army platoon briefly thought lost in the Alps
during a snowstorm during World War I. Gone for two
days, the soldiers suddenly showed up on the third.
Asked how they survived, the group leader showed his
commander the map that led them back. The punchline:
It depicted the Pyrenees, not the Alps.
While it’s not clear if the story is factually based, the
message still rings true: In times of uncertainty, often
any map will do – even a wrong one.