So far in 2020 the amount of changes the modern workforce has collectively experienced is innumerable. From where we are working from, to the tools we are using to do our work—the current state of the global workforce would be virtually unrecognizable to the workforce of even last year. 

COVID-19 and the subsequent great remote work migration also ushered in a new era of professionalism, an era that is more defined by how you perform virtually than ever before. With millions of employees’ professionalism suddenly being defined by how they behave within the confines of a box on a screen, what impact does that have on how the modern, increasingly-remote, employee?

The Owl Labs State of Remote Work 2020 report revealed some truths and the virtual reality of the present and future of professionalism and how to best support remote employee growth, read on to find out what we learned.

Virtual Professional Challenges during COVID-19

When COVID-19 forced millions of employees to work from home earlier this year, they were faced with a surplus of new and unexpected challenges. For workers with co-inhabitants, these challenges often revolved around the lives of their partners, children, family members, or roommates—whether it was sharing work spaces, cleaning up messes in the background of video calls, or scheduling meetings when it will be quiet in the house. All of these challenges helped redefine “professionalism” in the digital age.

The three biggest challenges reported by State of Remote Work survey respondents during COVID-19 were:

  • Children at home: 28%
  • More meetings than usual: 26%
  • Not having worked remotely or worked from home before: 26%

With COVID-19 and the resulting shelter in place mandate, gone are the days of closed office doors and a clear delineation between boss, manager, team leader, and employee. Thanks to the rise in video conferencing during the pandemic to keep remote coworkers connected, all existing barriers between everyone from executives to interns were broken because we all look the same when we appear in a box on a screen.

This broken barrier raised some concerns for managers, with 60% of them feeling as though they are now missing out on opportunities for informal leadership development and grooming of their direct reports. This led many managers to fear that this new virtual reality will reduce team cohesiveness, employee engagement, and their own engagement with their coworkers. 

While all of these factors lend themselves to what some might consider a reduction in professionalism during this heavily remote era, others are viewing it as an opportunity to redefine what professionalism means in the virtual world.

How are people working from home during COVID-19?

Even though millions of employees around the world worked from home during COVID-19, the realities of their work from home experiences depended on a variety of factors. One of the factors we found that differentiated the most from experience to experience was as simple as the location of where they were working from.

During COVID-19, respondents most frequently worked from their:

  • Home office: 67%
  • Dining room: 49%
  • Couch: 49%
  • Bedroom: 42%
  • Closet: 15%

Location wasn’t the only thing that changed during this work from home movement, many employees also drastically changed how they prepared themselves physically for their work day. With 44% saying that when working from home they did not find it necessary to get dressed up for their video meeting.

Virtual Career Growth + Development

With a new wave of employees working from home for the first time—in many cases complete organizations working remotely for the first time—it comes as no surprise that professionalism isn’t the only factor of the workplace being redefined to more accurately reflect the modern employment experience.

Career growth and professional development are also experiencing a makeover to meet new virtual expectations. More remote workers are nervous about career progression now than they were in 2019, with 43% of respondents saying that they fear working remotely will impact their career progression compared to 23% last year. For managers, this shift should act as a warning sign. 

To combat this fear and promote virtual career growth and professional development, leaders should start having intentional, scheduled career-focused conversations with their employees. These development conversations should be one-on-one and focus on the logistics of career growth. 

You can jump start this process by doing a temperature check of your whole team with one of these remote teambuilding exercises.

Should you be monitoring the activity of your remote employees?

A new concern that has arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a rise in remote work is activity monitoring. Activity monitoring is when your employer utilizes a User Activity Monitoring (UAM) software tool to monitor and track employee behavior on company-owned IT resources. In other words, activity monitoring is when your company tracks your productivity by watching exactly how you are utilizing digital company resources.

If your organization utilizes UAM software they will be able to see all of your browsing activity and every other move you make on your device. For some companies, monitoring the activity of their employees is viewed as a great way to maintain a level of professionalism while working remotely. 

When asked how they felt about activity monitoring, 1 in 3 remote employees would be unhappy but would stay with their company and 43% would be unhappy or leave their company. Others added:

  • I would be okay with it and stay with the company: 22%
  • I would be okay with it as long as they used the same monitoring tools for in-office employees: 36%
  • I would be unhappy about it but I would stay with the company: 32%
  • I would quit: 11%

The primary activity monitoring related complaint amongst remote workers is that it is a violation of trust. And with trust being a main consideration of remote employees—in 2019, 82% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that working remotely would make them feel more trusted at work, and in 2020 more than three quarters of respondents said they did indeed feel more trusted at work while working remotely during COVID-19—activity monitoring remains a gamble when it comes to leading remote teams.

As we move toward a post-COVID-19 world and workforce, many more aspects of our professional lives will surely be redefined and reconfigured to match our increasingly remote reality. It is up to us to decide if we are going to hide from these changes or embrace them with our best virtual foot forward.

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