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The Remote Revolution is Here, So Beware This Risk

The so-called “remote revolution” is getting glowing reviews as an inevitable new reality in business, and I’m not one to argue against its value. At the same time, many articles about this trend spend nary a word on the negatives. So, to fill that void, I offer you this cautionary tale.

A friend owns a small business in a large city, and his company operated from a shared office space prior to the pandemic. When the world around them locked down, he, like most other leaders, sent his employees home.

This business can function just fine with a remote workforce, and, in fact, some of his employees already worked from distant cities prior to the pandemic. So, moving to a fully remote approach wasn’t a huge adjustment for him or his team.

Still, there were concerns. It involved change and change seldom slides smoothly into place. More often, the gears grind a little until everyone adjusts, and the best leaders know to keep a sharp eye out for those who are shifting uneasily.

As time wore on, one employee seemed less engaged than usual with the team and less productive in his work, as well. Nothing major, mind you, just hints here and there that the guy was going through what the playwright Tennessee Williams once called a “period of adjustment.”

In addition to giving his team some emotional leeway because of the stress of the pandemic, one of the things my friend did was put together a program with the specific aim of helping employees connect or reconnect with each other and deal with their new remote reality.

Then one day he made a gut-wrenching discovery: The employee who had seemed disengaged had betrayed everyone’s trust by violating some key terms in their employment agreement. It was something that likely never would have happened had they still been in an office, where the founder and the employee sat side-by-side. But the employee had slipped down a slope greased by poor decisions while working from home and eventually committed offenses that left the owner one option: fire him. Immediately.

This decision sent the firm into crisis mode for several weeks. There was no time for a quick transition, so the rest of the team scrambled to pick up the pieces and put them together again. It cost them time. And it cost them money.

There were, however, some silver linings. One, while clients began to realize something was amiss, the company had banked plenty of trust through previous positive experiences, so none of their clients bailed out. Two, the engagement program they created was a hit with the other employees and the team grew stronger because of it. And three, the person who replaced the fired employee brought new gifts and talents that made an overall improvement to the company’s offerings.

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Lots of organizations that ditched their offices during the pandemic will keep their teams working remote going forward, and in many cases that is the best thing for everyone involved. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks that come when a team is disconnected physically from each other. Leaders can do everything right and still see a few things go wrong. Actions are harder to see and emotions are harder to read, so it’s not easy to respond quickly to the unique disruptions that might occur.

Even good people make bad decisions. It’s been that way since the dawn of time. When it happens, and it will happen in some unexpected ways in the remote revolution, leaders who have built trust and who treat people the right way will still have to deal with the pain. But they will be prepared to emerge better in the end.

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