Remote work is no longer just a temporary safety measure. In many organizations, it is now the new normal. With COVID-19 cases on the rise across communities, many firms have decided to keep their non-essential workers home for the rest of the year. For example, RBS employees in the UK will be working at home through 2021, and Google just announced that its employees will not return to the office until next summer. A study by Gartner found that over 80% of companies plan to allow their employees to work remotely after the pandemic. Our current Covid-19 field study shows that 90% of organizations are providing more flexible work options to help their workforce cope with the challenges of the day.


While working remotely makes sense from a safety perspective, it is creating new challenges for managers and employees. As we work with clients, two common concerns are emerging.  First, there is the social aspect of a virtual work experience. Various studies, including our own, show that during the pandemic, employee stress, workload, and loneliness have been on the rise. As a result, many organizations are seeking ways to sustain a sense of community, connection, and support in a virtual world. Second, there are performance concerns. While there is strong evidence that remote work often improves employee productivity, researchers have also found that coordination issues and interpersonal conflict can emerge if virtual team dynamics are not managed well. With this in mind, many leaders and managers are searching for ways to help their virtual employees work together in efficient, effective, and collaborative ways.


So what’s the best way to support your virtual workforce and ensure they are productive? Unfortunately, best practices — imported from other organizations — don’t usually work when addressing complex workplace challenges. The most powerful solutions often come from within the organization. Many leaders and managers realize this — they just don’t know how to tap into the collective wisdom of their employees, particularly around sensitive topics like personal stress, interpersonal conflict, and team performance.  Design thinking can help.


In recent years, design thinking has become a widely used process for developing user-friendly software, customer-friendly products, and people-friendly service. We’re finding it is equally effective when it comes to designing compelling employee experiences. At the core of design thinking is a fundamental premise: the best solutions start with empathy. By understanding your employees’ hopes and fears, their questions and concerns, their frustrations and aspirations, you can create a virtual work experience that is going to meet their unique needs.


If you’ve never led a design thinking session, here are five questions you can use to facilitate a discussion with your team. 


  1. How has the remote experience been like so far? Design thinking is always grounded in reality. With that in mind, we recommend you start by asking your direct reports to conduct a review of the past few months, reflecting on the ups and downs of remote work.  Then, ask your employees to share their reflections and identify common themes. Remind your team that all reflections are valid, valuable, and will serve as the basis for making positive changes.

  2. What would our ideal remote work experience look like in the future? Next, use your team’s reflections as a starting point to visualize what the ideal remote work arrangement could look like in the future. Encourage your team to think outside the box and build on each other’s ideas.  This process requires psychological safety and mutual respect. To produce a new vision, everyone must feel comfortable sharing their ideas and thinking creatively. You can promote a welcoming environment by establishing guidelines at the start of a session. Remind your team to quiet their egos, check their assumptions, ask questions, and listen to each other.

  3. If we want to achieve these ideals, what actions should we take? Once your team has a clear picture of the ideal future state, the next step is to start developing a plan to get there. Share ideas around innovative opportunities, things that have worked during the pandemic, unique situations, and any other ideas that come to mind. Every idea, practical or idealistic, widens possibilities for the team to explore.

  4. Of all the action ideas we brainstormed, what are our best options? Most teams brainstorm long lists of ideas, so you will likely have many action steps to evaluate. One method of narrowing down ideas is to consider the impact you think they will have, and the effort needed to implement. Ideal opportunities will require minimal effort, but promise great impact.

  5. If we implemented one of our best options, what would that look like? After picking the best possible option, it’s time to scenario test. You can do this by asking your team to think through what work would be like if you implemented your proposed solution. Deep dive into the details and pressure test the concept. Consider the pros and cons of how the possible solution would play out day-to-day and over time. Where necessary, make improvements, adjusting the team’s proposed solution accordingly.

Researchers have found that mutual trust and shared leadership are critical for remote teams. Design thinking is powerful way to establish both. In a world that has become increasingly complex, unpredictable, and isolated, the best solutions will emerge from collaborative processes that encourage us to turn to each other and share our ideas, observation, and support. By working through these five questions, you will be providing your team with the opportunity to listen and learn from each other and shape the next phase of this unfolding pandemic.

Riley Johnson
Riley Johnson

Talent strategy consultant, Mercer

Patrick Hyland, PhD
Patrick Hyland, PhD

Research and Development, Mercer Employee Research

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