The coronavirus pandemic has seen a significant increase in remote working. But the question remains: how many people will still work remotely when the COVID-19 crisis fades?
A recent report from Gartner revealed nearly three in four CFOs plan to shift some portion of their workforce to remote working following the pandemic. Twitter has announced that it will embrace remote working permanently and Facebook is planning for half of its workforce to work remotely over the next five to 10 years. This large-scale remote working experience is demonstrating how working-from-home can be a viable strategy for many businesses.
Benefits of remote working
A growing body of research suggests that remote workers can be as effective, and in some cases more productive, in their day-to-day roles than office-based staff. Research from Prodoscore shows a 47% increase in worker productivity over March/April 2020, versus the previous year. A survey by RescueTime also found that, on average, remote workers are 20% more likely to complete all their daily tasks than people who work in an office. This data suggests employees are maintaining productivity and, in some cases, even increasing output whilst working remotely during the pandemic.
What is instigating this boost in productivity? In Deloitte’s Future of the City study, respondents cited fewer distractions (54%) and a quieter working environment (52%) as among key reasons for being more productive whilst working remotely during lockdown.
Employees may feel they are able to work more efficiently without interruptions from their colleagues.
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There is also evidence to suggest that remote workers are experiencing improvements in job satisfaction. New research from Cigna Europe has revealed that 74% of UK employees currently feel they have a good work-life balance. This is up from 69% in January, before lockdown restrictions were implemented. Findings from a 4Com survey reveal that 59% of UK employees believe working from home has improved their working lives.
So, what’s causing this more positive outlook? In Deloitte’s Future of the City study, the majority of respondents who found remote working to be a positive experience gave the absence of the need to commute as their main reason. This leads to a concept known as ‘found time’ – the hours you get back from the commute to invest how you choose. Employees are reinvesting this time into activities they enjoy – exercise, learning new skills or spending time with family – which is having a favourable impact on employee wellbeing. In the same study, more than a third of respondents (36%) stated their wellbeing has improved during lockdown.
There are also opportunities for companies to lower expenditure if their employees work from home. By allowing remote working, businesses reduce their outgoings on real estate, utilities and office equipment. Global Workplace Analytics reports an average saving of $11,000 per part-time role that is converted from physical to virtual.
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An unexpected environmental benefit has also emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic. With a large proportion of people working remotely, the daily commute is no longer necessary and there are less vehicles on the road. This translates to fewer greenhouse gas emissions and a decreased consumption of fossil fuels. Residents from Los Angeles to New Delhi are reporting reduced levels of vehicle-based air pollution and smog-free skies. The Mayor of London has also published a report which shows the dramatic improvements in the city’s air quality due to the coronavirus lockdown, with toxic emissions falling by almost 50%.
Remote working challenges
Building teams, a company culture and employee engagement in a virtual workplace can be a challenge. Office life is more than just ticking off to-do items. It’s built on a chemistry and workplace culture that comes from employees interacting all day in ways that are unexpected, like the conversations that take place as people bump into one another on the way to lunch or whilst making a coffee. There is a fear that employees’ contact with more-distant colleagues may deteriorate during the current remote working situation. You may not work with some colleagues directly, but in the office, you would have occasionally made small talk. In a remote setting these casual interchanges are unlikely. As a result, the overall cohesion of employees might suffer, and the workplace culture may erode over time.
Many people are currently working remotely against a backdrop of broader isolation protocols that prevent social contact with friends and family. It’s a uniquely challenging set of circumstances that can lead to exasperated feelings of isolation and loneliness. Remote working can be quite isolating in itself, even without the restrictive Covid-19 measures in place. The 2018 State of Remote Work report identified loneliness as the biggest struggle to working remotely. Having a virtual ‘happy hour’ or ‘coffee breaks’ for employees to engage on a social level can help offset some of those feelings, as can regular check-ins by managers to see how their employees are coping personally and professionally.
Some employers and managers remain suspicious of how effective remote working is. There has been a recent boom in employee surveillance, from screen capturing tech to logs of keyboard strokes, during the Covid-19 lockdown. A reluctance by some employers to allow remote working is often driven by the fear that performance will suffer if employees aren’t closely monitored. Another factor to consider is that ‘face time culture’ is still prevalent in many businesses – if you’re sitting at your desk, then you are getting work done. The irony is that remote workers often feel they need to overcompensate by overcommunicating and increasing their work hours to prove they are working, leading many to feel ‘burnt out’ and exhausted. Ideally, for remote working to be successful, managers need to establish work goals that are based on output, not activities. The way you assess whether someone is being productive is by looking at what outcomes they’re achieving, not by monitoring how they’re spending each minute of the day.
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Remote working or flexible working?
So, will employees go 100% remote on a permanent basis? Or will businesses revert to limited flexible working policies once the coronavirus lockdown ends? A common-sense policy does not need to be all or nothing. The most likely scenario for most businesses will be a hybrid of office and remote work arrangements.
A company could allow half of their employees to work remotely on certain days of the week and the other half on the remaining days. A more relaxed approach would see employees generally work remotely, but individual teams or groups of colleagues would go to the office for a day or two each week to work together. This partway-remote approach may offer happy medium, a state in which companies get the benefits of productivity without losing their company culture.
Which blueprint businesses implement will rely entirely on their individual needs. Some have the culture, internal processes and technology in place to operate on a more remote basis, while others have limited remote work options. They need to figure out a bespoke remote-work formula that works for them.
A digital transformation
For millions, technology has been a lifeline during the pandemic. Schools would not be able to continue operations without remote meeting tools, doctors would not have been able to consult with patients, and government operations would have ground to a halt. As the pandemic shut down the physical world, the digital world stepped in and filled the chasm. The same is true for many office-based businesses, where technologies were deployed overnight to meet the demand of large-scale remote working. Covid-19 has been the catalyst for digital transformation at scale in many organisations. By substituting legacy models and inherently inefficient tools for more modern solutions, business have been able to strengthen their positions during the outbreak. Organisations have quickly shifted their thinking and honed new skills on remote meeting platforms to enable collaboration that used to only happen in office settings. Adoption of new technologies, that could have taken years, has taken just months.
As the pandemic subsides, businesses are moving strategically from leveraging technology to ‘keep the lights on’ to fully building out their digital infrastructure. IDC estimates that infrastructure spending will grow by 5.3% and software investments by 1.7% in 2020, as a result of the pandemic. Demand for solutions supporting remote work and collaboration will drive this growth. The pandemic forced many businesses to rapidly fast-track digital solutions to provide continuity. The focus is now on stabilising and strengthening many of the solutions and processes rushed into place, by being more thoughtful and strategic about their deployment, developing the support infrastructure around them, and fully understanding the impact they will have across the organisation.
Vendors have also used the current situation as an opportunity to innovate their products to ensure they are optimised for effective remote working. Many of the tools that support remote working are not new: conferencing technology, digital contracts, online chat and shared documents, for example. But many have not been adapted to support the large-scale remote working that is taking place in the world today. The Covid-19 lockdown has unearthed shortcomings with these technologies and allowed vendors to improve their products, becoming more sophisticated tools.
The future of work
While Covid-19 has upended everyday life and caused significant hardship, it has also presented an opportunity to explore new and more efficient ways of doing things. For many businesses, the pandemic has been an experiment in remote working. Employees and managers have discovered many benefits to working from home, from greater flexibility and increased personal time, to fewer distractions and higher levels of productivity. Despite this, remote working still has many challenges. Team cohesion and feelings of isolation among remote workers being the main concerns.
As lockdown comes to an end, companies are going to need to think very carefully about what their remote work policies will look like. By looking at the needs of their employees and customers, and by evaluating how the business has performed under large-scale remote working, employers can make a considered decision. Businesses that are willing to adapt will no doubt reap the rewards of a happier and vigorous workforce in the long term.
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