IS MASS REMOTE WORKING REALLY THE WAY FORWARD?

Alfie Brown

Research has typically supported the benefits of allowing more work flexibility, but recent studies and the Covid fallout muddy the picture.

Research from The International Workplace Group’s 2019 Workplace Survey showed how over half of us globally were already working outside of a main office HQ some of the time. And even in a pre-pandemic world, 75 percent of employees noted remote working as “the new normal.”

That new normal arrived en masse for a lot of us just a few months later. 

There seems to be a mixed reaction from organisations as to whether remote working at the scale we currently see will last. Tech firms and even some major banks have come out publically to say they’ll be cutting office space and moving to a “central hub” approach, similar to a WeWork set-up. 

Yet recent well-publicised comments from the likes of Goldman Sachs are adamant that their employees will be returning, with boss David Solomon stating: “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this (remote working) is not ideal for us. And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.”

The traditional arguments in favour of organisations allowing remote working were based on wellbeing, a better work/life balance, attracting more candidates and even seeing better productivity and engagement. 

But comments from the likes of Solomon deviate from the body of research that had suggested working from home was a solution to so many modern-day work issues — and highlights some of the potential pitfalls.

And there could be new research that supports his viewpoint too, especially when it comes to the holy grail for people managers: engagement.  

But first, let’s take a whistle-stop tour of some research showing remote working as highly beneficial for people and organisations alike and should feature more into the future. 

Remote working is beneficial for engagement and productivity.

Turning to various studies by Gallup, a pretty picture is painted about the positive outcomes associated with remote working. And it predominantly comes down to engagement. 

Highly-engaged workplaces, Gallup reports, can see 41 percent lower absenteeism and 21 percent higher profitability. How this links to remote working is that engagement reportedly peaks when workers spend 60 percent to 80 percent of their time working remotely, seemingly confirming that a mix of in-office contact time and remote-work flexibility, weighted toward the latter, can stimulate better performance and outcomes. 

Outside of performance gains, offering flexible working can attract more candidates too — or at help to retain ones currently employed. This survey released in 2018 by Flexjobs found that 78 percent of millennials would be more loyal to an employer if they had flexible work options, whilst seven in 10 also said they’ve left a job or have considered leaving a job because it lacked flexible working arrangements. 

Of course, flexible working covers a range of areas from flexi-time to picking shifts, but remote working plays a major part. 

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But are remote workers really more engaged than their office-based counterparts? 

Perhaps not. 

Remote working can be damaging.

According to Dan Schawbel’s Harvard Business Review article analysing findings from a 2018 Virgin Pulse study, it turns out remote workers may not be more engaged after all. They may even be more likely to quit. 

The study showed how two-thirds of the 2,000 predominantly-remote employees they quizzed weren’t engaged and only 5 percent said they see themselves working at their company for an entire career. That compares to just one in three who don’t work remotely. 

Schawbel argues that these results aren’t surprising, citing that humans crave at least some face-to-face interaction in order to feel bonded to teammates. 

I couldn’t disagree with that, and the majority of straw polls on LinkedIn I’ve seen over the last year do indicate that most of us would like some balance between remote and office-based work. But what this research doesn’t touch on is the generational divide in remote working, especially pre-Covid, and how that may skew results.

As the survey from FlexJobs noted above reported, it’s younger workers who typically crave flexibility, and numerous studies have shown how millennials and Gen Z tend to be less loyal to a single employer. 

McKinsey Global Institute’s timely analysis of what’s next for remote work published in November last year suggests that “hybrid models of remote work are likely to persist in the wake of the pandemic, mostly for a highly educated, well-paid minority of the workforce.”

Will remote working at scale last? 

In short, yes, but not at the current scale. As McKinsey’s report perfectly summarised: 

The virus has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where work takes place, at least for some people.

Key here is “for some people.” I do think that for many of us, being forced to work from home has opened eyes to a new way of living, of integrating work life with home life, and the time, wellbeing and cost benefits that arise. 

But it’s not for everyone. Before Covid, people working remotely really wanted to be remote workers. It was a perk they sought out. Because of this, it’s valued more, appreciated more and also, the remote worker by choice likely recognises in themselves that they have a personality and way of working that does lean towards higher productivity and engagement outside of an office. 

Post-Covid, there are now hundreds of thousands of people now working remotely, but not by choice. And that’s the main difference. The right home setup wasn’t there to begin with. They may have a personality that thrives more on social interaction and find their engagement is supported by the hub of an office and proximity to co-workers. 

Interesting anecdotal evidence for this perspective was on a recent LBC London phone-in where long-term work-from-homers were lamenting the permanence of their loved ones in their home offices as they too were sent home for the pandemic. 

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