As Covid-19 vaccine rollouts continue around the world, especially in the UK, many employers are faced with a new dichotomy: a choice between going back to the office or keeping operations remote.
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic had businesses around the world rethinking their operations at a rapid rate, forcing offices to close and millions of employees to swap their commutes for makeshift living room workspaces. Anyone who was capable of working from home started instantaneously. Companies were forced to quickly figure out how to communicate, collaborate, share documents and manage teams without any physical presence involved whatsoever.
After just a matter of months, many business leaders have started to figure out that there are some considerable upsides to existing in a purely work-from-home (WFH) capacity. This high-volume level of use cases led to some major announcements from companies that were keen to declare that they would be making the switch to a more permanent WFH future.
Now, more than one year on from the widespread implementation of lockdown measures and social distancing requirements, some significant shifts are occurring throughout workplaces. According to Global Workplace Analytics, only 3.6 percent of the UK workforce worked from home in 2018. Today, however, the “best estimate is that 25 percent to 30 percent of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.”
This rapid rise in favourability has stemmed from the mutual benefits for both employees and employers. Fundamentally, employees are happy to work from home. In the early days of the pandemic taking hold, a Gallup poll found that “three in five UK workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the coronavirus pandemic would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible, once public health restrictions are lifted.”
While the lure of staying home to complete work can be largely understandable, it’s worth noting that employers have reaped the benefits of remote work, too. Employers are riding a new wave of positive press associated with enabling employees to work from home. Before the arrival of Covid-19, the key features of a modern office were facilities like ping pong tables, living walls and beer on Fridays in exciting locations like San Francisco, LA or New York. Today, the trend has shifted to going largely remote.
The lure of WFH flexibility.
Despite many tech giants offering greater flexibility to employees during the pandemic, Google has recently announced that it’s planning to begin reopening offices for employees on a voluntary basis over the course of April 2021.
“Conditions vary significantly from state to state, so you’ll hear directly from your local leaders when your office is eligible to reopen,” explained Google’s top people executive, Fionna Cicconi.
Google’s plans signify a pivotal period in the development of widespread remote work. As other companies prepare for some form of return to the office environment, it’s time to consider how you want your business to develop as the world emerges from the pandemic.
The past year has shown employees what true flexibility looks like, with some workers already taking the bold step of moving closer to friends and family in the US, rather than stay in the cities where their company offices are located.
Although Google is looking at instigating a widespread return to the office, other tech giants like Microsoft, Twitter, Square, Spotify, Shopify and Amazon are increasingly keen to adopt extended WFH policies for their employees.
Recently, Microsoft announced new guidelines, which allows employees to WFH full time with approval or to move to a new location for remote work with salaries adjusted based on geography—opening the door to a new era of possible work flexibility for employees.
Elsewhere, Spotify has opened the opportunity up for employees to specify whether they’d prefer to work full time from home, from the office, or via a combination of the two. Facebook is also allowing some employees to work full time in a remote capacity as part of a new policy, while Twitter has told workers that they can continue working from home “forever” if they wish.
Employees largely applaud these flexible approaches. Regardless of their vaccination status, over half of employees have stated that, given the choice, they would prefer to continue working from home even after the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, according to Pew Research Centre data.
However, for businesses keen to explore the perks of remote offices, Pew’s data also found that class divides do exist where some workers don’t have the ability to operate from home due to challenging living conditions or circumstances.
For those who can work from home for the first time, the new policies of tech companies offer the chance to abandon long commutes and lost time with loved ones. They can also enable workers to move to other potentially less expensive or more desirable locations, further from urban centers or complex offices.
However, there are still many challenges to overcome for employers in creating a remote environment for workers. Remote work can be isolating and stressful — especially for parents of young children or those who live alone. It’s key for employers to adapt their policies and approach to collaboration to ensure that workers remain happy and engaged in the company.
Ensuring remote wellbeing of employees.
It can be tricky for employees to adapt to a new work style if they’re used to a high level of interaction with their colleagues on a daily basis. If a typical working day involves bustling office environments, calling customers and attending meetings, new WFH policies could take their toll on employee mental health and wellbeing as such drastic changes can lead to feelings of isolation.
Significantly, a 2019 report of the State of Remote Work by Buffer claims that 49 percent of remote workers note that their biggest struggle is wellness-related. More specifically, 22 percent can’t switch off following a working day, 19 percent feel lonely, and 8 percent struggle with motivation. These figures have been exacerbated during the time of the pandemic, leading to the necessity of more appropriate worker wellbeing measures being implemented by employers.
With this in mind, it’s vital that businesses seek to stay in touch with employees on a regular basis and hold team meetings on a regularly scheduled basis. Doing this carries a twofold effect. Firstly, it keeps the consistency of the normal working week, and secondly, it can help to replicate the buzz of a normal working environment — helping people to connect and socialize in some capacity.
It’s also important that your employees know that you support them, and communicating this to them can greatly improve their well-being. Citation has collaborated with BUPA with this in mind to create an Employee Assistance Programme, which can be interwoven into company policies on employee health and offers unlimited employee access to phone support from qualified counsellors to discuss their concerns.
Remote company policy will also need to be adapted to accommodate the physical pains that can arise from employees working in makeshift home office environments. In mid-2020, Personnel Today reported that as many as four-in-five WFH employees who began remote work in the midst of the pandemic had developed some form of musculoskeletal pain as a result.
Already, 75 percent of adults have some form of vision impairment, and it has been reported that the pandemic has carried a significant impact on our vision, with shifting consumer needs taking place while industry growth slows. With the increased levels of screen time and exposure to blue light that employees are dealing with when working remotely with less interaction with the outside world, there’s a danger that worker vision could be negatively impacted if businesses don’t act on making WFH policies to ensure safety.
When offering employees the chance to remain WFH, be sure to revise your policies to ensure that workers are taking sufficient breaks and that they have access to equipment that can keep them comfortable.
Adapting to a productive remote future.
The key question that’s plaguing employers in deciding whether to embrace remote work or not revolves around whether the approach is really good for productivity. Fundamentally, the answer to this question could determine its popularity in the future — especially considering the long period of waning labour productivity prior to the pandemic. Despite widespread distribution of use cases over the past year, there is little clarity over the true productivity of WFH. In a McKinsey consumer survey from May 2020, 41 percent of employees claimed that they were more productive when working remote. As employees have gained more experience WFH, their confidence appears to have grown, with the number of people claiming that they have worked more productively increasing by 45 percent between April and May 2020.
With a year of experience under their belts, more employers are seeing somewhat better levels of productivity from remote workers. Interviews with chief executives about remote work brought on a range of mixed opinions. While some expressed confidence that remote work can continue, others remain certain that the positives attached to remote work are too few.
One of the biggest hurdles that may need to be overcome for businesses and employers alike stems from that of a connectivity standpoint. According to a researcher at Oxford University, just 65 percent of UK workers surveyed said that they had quick enough internet access to support viable video calls, and in many parts of the developing world, the connectivity infrastructure is sparse or nonexistent. Creating a digital infrastructure to support remote work will need significant public and private investment to truly support a WFH future.
The pandemic has provided us with our biggest ever trial run on remote work. While some companies are actively looking to return to office environments, many businesses are choosing to explore ways in which WFH can pave the way to a prosperous future. There will certainly be hurdles ahead in terms of how companies can aid employee health and work with restricted infrastructure, but early indicators suggest that the brave new world of WFH can be a win-win situation for employees and employers alike.