This article is from our Outlook 2021 edition of MarketWatch.
04th February, 2021
The pandemic has brought with it a complete shift in the way we work. Whether employers choose to embrace it or not, a new reality has been created, and the way we work has been altered irrevocably. The work from home (WFH) experiment carried out on a global scale in 2020 has brought with it both benefits and disadvantages. Similar to markets and the economy, certain aspects of the human elements of change are temporary and some will be more permanent. The question we’re pondering is what does the optimal future scenario look like for both organisations and their workforces? Remote working in some form is here to stay, but how much is enough, and how do we manage the issues it presents?
From an employee perspective, an element of remote work has generally been viewed as a perk, which if implemented effectively can increase personal performance, job satisfaction, and organisational commitment. The drive towards it has been evident for some time, with a US study by Buffer noting that the number one driver is to have a flexible schedule. The same study noted that 98% of workers would favour some element of remote working for the rest of their careers and 97% of those surveyed would recommend it to others. The elimination of a daily commute and the ability to work from anywhere also featured in the top three benefits of this shift. For context, this particular study was carried out pre- pandemic which tells us that this trend was already emerging. What could have taken decades to change, the pandemic has accelerated in just a few months.
We’re spending more time at home, but does this constitute a better work-life balance? It has been enabled for many through the removal of commutes and the ability to manage workdays around other demands. The issue for some, however, is the task of compartmentalising your day between work and home life. One can end and the other begin by just switching which part of the same room you sit in. We’re saving on childcare and having more time with family. Yet often the demands of chores and childcare adds pressure on top of a busy work schedule and as lines have become blurred in this current balancing act. In fact, remote workers have reported higher levels of stress than their office-based counterparts and lower levels of work/life balance. When the firefighting mode necessitated by Covid-19 is over, these differentiations between roles will need to be more clearly defined for the success of remote working into the future.
Productivity and efficiency were always in question when it came to implementing remote working across organisations. Some firms were more advanced than others in this space, with “hotdesking” and freedom to work where you please being commonplace for some employees. The Covid-19 fallout has proven that this fear related to productivity has not been born out, with studies showing that productivity levels have risen as a result of WFH practices. One study notes that we add 1.4 days to our work month through telecommuting (equating to 16.8 days per year).
Fewer business trips and a re-evaluation of when an email could replace a meeting will undoubtedly make for more efficient use of time going forward. Not to mention events that would have had limited numbers that can now be broadcast to an unlimited number of people, meaning a maximisation of resources to some degree. Productivity benefits also come in the form of lower sick days and protection of public health as unnecessary exposure to others during flu season for example has been eliminated for most. Evidently, the benefits outweigh the negatives.
Aside from work-life balance, the other two main issues identified with remote working are communication and collaboration struggles, and the feelings of isolation and loneliness which can ensue. Mental health has been put under huge strain this year. Through technological barriers and formalising all communications – that natural and invaluable element of “water cooler chat” has been lost, to the detriment of employee wellbeing. A US study by Kornferry notes that half of all employees surveyed on WFH were most looking forward to “camaraderie” when they returned to the office. The social element of work is lacking in the era of purely remote.
Most workers have now been afforded the flexibility that they have always desired. However, coupled with the strain of the pandemic, the all-encompassing nature of remote working has been for many nothing short of overwhelming. The benefits of cutting out commutes and having more autonomy over your working life is undoubtedly favoured. Fears from an employer’s perspective regarding lower productivity have, for the most part, not been realised. The hindrances that exist today relating to loneliness, role conflict and communication are still rife. The best outcome for both employers and employees is if we can move to some form of flexible hybrid working model whereby we bring the benefits of the new and structure of the old into the working life of our changed future.