Opinion

Remote Working – Fad or Fixture?

By May 1, 2020 May 12th, 2020 No Comments

We are still only in the relatively early days of the new ways of working, but already the nascent indications of a new normal are emerging and generating speculation.

Not least, the questions raised by the almost universal adoption of remote working and homeworking. Does this mean the end of on-site working? Will we ever go back to the office?

The positives of remote working are obvious. It promises no expensive commute costs, no delays, the potential to be productive virtually from the moment you open your eyes, the end of office-based interruptions, higher efficiency, a better work life balance – the list goes on.

Observed in isolation the evidence is strongly that this mode of working is here to stay, as it pleases both the employee and the employer.

But is this the reality we are all experiencing?

Whilst all of the above ‘benefits’ are possible, many of them can be viewed from an equal and opposite perspective.

Home working raises crucial questions about how we manage the relationship between our home and work lives. Already the physical and geographical differences between these two parts of our lives have been eroded, as knowledge-based work has become almost completely digital, and smartphones have proliferated. Does working from home remove the last distinction between work and private life?

This is just one of many potential risk factors. Three more which stand out to us are:

 1. Isolation

Physically removed from our coworkers, are we also mentally remote? While it is true that many conversations in offices are ‘idle’ or superficially non-productive, many are also breeding grounds for new ideas borne of time devoted to free thinking.

2. The loss of the commute

Does (or did) the commute serve a useful purpose in a lot of people’s lives? Many individuals have talked of the commute as a time to de-stress, allowing one to prepare for arrival at home. Without this natural ‘fire break’, there is perhaps the potential for work stress to detrimentally spill into relationships with partners and family.

3. Erosion of teamwork and loyalty

The camaraderie of the office is an acknowledged part of our working life. Will we miss it? Will our understanding and engagement with our colleagues be eroded by the lack of real human contact? We all need others both to understand and to be understood by, a dynamic forged by a million small interactions in a working day. There is also a danger for businesses, in that the disappearance of these interactions and the relationships they support may make employees more willing to leave.

We believe all three are valid concerns. But what about organisations who have deliberately set up as almost 100% virtual? Many seem to avoid these issues and thrive with large workforces happy to work this way. Yet just over a month into lockdown, many of us in businesses which are usually office-based are struggling with our new enforced homeworking.

Perhaps the answer lies in employee expectations. If we join a company with an exclusively remote-working operational dynamic, we have already made the unconscious decision to make it work and have made the necessary adjustments to avoid the above issues.

But for the rest of us, our anticipation that one day the lockdown will end is causing us to resist re-thinking how working from home means a new way of thinking and behaving. In fact is there a strong distinction we have not grasped – that in our new, enforced situation we are actually working at home rather than working from home?

Many employees have lauded the pre-COVID-19 practice of working from home one or two days a week. It was seen as giving an opportunity to catch up on things, think more clearly, improve work-life balance, and so on. However it did not demand any shift in our mindset or our attitude to work.  This is where working at home is different. The sudden move to only being at home, all the time, has been brutally quick and it is no surprise our attitudes and behaviours are taking time to catch up.

The long term impact of the new mode of working will unfold in time and it is likely to be forged by a complex set of drivers. However if organisations are tempted to retain the virtual operational model post-COVID-19, they would be advised to address the mindset changes required to support their staff – and their operational models – to adjust to working at home, rather than from home.