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Remote working: a wake-up call for employers

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Coronavirus and the office shutdown

Some employers are better provisioned for remote working than others, but nobody can have wanted their flexible working resources to be tested like this.

The coronavirus has shown us just how precarious our lives are - including the professional routine we all take for granted. Our biggest concern must be the physical danger to the most vulnerable, but the virus is also providing an acid test for businesses, testing their capacity for remote working.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has asked its 100,000-strong US and Canadian workforce to work from home in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, while Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have recommended that Seattle-based staff work remotely as the virus spreads in Washington state. Meanwhile, Twitter has made homeworking mandatory for its nearly 5000-strong workforce.  The UK is not in full lockdown yet, but many employers are sending staff home while others are preparing to. 

As employers across the world adjust to a new set of imperatives, some will notice almost no change as they send staff home. Others face an unknowable period of firefighting as they make significant cultural, technological and financial adjustments in a dramatically shortened timeframe. 

The case for remote working

Statistics from the ONS show that the number of UK workers moving into remote-working has increased by nearly a quarter of a million over a decade (the figure rose by 173% since 2005 according to Global Workplace Analytics), with changing attitudes and improving network capabilities meaning that half the UK workforce could have the ability to work remotely this year. Yet still only a minority of employees make the most of homeworking opportunities, with only about 9.6% of employed people in the EU working from home in 2017.  

Employees have long cherished flexible working, with remote working options among the most sought-after employee benefits. But this crisis has brought into relief just how many advantages wholesale flexible working can bring for employers: decentralised businesses are better equipped to ride out unforeseen challenges and profit from a raft of cultural, financial and infrastructural advantages.

The benefits of remote working are well-documented: enhanced productivity due to reduced distractions; lower stress levels, overheads, commuting costs and staff churn, and greater inclusion for segments of the labour market previously excluded from work due to limited mobility or care responsibilities. Research by CanadaLife has shown that remote workers feel more productive than their office-based counterparts, with home workers rating their productivity as 7.7/10 compared to workers in open plan offices who rate theirs at 6.5/10. And technology such as Slack, Skype, Google Drive and a variety of HR software means teams and leaders alike need not lose touch, or lose their way in projects.

With more than 4 million people working remotely in the UK before the coronavirus pandemic and 80% of employees saying they’d like to be able to work remotely some of the time, now is the time for employers to consider whether and how they can embrace remote working.

A question of trust?

Some employers may experience lingering trust issues about letting their staff work from home in the normal run of things, while others simply can’t function without onsite staff. I believe some businesses may have issues in trust because they have issues in recruitment. Or perhaps they’re just not setting the right examples at the highest levels.

To enable remote working, you don’t just need the right technology and the infrastructure to support it, you also need staff you can trust, leaders who give and in turn gain trust, and a culture that recognises the advantages of remote working. That cultural part of the puzzle is the hardest part.

The health and wellbeing of individuals is the most important thing at this challenging time, and employers have a part to play in this. Ensuring they are well set up to allow remote working will not only help their staff, but in the long term, will help them, too. The coronavirus is a stark reminder that as the world changes and new challenges arise from the most unexpected sources, flexible working is no longer just a “nice-to-have”.