Is remote working here to stay?

Author: Nick Martindale

Nick Martindale investigates the long-term changes to working patterns and the future of the workplace following the changes brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

While no one planned it as such, the pandemic ushered in the biggest experiment in remote working ever undertaken, with millions of workers thrust into working from home almost overnight with the first UK lockdown in March 2020. While there were inevitable teething problems as more employees worked remotely, largely around technology, the overall response from both employees and employers has been positive.

The most significant change to emerge is around trust, which has previously been a barrier to remote working: according to research by employment law firm Citation, 88% of employers now say they trust staff to work from home. More than half (56%) believe employees have a better work/life balance than they did before the pandemic hit. A survey by Tiger Recruitment, meanwhile, suggests employees too have largely found it a positive experience, with 49% citing the ability to work flexibly as the biggest benefit to come out of the coronavirus pandemic, and 48% pointing to a better work/life balance.

There have been other benefits for employers too. Early findings from a major new study titled Work After Lockdown, part of UK Research and Innovation's rapid response to coronavirus, found almost nine in 10 (88%) employees feel they get as much or more work done at home than if they were in the office, suggesting people may work more effectively when given the flexibility to work hours that suit them and without having to wrestle with a daily commute.

"A potential benefit for employers is more productive employees, [especially] if they are someone easily distracted by others in the workplace," says Karen Meager, co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy. "Offering flexibility [around working patterns] could certainly contribute to higher retention rates, as this will be a factor prospective employees look for."

Widening the recruitment talent pool

Recruitment is another area that could be transformed should employers look to make remote working arrangements a permanent feature. "It's really opened up the talent pool for employers," says Susy Roberts, executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts. "If you're only getting the team together once a month, you can recruit from another country and still do that easily without increasing the travel budget. It follows that individuals can also look for work further afield, so this means that they could specialise more finely by applying for jobs that would previously have required a major life change."

Possible negative consequences

Yet there are also challenges with full remote working. The Work after Lockdown research found that 82% of workers miss the informal contact they previously enjoyed with colleagues, while Charles Alberts, head of wellbeing solutions UK at Aon, identifies a number of issues including a lack of ability to network, concerns around mental and physical health, and anxiety about performance.

There's also a risk that employees might feel under pressure to work more hours, believes Meager, particularly if they are concerned about redundancy. "Some people have been working extended hours to overcompensate for this, and there is a danger that because we are not in the normal workplace, colleagues might be unable to spot the signs and offer help," she says. Those coming back to work from furlough could also be struggling, she adds, feeling out of the loop and even facing resentment from those who have had to work throughout.

Julia Kermode, CEO and founder of IWORK, has concerns over whether remote working can work for all sectors of the workforce. "Trainees, apprentices and anyone at the start of their careers who pick up many skills learning on the job would find it much more difficult in practice if they were required to be 100% remote from colleagues," she points out. "It's not just people in their early careers that could be affected; some personalities thrive more in an office environment than they might do working remotely, so when planning the workforce of the future care needs to be taken to cater for all preferences."

Building trust

All this presents a range of issues with which businesses and HR will need to get to grips. Kelly Hearn, psychotherapist and co-founder of Examined Life, believes it requires a changed approach from managers. "It is essential leaders prioritise human, rather than merely technological, connection," she says. "This means incorporating qualities of empathy, understanding, comfort, assurance and kindness. Skills traditionally seen as 'soft' were suddenly recognised as essential leadership attributes in 2020."

Staying in touch with employees is even more important for HR in a remote context, believes Roberts, but it is important too to make sure they do not feel stifled. "You can't watch people or monitor them all day when they're working remotely, although I have heard a few horror stories about staff being told to leave their webcams on, which is completely unethical," she says. "They need to be trusted to complete their work and structure their day the way it suits them, as long as they're not overworking." This requires a stronger focus on outputs, rather than inputs, she adds.

Alberts believes HR needs to develop or update policies to ensure they remain fit for purpose for a remote working environment, including putting in place support structures that can help employees cope with any issues they may be facing. "We need to think creatively of how we encourage employees to reach out to a mental health first aider if they need to, for instance by adding a shortcut to employees' desktops that shows them which people have logged on as 'available to support' virtually," he says. Training line managers on how to manage a virtual team is also a good idea, he adds, including specific areas such as hosting virtual meetings.

Remote procedures

Ian Barrow, head of culture and engagement at Corporate Culture, believes consideration also needs to be given to how individuals develop when they are not physically present in an office. "There has been a continual movement towards a 'self-serve' culture within organisations for some time, whether it be training, skills enhancement or career development, while at the same time many central functions are losing headcount," he says. "If working from home continues to be the norm into 2021, what will remote career development look like?"

Disciplinary and grievance procedures may also be affected, says Barry Stanton, partner in the employment team at Boyes Turner, pointing out that the Acas code of practice continues to apply during the pandemic, which should not be used as an excuse to delay hearings. "If investigations are being undertaken remotely, it is important to remember that the procedure still needs to be fair," he says.

"If there is a hearing, will everyone be able to access the relevant documents? Does the employee and their companion have the ability to access the meeting platform? What facility will there be for the employee and companion to consult with each other during the meeting? If the employer decides to suspend a disciplinary or grievance process, it should explain why and keep the reasons under review, and continue to consult with those involved in the process."

Permanent homeworking

There are also, inevitably, some legal issues that HR must consider. Kate Redshaw, a senior associate in the employment law team at Burges Salmon, says changes may need to be made to employment contracts if parts of the workforce are to work remotely on a more permanent basis: "Some will be straightforward but others will require more thought." She asks: "How often will the employee be required to come to the office and who will decide this? More challenging still will be what happens to salaries and other allowances which are set with reference to, and on the assumption that, the employee will work from a particular location and not from home." Employers need to start thinking of these issues now, she adds, and should remember that contractual changes typically cannot be imposed on staff.

Once the worst of the pandemic is over, it is likely that many businesses will adopt a hybrid between having people in the office and working remotely; the Work after Lockdown survey found that 73% of people are keen to continue working from home at least some of the time, although "Zoom fatigue" means many will also want to meet colleagues in person on a regular basis.

This is a model that has already been deployed by software firm Bright. "Ditching the office completely would undoubtedly have a detrimental impact on both the culture of a business and the idea of 'intangible capital'," says Caroline Collyer, head of people at Bright. She describes 'intangible capital' as "knowledge that is transferred between people unknowingly, or experiences learned by exposure just by being in an office alongside others".

This, in turn, could have implications for how offices themselves evolve. Office supplies firm Lyreco has identified five types of office that it believes could host the future workplace: the home office, the hospitality office, the shared office, the office on the move and a smaller traditional office.

"With these various approaches to workplaces, a large proportion of workers will no longer have a permanent place of work, instead having greater flexibility and the ability to transition between work modes and workplaces with minimal equipment and inconvenience," says Claire Smith, customer experience director, Lyreco UK & Ireland. "Not only will this reduce overheads for businesses, but it will also help to improve employee wellbeing and increase productivity at a time when it's needed most in the wake of COVID-19."