November 18, 2020

Has 2020 opened the door to a new, remote-working, normal?

We explore how the biggest pandemic of a generation may have changed the working environment forever and whether having a remote workforce might deliver operational efficiencies, but at what cost?

 

Working from Home vs. Working in the Office.

For some, the flexibility that home-working affords is a ‘must’ on their ‘new-job’ checklist, whilst for others, the routine, face-to-face interaction and ‘office banter’ that the workplace provides is the perfect way to achieve the much-desired work-life balance. Whilst Covid-19 has led to around 50%(1) of the working population turning their bedrooms into offices, their dining tables into desks and their kitchens into video-call backdrops, many businesses have been plunged into chaos in trying to operate with their entire workforce working in every corner of the country and beyond.

Even before the emergence of Covid-19, working from home was becoming increasingly more popular as millennials and Gen Z workers, who have grown up with technology, begin to demand flexibility from their employers. Over 80% of workers are said to be of this opinion(2).

But is this new-found flexibility a passing fad or have we really turned into a nation of home-workers? And what are the consequences of the ‘new normal’ (whatever that might be)?

 

1 – Can video calls replace face-to-face meetings?

‘Shall we Zoom?’ has seemingly become one of the nations most-used phrases as multiple video-calls per-day has become a way-of-life for much of the UK, with the American company seeing users jump from around 659,000 users in January to a whopping 13,000,000 just 3 months later (3). The ability to see and speak to any number of colleagues, suppliers or customers regardless of where they are in the world at a moments notice is fantastic technology, although this has arguably been the norm for some time for many. The unfortunate consequence of Covid-19 has been a wave of furloughing, redundancy and business-closure and it is somewhat harder to see how these uncomfortable conversations could be better held than being in the same room as the unfortunate recipient. On the flip side, the ability to recruit new people or win new business has historically relied upon face-to-face contact to ‘get a feel’ for the person or business in question and many will argue it’s hard to replace the experience that physical interaction brings regardless of the number of virtual reality apps, FaceTime or live-streaming technology being released into the workplace on an increasingly frequent basis. 

In early November, as the first whispers of a Covid-19 vaccine began spreading, the stock of Zoom plummeted(4) amidst the news that home-working may not be imposed on the UK for too much longer, which may give an insight into the thinking of the working population. It’s clear that the adoption of technology is rising and will continue to do so, but whether it can truly replace the boardroom is yet to be seen.

 

2 – Is working from home good for mental health?

On paper, the ability to email whilst in pyjamas and speak to colleagues from your living room sounds like a welcome break from the sweaty commute on a jam-packed train or standstill traffic caused by the latest pile-up on the roads, but recent studies show that being away from the office might not be quite as glamorous as first thought. A study by Nuffield Health(5) found that 8 in 10 of those forced to work from home during the 2020 pandemic believe that being away from their office and colleagues negatively impacts their mental health in some way. Over a third of participants feel that they have to prove that they aren’t slacking by responding quickly to emails and calls, leaving them feeling unable to step away from their desk, whilst a quarter feel lonely and isolated. Perhaps the most surprising result, which may reflect the impact of social media on our day-to-day lives was that 19% of those surveyed said they feel pressured to look good on video calls.

Saving money on commutes and having more time with immediate family are cited as the biggest benefits of working from home but the overwhelming majority feel that a return to the office is vital for their mental wellbeing and job satisfaction. 

On a related note, it’s not hard to imagine the strain placed on relationships in households with more than one person working as the battles for internet bandwidth, kitchen table space and quiet places continue. As we all become accustomed to working away from the office, the home will inevitably become a more comfortable and efficient place to work, but it would seem many don’t see remote working as a long-term permanent solution. 

As businesses ponder their medium and long-term plans, one of the biggest dilemmas they will likely be facing is balancing the physical and mental needs of their people with the potential savings to be had by reducing their property footprint.

 

3 –  Are employees more productive at home or in the office?

Without digging into the data, you could easily make an argument for both sides of this debate. Those who advocate working from home would argue that regaining time usually lost to commuting, being more comfortable and without the regular office distractions would, of course, make home-working the more productive environment. Those who favour the office will claim that having colleagues within close proximity, the information gained during ‘water-fountain conversations’ and ‘town-hall meetings’ cannot be replicated outside of the office.

But what does the data show?

On a global scale, 9 in 10 people who work from home claim they are more productive than when in an office, rating their productivity 7.7 out of 10 in comparison a rating of 6.5/10 for office-based workers (6).

Almost every study whereby participants are asked to rate their own productivity whilst working from home alludes to remote working being more productive, as you might expect.

However, what the data also appears to show is that as home-working becomes ‘the norm’ and employees treat it more as standard practice, productivity drops, often to lower levels than office workers. Furthermore, over time, studies show that employees may start resent the lack of contact with their colleagues and fall out of love with their job!

 

So, what does it mean for the future of flexible working?

It seems there are sound pros and cons for both working from home and office working and it’s likely that the winners in this dilemma will be the companies who can find the delicate balance between flexibility and structure, freedom and support, and perhaps most importantly, efficiency and happiness. What works for one business may not work for another and a one-size-fits-all approach will likely leave everyone underwhelmed. 

The emergence of incredible technology and the ever-increasing demands placed on employers by their employees will undoubtedly lead to remote-working playing a vital role in the success of businesses in the coming years, but however good the tech gets, we all need a little face-to-face time sometimes, don’t we? 

 

Sources:

1 – Coronavirus and homeworking in the UK: April 2020 2 – Companies that will let you work from anywhere  3 – UK’s internet use surges to record levels 4 – Zoom tumbles 20% as Pfizer’s vaccine success drags on work-from-home stocks 5 – Working from home taking its toll on the mental health & relationships of the nation 6 – Are remote workers happier? – Forbes

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