Not a day passes when there is not another report on remote working, often contradicting each other. So what can we expect after Covid? The important thing is to prepare properly and offer people choice where possible.
There are so many contradictory announcements about the future of working these days. Yesterday, for instance, it was reported that Cambridge software developer Frontier Developments had blamed remote working for delaying the release of its latest video games, saying that projects requiring teamwork had been challenged by working remotely. And clothing retailer Ted Baker was reported to be pressurising some staff to return to the office during lockdown, mainly those working in teams dedicated to design, merchandising, studio, buying and production and store design.
Meanwhile, Unilever’s CEO said he believes his office workers will never return to their desks five days a week and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng urged employers to take all necessary steps to ensure employees can work from home. The Government was, however, keen to get everyone back into the office as soon as it could back in September and will no doubt go back into return to the office mode when lockdown ends.
What is clear is that the picture is likely to be mixed for some time and was already mixed on remote working before Covid when some office workers were already doing hybrid working, although not on anywhere near the scale that they may be doing it in the future, given demand. However, clearly not all employees embrace remote working or find it works for them and it does seem that some employers are struggling with remote working for particular collaborative tasks, where interaction and bouncing ideas off each other is required. This may well be because they don’t have the structures and tools in place to make it all work as remote working enthusiasts say. It is definitely true that many employers were forced into mass remote working very suddenly and have been playing catch-up ever since.
A backlash is expected. There are also more dire projections on the impact on high streets of remote working with a KPMG report predicting up to 400,000 retail jobs on England’s high streets could be lost as a result of more home working and online shopping after the coronavirus pandemic, with wealthy commuter towns in the south reportedly among the most vulnerable. There are several things going on at once which Covid has accelerated. High streets were already in trouble clearly before Covid and people will have got more used to online shopping since having to rely on it during lockdown. Remote working has already had a big impact on commuter businesses in big cities, although, before the second lockdown other smaller towns reported a boost to some high street businesses.
Big sudden changes are not the best way to move things forward because they don’t allow people to prepare. What is clear is that we need to drill down into all the different research studies to get a detailed picture of what works, what doesn’t, where more support or preparation might be needed and what offices might work best for. Most large employers seem to be in favour of a hybrid approach with the office being used for collaborative and social tasks.
A small-scale study out this week suggests that different sectors have a different emotional response to remote working. The survey by employee engagement experts Inpulse found employees from education, technology, finance and manufacturing tended to experience more positive emotions when working from home, with many attributing these emotions to enjoying a better work-life balance, not having to commute and saving money on travel and other expenses. Three quarters of those in the education sector said they felt ‘positive’ about remote working. In the technology sector, 67 per cent felt positive, 33 per cent felt empowered and a further 33 per cent felt confident. In finance, 50 per cent felt positive and empowered and a further 33 per cent felt motivated. 67 per cent of employees in manufacturing said they felt positive working from home while 33 per cent felt motivated and energised.
However, employees working in communications tended to struggle more with 63 per cent of respondents disclosing feels of isolation from being ‘stuck at home’ and not seeing colleagues and socialising. 40 per cent of employees in the construction industry said they felt demotivated. There appeared to be an equal split between responses from employees in transportation: 29 per cent said they felt isolated while a further 29 per cent said they felt positive working from home. Overall, 46 per cent across all sectors felt positive working from home and 20 per cent felt empowered compared to 17 per cent who felt isolated and indifferent.
Added to the type of job people do is also whether they have other responsibilities such as childcare which make commuting more stressful – though I say this in the midst of the homeschooling/homeworking nightmare when many parents may be fantasising about getting onto a packed train and heading out of the home at high speed. The important thing is to ensure the processes are in place for hybrid working and to offer people a proper choice if possible if you want to get the best out of them. After all, having some control over your work is one of the biggest factors in workplace stress.