The coronavirus has utterly transformed the way millions of us work, and while the pandemic health emergency will dissipate at some point, it is likely that aspects of the ‘Work from Home Revolution’ are here to stay.
People will have adapted to remote working, learned to leverage the advantages and mitigate the risks. If this is allied with businesses experiencing no changes in productivity, and even experiencing cost savings from reduced office space, commuting downtime, more flexible hours and working, then a return to exactly the same working practices that were in place prior to pandemic could start to look less like a cause for celebration and more like foolishness.
So – will we have a new working normal on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic? And if so – what will it look like?
A turning point for remote working?
New data by the Office for National Statistics shows that just 5% of the active 32.6 million UK workers considered their home as their main place of work in 2019. The figure grows to 4 million when factoring in those who work in part from home. However, some 70% of workers – 23.9 million people – had zero experience of working from home, prior to social isolation measures forcing people to abandon commutes and offices en masse.
Now, the seismic shift in working habits and methods enforced by the coronavirus pandemic has seen an estimated 20 million people relocating to home offices.
That's why Charlie Heywood, managing director at APH, an ERP consultancy, says this is the turning point for remote working. "If you already have a trend that is gathering pace, a shock like the coronavirus pandemic accelerates that. I don’t think a physical office space will be totally replaced by homeworking but I do think at the end of this period employees will want to spend at least a day or two a week working from home," he says.
Technology to support home working
What has this seismic shift looked like on the ground? What technologies are being used to ensure that remote working remains productive, engaging and collaborative? Since the virus was declared a pandemic on March 11, many companies have attempted to rapidly move their operations, culture, management style and communications fully online. We are in a place where we are all having to understand and simultaneously adopt technologies so that we can work effectively because we simply have no other choice. While this is all second nature to technology businesses, most of the country is having to quickly implement and adopt these technologies.
Many companies already use some remote-work resources across dispersed offices, like document sharing and online collaboration tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex. As demand for virtual meetings has increased over the past month, companies like Zoom have seen their stock soar. Microsoft alone has seen a new daily record of 2.7 billion meeting minutes in a single day. That’s up 200 percent from 900 million minutes in mid-March, around the time many businesses shifted toward remote working. Unsurprisingly, people are turning on video in Teams meetings two times more than before, with video calls usage in Teams growing by more than 1,000 percent in March.
However, not all at-home workspaces are created equal and employees may be held back initially if their companies haven't implemented the right technology or are slow to do so. Gartner says just over half of HR leaders surveyed admit that poor technology and infrastructure for remote working is the biggest barrier in the grand transition. An initial lesson learned from the coronavirus crisis is to accelerate the development of an ICT infrastructure that can support home and remote types of working. HR leaders can leverage this opportunity to measure the impact on employee performance and productivity to build a business case for technology investment and more progressive policies for effective flexible working moving forwards.
Expectations versus reality: productivity and happiness
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, many employees longed for the greater flexibility entailed by remote working – yet this was often countered by employers’ fears that productivity would drop. Indeed, the most common reason employers cite for not offering remote work is simply that they don't trust their staff to work efficiently from home. In fact, 76 percent of HR leaders reported to Gartner that the top employee complaint during the coronavirus outbreak thus far has been "concerns from managers about the productivity or engagement of their teams when remote."
But many managers are likely to find themselves surprised. A two-year study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which followed office workers at China’s largest travel agency, found that people who worked from home showed a 13% improvement in performance compared to those who worked in an office. Remote employees also work 1.4 more days each month than in-office workers, a 2019 survey by gig work platform Airtasker found. Remote workers took more breaks throughout the day, which has been shown to boost productivity. And when employees’ screen or mouse time was tracked, 56% of office workers found ways to avoid working, compared to 39% of remote workers.
Remote working enforced by the coronavirus pandemic, then, could mean that employees are able to make a far stronger case for more flexible approaches to their hours and place of work in the future. Employees will need to step up their communication, developing habits to document digital interactions so other teams and superiors know what's happening. And that sometimes means an overreliance on meetings.
On the other hand, there are downsides to the remote-work reality. Many workers don't have the space at home and hate feeling isolated. It's harder to distinguish between personal and work time. Employers might not be prepared on the technology front, making it difficult to carry out otherwise simple tasks.
It is impossible to ascertain at this stage how many of the challenges faced by newly-remote workers are tied to wider challenges of the pandemic – combining remote working with childcare and home schooling, for example – and all of the wider feelings of stress and anxiety which are increasingly par for the course.
The coronavirus pandemic will change how businesses and individuals work forever.
Those with the right culture and drive to move with the times as lockdown speeds up adoption rates will emerge more powerful than ever before. But for those who struggle to keep up, it will be hard to hide as the difference between the adopters and the laggards becomes increasingly pronounced.
Sankar Sivarajah, professor of Technology Management and Circular Economy at Bradford University, is an expert in evaluating the use of digital technology by organisations. He says the coronavirus outbreak had caused many businesses to reconsider the ways in which they use technology. "We have seen a rapid transition to web-based platforms as a result of the outbreak," he said.
Prof Sivarajah said that despite the present difficulties, there was a silver lining to the crisis in terms of businesses learning to survive. He added: "This crisis is testing the resilience of businesses small and large and new ways of working are going to come out of that. Most supply chains are built to be efficient but we kind of forget about resilience.”
There’s also an obvious reason homeworking will become an option for traditional office workers. Due to Covid-19 companies have been forced to invest in remote working technology to keep their businesses running be that homeworking solutions or an embracement of ecommerce, for instance. And since companies are making these investments it’s likely they’ll be more likely to stay after the pandemic ends to ensure a long-term return on investment and also a backup in case the worst happens again!