The future is here. Once a remote possibility, working from home has become commonplace and more accepted, much sooner than anticipated. While most employers have in the past resisted the idea of their workforces performing their duties from home, necessity is the mother of invention, and the current coronavirus crisis has left many employers with no other option.

How does this sudden change affect organisations and employees? Remote working was increasing gradually, but the workplace has now transformed about a decade earlier than expected. Of course, this option is only available to those employees who are in professions that can be carried out in home environments, an option not available to those working in manufacturing, retail and many other sectors.

Workers who have often been invisible and unrecognised are now the ones classified as “essential,” such as delivery drivers and grocery store employees — the very ones who cannot work remotely. Many others, not deemed essential, will simply be unable to return to work as their businesses, and especially restaurants, may not re-open.

The US Bureau of Labor estimates that of the top 25 percent of income-earners, 60 percent could work from home, while the figure for the lowest 25 percent of earners is 10 percent. Those able to work remotely would be far fewer in developing countries where equipment and Internet access may be greater impediments.

 

So how are remote employees coping? An example of someone working remotely is Zahir Janmohamed, the Director of Principal Gifts at the Aga Khan University (AKU). He was in Houston on 16 March , when university-related travel was suspended, and all flights into Pakistan were cancelled. What was expected as a short travel ban has turned into two months already. Meanwhile, his wife remains at home in Karachi.

 

All AKU non-health related staff who can work remotely have been encouraged to do so. Individuals on Zahir’s team reside on four continents and even though they were used to working in different time zones, they were unaccustomed to working remotely, so they had to quickly adopt new communication technologies. This has also impacted Zahir’s schedule and sleep patterns.

Fortunately, to offset the isolation, there is social contact during a weekly virtual coffee-time with leaders and colleagues. He is also happy to be able to stay with his daughter who is working in Houston, but from home, requiring both to have clearly defined private workspaces.

Amaan Nathoo, head of customer success at Later.com, a Vancouver-based company that is a marketing platform for Instagram, has been working remotely for a while.

“I believe many companies will adopt a permanent work from home option,” he says, noting that “Twitter has already moved in this direction…all employees will have the option to be fully remote moving forward, while Google is not far behind, stating that working from home will continue through the end of 2020, regardless of future developments this year.”

Amaan notes that “Zoom has taken the world by storm, with 200 million daily active participants. However, I think asynchronous communication will really stand out moving forward.” 

“Async” is when a message or data is sent without expecting an immediate response. Apps available “enable teams to share and consume high quality information asynchronously without the need to be online at the same time, let alone face to face. This will be the productivity hack moving forward,” he believes.

Employer issues

In some regions, many companies have not been able to accommodate remote work due to a lack of equipment, appropriate software, training, Internet access, and measures to ensure security and privacy. Nevertheless, worldwide, 56 percent of companies permit remote work, and it is inevitable that this trend will accelerate, despite resistance.

Employers are concerned about productivity, primarily. How can employers measure the output and work ethic of employees whom they cannot monitor? How do they measure the value of their work, analyse it critically, and evaluate employee performance without face-to-face meetings and discussions? How do group meetings offer creative solutions without staff being able to physically engage each other?

It may be about a year before there is an adequate analysis of the success of remote working at the current scale, one that encompasses so many industries and professions. The advantages for employers are the possibility of less office space required, estimated to be anywhere from $3,000 to $11,000 per employee, although some say that once more workers return to offices, there will be more space needed to ensure safe distances between them.

It is possible also that instead of one central office location, some companies will create a hub with several smaller spokes in the suburbs, as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently suggested, perhaps where employees may visit infrequently but otherwise work from home.

Stanford University’s two-year remote work productivity study followed 500 employees, dividing them into “remote” and “traditional” working groups. The remote working group results indicated a productivity increase equal to a full day’s work per week, fewer sick days, and a 50 percent decrease in employee attrition.

Most employees feel this system encourages more loyalty and a positive attitude to their employers due to the home environment, as well as other advantages, possibly leading to less employee turnover. Once instituted, however, it may be difficult to expect employees to willingly return to a central office location daily. Management policies and attitudes will need to change with a greater degree of trust on the employees’ abilities to perform.

Amaan’s team at Later.com has seen productivity levels remain relatively the same as in an office setting, following an initial surge in virtual meetings to ensure work was getting done. 

“However,” he remarks, “the following 30 days and onwards we've seen things level out very nicely and have seen first-hand how quickly humans can adapt to a new norm.”

“At the end of the day, I don't think (and hope) that most companies are expecting their employees to be as productive at home as they would be in office, but I do think the whole world is shocked at how quickly we have adapted and can get back to those levels,” Amaan says.

Employee preferences

There are definite advantages for employees, including flexibility, the opportunity to take care of children as needed, the ability, in some professions, to be able to arrange one’s own daily work schedule, the elimination of unproductive commuting time, allowing more time for work and family, with less stress. Less travel also means less pollution in the environment and less traffic density. For those who do need to commute or deliver products, less traffic would be a blessing. Better work-life balance is probably what most employees would find appealing.

Remote working may not be a panacea however, as the same Stanford study researchers found that working at home all the time led to more isolation than many could bear.

During the Covid-19 home seclusion for many employees, stress may also have increased, having to cope with inadequate quiet space, children at home instead of at school and requiring attention, and other demands that may interfere with concentration on work. Indeed, the author of the study, Professor Nicholas Bloom, says that “Working from home with your children is a productivity disaster. My four-year-old bursts into the room…in the middle of conference calls.”

An additional issue that may emerge, according to Bloom, is that creativity and innovation may decrease without close contact and communication with colleagues – although frequent video conferencing may allay this fear.

Meeting madness

Video conferencing and digital communications will increase but one of the most hated elements of work will be reduced…the office meetings that take up much time and are only marginally useful. A Harvard Business Review article noted that executives spend 23 hours per week in meetings, compared to 10 hours a week in the 1960s. Another survey by the University of Amsterdam found that managers found only 17 percent of meetings to be useful. Despite the obvious solutions, it seems that some practices are hard to change.

Technology, a double-edged sword

The flexibility that working from home provides for employees is what gives employers pause. There is still a need to ensure employees are as productive as if they were in the office under supervision, and are not taking advantage of the situation because they cannot be seen physically. This has led to technological solutions such as monitoring the time spent at their computers and how much time they are away from them. This may be useful for certain kinds of work, such as data entry, but many jobs require thought, a process of creativity not necessarily linked to computer keystrokes.

Employees are reacting to such technological monitoring unfavorably, suggesting lack of trust and an invasion of privacy. Legally, this may be condoned but it may run counter to improving employee morale. Nevertheless, employers will need to find a way to ensure productivity while satisfying employee privacy. Replacing infrequent supervision at the office with constant supervision at home is not likely to produce a satisfactory outcome for either group.

Soft skills

Laurel Farrer, an international remote work consultant writes that “there’s a stigma to remote work that many of those in top management can’t seem to shake,” and that “managers need to further develop and more strategically deploy so-called ‘soft skills’ that bolster communication and increase levels of trust. They’ll also need to ditch the antiquated notion that strict monitoring equals higher productivity.” Empowerment and trust will be critical and productivity by employees will be needed if this new work model is to be sustained.

For management and employees, this healthcare crisis has created an immediate need for a response, without the time to consider how to make the transition successful in the long-term. Besides the technological changes needed, it is clear that the culture of work and personal responsibility will have to change based on the circumstances the world faces today.

For those who are more disciplined, remote work is a satisfactory solution that they may hope becomes permanent. For others, who perhaps need more isolation from their own selves,  more motivation and communication, and less distractions, the traditional office may be a better alternative.

Whatever the preference, the office as we know it will change, in its technology, space configuration, and communication methodologies from now on. This novel coronavirus has not just impacted our health but the entire ecosystem of work and employer-employee contact and management.

The future is here but is far from certain as the world transforms itself to creating space, both at home for work, and from each other at work. Time will tell whether this is a successful reaction and experiment or not, and whether temporary or permanent.