Remote working has been the modus operandi of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In this first instalment of an exclusive two-part series, the case is made for work-from-home as the dynamic, flexible and popular future of the workplace.
Read PART 2 next for a converse examination of the drawbacks of flexible working models, and the dangerous potential to worsen economic inequalities.
ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: companies around the globe forced to adapt to remote and distance work
The coronavirus pandemic has upheaved virtually every element of personal, professional and public life. This widespread global disruption has had a uniquely uniting quality, forcing employees across the industrial spectrum to adapt to vastly different - and ultimately more remote and flexible - working conditions.
Almost overnight, the first wave of the Covid-19 virus forced close to one billion people to start working from home in some form. Before the pandemic, less than 30% of all British employees had ever worked from home; by April, the proportion of UK employees actively working from home had increased dramatically to nearly 50%. This huge digital shift persisted throughout the crisis, with the European Commission reporting that 35-40% of all employees in developed economies had worked from home for most or all of the pandemic.
The statistics are clear: coronavirus is directly responsible for driving a huge shift towards working from home. The question that emerges immediately is whether this shift is an isolated occurrence under extenuating circumstances, or whether it is part of a larger persistent and continuous change in the workplace?
OLD NEWS: work-from-home part of a well-understood trend
Putting the question of the future momentarily aside, there is first the matter of the past. Even before the pandemic, a growing consensus had already been reached about emergent working trends. Voices from academic and corporate institutions alike had long acknowledged and forecasted the rise of workplace digitisation, and of flexible and remote working structures. Trends in globalisation - responsible for the growing geographic dispersion of business - and the rise of automation and capital-intensive, technology-driven processes - have all been well-documented.
Global Workplace Analytics reported that 80% of employees wanted to work from home at least some of the time, and that one-third of these employees were willing to take a pay-cut to gain the opportunity to do so - before the pandemic had ever even emerged. In short: remote work is not a new phenomenon.
However, the pandemic has accelerated this undeniable trend towards remote and virtual work at an unprecedented rate, and has reframed the core incentives for companies to implement greater locational and working flexibility.
In the past, two key factors have driven remote work: the need to attract and retain the best talent (by offering more attractive and flexible work options), and the potential to cut costs (with companies saving big by reducing use of physical space). When speaking to Ori Dittrich of Nomura (a prominent multinational financial holdings company) during a recent WES Presents event in November: he mentioned that offering employees the flexibility to work from home has long-since been an increasingly important way for the financial services industry to tackle investment banking's identity crisis. The deep-rooted stigma of a poor work-life balance, and unsociable and intense working hours and commitments, is being - and must effectively be - overturned by offering employees greater control over their working structure and personal life.
Following in the footsteps of this already-bubbling digitisation, the pandemic has caused three important things to happen.
(1) CRISIS CONTROL: the role of risk management in driving work-from-home
First, a new and immediate factor has driven (and will continue to drive) the trend towards remote work: the mitigation of disasters. Covid-19 has stamped in collective memory the serious risks associated with a failure to adapt company culture and business models in the face of crises. Whether or not managers favour remote and digitised work, they cannot disagree that it seems to pose the only solution when working on-site is not possible.
The long-term and serious disaster relief that has begun, and that will follow the pandemic, will be defined by the need for flexible working options - in the long-term - as insulation against similarly adverse global crises.
This drive for insulation ensures that more companies than before will be more willing and accepting of the need to offer flexible working patterns to employees, so that the necessary transition to remote work in potential future crises is both smoother and less costly. Ultimately, this should increase the persistence of work-from-home in the long-term through the structural incorporation of work-from-home as an occasional, but logistically and practically accommodated, working practice. As such, the focus on largescale crisis control throughout the pandemic seems to pose a hybrid model - incorporating both physical office interaction and remote work - as the future of the workplace.
(2) ECONOMIC TURMOIL: the role of cost-cutting in driving work-from-home
Secondly, the Covid-19 crisis has increased businesses' need to drive down costs. Catastrophically, the pandemic is responsible for having destroyed more jobs in two months than the 1929 US Great Recession did in two years, and has caused economists to forecast double-dip recessions around the world. This widespread economic devastation is forcing companies to look for new ways to reduce their expenditure.
As was previously the case with the 2008 financial crash, companies are today turning increasingly to digitisation and work-from-home as an opportunity to cut spending on costly office space and travel. It is estimated that the average employer saves $11,000 annually for every employee who spends half their working hours working remotely, while the average employee saves between $2,500 and $4,000 for doing the same - saving mainly on rent and the costs of commuting.
The emerging economic crisis, resulting directly from the pandemic, has the added dimension of social isolation and forced remote work. Ultimately, this offers unprecedented incentive and push for more and more businesses and industries to structurally incorporate remote working as both a more sustainable and cost-effective model, and a continuation of the newfound working patterns under the pandemic.
However, this incentive only ensures that work-from-home will be adopted by those businesses most adversely impacted by the emergent economic crisis, and for the duration of their imminent recovery period. In order to consider whether work-from-home will be adopted on a large-scale - beyond temporary business recovery models or occasional crisis mitigation efforts - the success levels of the pandemic's ongoing teleworking experiment need to be considered. Are people enjoying - and performing well while they have been - working remotely?
(3) POPULAR VERDICT: workers want to stay at home
The third, and probably most important, phenomenon in the work-from-home experiment has been the real responses of both employees and employers to their newfound flexibility. These have posed work-from-home as both a successful and popular alternative to the traditional workplace.
On one level, there have been unanimous recordings of the public's enjoyment of (and demand for continued) flexible, hybrid remote working. Recent research from the universities of Cardiff and Southampton, for instance, found that 88% of those who worked at home during lockdown want to continue doing so in some respect in the future. OWL Labs similarly reported that 98% of employees "would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers," with McKinsey concurring that 80% of people surveyed said they enjoyed working from home.
Moreover, not only do employees enjoy and actively desire the opportunity to work from home: they also crucially find themselves performing well under the newly enforced working structure. Of those surveyed by McKinsey, over two-thirds reported being at least as productive after working from home in the pandemic as they were before, with the largest proportion of these respondents (41%) reporting to be more productive now than under previous, traditional working structures.
Increasingly flexible schedules, geographic flexibility, the elimination of tedious commutes, and increased time to spend with family were the main reasons cited by OWL Labs survey participants for their overwhelming enjoyment and productivity while working from home:
It is clear then that employees are benefitting from the opportunity to take ownership over their personal and professional lives. Research shows that liberation from long and tedious commutes and travel is good for employees' mental health, while working from home makes employees more conscious and proactive about both their physical health and interpersonal relationships, making a strong and holistic case for the benefits of working from home.
ECO-FRIENDLY: work-from-home helps businesses go green
Another added, underreported benefit of work-from-home is its real contribution to the fight against climate change. Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, has said "there is no easier, quicker, and cheaper way to reduce your carbon footprint than by reducing commuter travel". Her analytics team found that half a year of full-time remote work for everyone who is willing, and whose job is currently compatible, would be the greenhouse gas emission-cutting equivalent of "taking the entire New York State workforce off the road altogether".
Cutting down on the use of office space intuitively cuts down on businesses' electricity use. Employers typically heat and light their large, open-plan offices regardless of whether or not the office facilities are being use at or under capacity; a majority of the electricity capacity of offices are engaged until the last employee leaves and locks-up. Reducing this costly use of electricity, and contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is compounded by the reduced need to travel and commute under the work-from-home model, posing remote working as one of the key ways that businesses can honour their net-zero and reduced-carbon-footprint commitments and goals.
MANAGEMENT MATTERS: what do employers think of the trend?
On the other hand, the well-observed and widely beneficial trend towards remote work has long been held back by entrenched traditional corporate thinking, and a resistance to change. Decades-old mainstream consensus yields that bigger office spaces are better, and necessary for greater collaboration and more effective, live measurement of employee productivity.
The IWG Global Workplace Survey found that a lack of understanding about its benefits, fear of its impacts on company culture, and a generally 'non-flexible workplace culture' were the biggest obstacles to implementing flexible workplace policy. Similarly, OWL Labs found that more than half of managers of remote teams were concerned about all of the following:
This poses the persistence and entrenchment of traditional thinking as one of the biggest obstacles to remote work. However, the same research conducted by OWL Labs found that "managers who have worked at home themselves are more likely to endorse it for others," and that "their worries about lost productivity go away". Crucial, then, is the dramatic rise in the number of managers (and employees at every company level) who have worked, and continue to work, from home since the onset of the pandemic in March. The pandemic has forced companies to adapt the non-flexible working structures, and gain first-hand exposure to the experience and possibility of work-from-home, building a more informed and progressive understanding about its benefits and impacts on company culture.
HERE TO STAY: the future of working looks remote
This positive response from the workforce and industry to the remote working phenomenon ultimately culminates in the expectations of business leaders about the future. With employees experiencing and continuing to demand the option for comprehensive working flexibility, it is likely the pandemic has shored the future of remote work by garnering popular support and exposing traditional corporate thinking to its very real feasibility.
The World Economic Forum has found that 80% of employers, across the industrial spectrum, expect to make wider use of remote work and to digitise working processes in the future. A McKinsey survey found a slightly less progressive response, with 38% of respondents expecting their employees to continue working from home one or two days a week after the pandemic, and only 19% of respondents expecting their employees to do the same for three or more days a week.
As a result, the case has been made and heard across the world for the remote work model. However, the real rate at which the pandemic has accelerated this trend in the long-term will ultimately depend upon the extent to which employers are willing to continue adapting and reimagining their business models - as well as the extent to which employers are willing to incorporate the popular consensus and experiences of their employees.
It is ultimately this possibility for real structural change, coupled with the comprehensive benefits and popular demand of work-from-home, that paints a more and more remote picture of our future workplaces.
by Ingrid Bahnemann