Remote working has been the modus operandi of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This second instalment of an exclusive two-part series considers the potential risks associated with flexible working practice, and how we might continue to reap its benefits without exacerbating existing industrial and international inequalities.
Read PART 1 first, where we examine the arguments in favour of work-from-home, and the incentives driving this growing trend.
TURNING TIDE: coronavirus tows the line of remote working further than ever before
For the past few decades, technological advances and globalisation have both continued to drive the widescale digitisation of workplaces, offering increasingly comprehensive and intuitive remote working solutions that unite employees across disparate geographies.
While this remote working has long been a growing trend, and offers many obvious benefits - enabling employees to take greater ownership over their increasingly flexible personal and professional lives - the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has accelerated its adoption at unprecedented rates. The pandemic's mandate of physical distancing has rendered a vast majority of companies unable to maintain their traditional on-site working models. Instead, the global workforce has been forced very suddenly to conduct a large-scale experiment in work-from-home, with Eurofound reporting that the proportion of EU employees 'usually working from home' grew dramatically from only 5.4% pre-pandemic to as much as 40% by the summer of 2020.
This widespread, pandemic-fuelled adoption of remote work is likely to stick around - albeit in a slightly more hybrid and less wholesale form - with Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) forecasting a significant rise in the proportion of the international workforce who "work from home on a multiple-days-a-week basis", rising from under 10% pre-pandemic to between 25% and 30% by the end of 2021. As GWA President Kate Lister put it when referring to the remote working phenomenon during Covid-19: "the genie is out of the bottle and it's not likely to go back in".
BIGGER PICTURE: considering the drawbacks of work-from-home on a macroeconomic scale
However, as with most rapidly developing and externally-catalysed economic phenomenon; not everyone has benefitted or been impacted equally by the work-from-home experiment.
Most existing research into and analysis of the drawbacks and dangers of working from home have been very microeconomic in nature. The current focus has largely been on the effects of remote work on measures like the motivation and productivity levels of individual employees and teams, or the synergy and opportunity for collaboration and communication within and across companies.
These are important and topical microeconomic considerations, with research revealing numerous potential downsides. For instance, the HIRED State of Remote Work Report found that one-third of employees were concerned that their career trajectories were being slowed by work-from-home, with managers less able to see and acknowledge the 'full extent' of their contributions remotely. Similarly, OWL Labs' research found that a significant 82% of remote team managers are concerned about reduced employee focus, with 75% of the same group concerned about reduced team cohesiveness while working from home. These issues highlight the real need to adapt Key Performance Indicators used to measure workforce satisfaction and performance, in order to better suit and account for hybrid (or eve entirely virtual) working environments, and the need to better study the long-term effects of hybrid and remote work on wider business performance.
What these considerations fail to do, however, is acknowledge the equally real and potentially adverse impact of remote work on the wider national and global, macroeconomic landscape. In fact, three major and underreported instances of structural socio-economic inequality have been exacerbated by work-from-home, whose implications are only beginning to become apparent.
(1) THE OTHER SIDE: some who work remotely are suffering
The first layer of this heightened inequality emerges within the group of employees who have indeed been forced to work from home, where not everyone has been able to access and reap the benefits of remote work.
Those with direct dependents and caring duties at home, for instance - parents with young children, or those with elderly or indisposed cohabitants - have suddenly found themselves constantly exposed to, and their productivity compromised by, personal commitments. Employees whose living conditions are not conducive to work - living in shared and cramped spaces, or saddled with poor internet connection and lacking technology - have been less productive while working from home. In addition to productivity, the mental health of some employees has suffered; those who live alone in solitary, potentially isolating environments, and particularly those with very extroverted temperaments and working styles, have found themselves less able to motivate themselves while working from home.
(2) INDUSTRIAL DIFFERENCES: some sectors of the domestic economy far better suited to work-from-home than others
A second, more tangible and structural, inequality is that emerging across the wider domestic economy; of course, not all industries and professions are equally suited to accommodate remote work. The World Economic Forum reports that "the potential for remote work is concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries [and] occupations," with the European Commission concurring that the level of 'preparedness' for remote work is highest in knowledge-intensive, tertiary sectors.
White-collar, corporate professions centred around tasks like research, data analysis, modelling and forecasting - most observed in the business, insurance, and financial services sectors - have been most able to mitigate losses in productivity through effective adoption of flexible working structures throughout the pandemic. Conversely, primary sector work (as found, for instance, in the agricultural sector), and jobs revolving around the use of site-specific machinery or face-to-face interaction (such as taxi driving, dental health and hygiene, manual labour) can accommodate almost no remote work, and have been most adversely impacted by the pandemic, and least able to capitalise on the trend towards remote work.
The OECD observed this very inequality even before the onset of the pandemic, which would indicate the persistent structural nature of this inequality in different industries' abilities to accommodate digital an remote working. The graph below displays the percentage of people using telework in 2015 by sector, using OECD research data:
Moreover, research has found that there is a direct relationship between an organisation's ability to accommodate remote work and its multinationalism, with the biggest companies already working across geographies and time-zones best posed to implement wider work-from-home strategies. As such, smaller organisations, and those operating in primary and secondary sectors, or revolving crucially around physical interaction with customers or equipment, have been left behind in the remote work experiment, and suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
(3) GLOBAL INEQUALITY: emerging economies not ready to digitise
The third area of tangible and seriously exacerbated inequality appears on a global scale, upon examination of the vastly unequal levels of digital penetration across more and less advanced economies. In many ways, this global inequality is an extension of the vastly unequal ability of different industries and companies to accommodate remote work and digital working flexibility.
In essence, highly-skilled workers and service-based tertiary industries - that lend themselves to remote work - compose a far greater proportion of economic activity in developed than in developing economies. Advanced economies tend to centre around white-collar jobs: those with the highest level of 'preparedness' for remote work. This is coupled with the inverse tendency of developing countries to be specialised in commodity-based, agricultural, manufacturing, and other primary and secondary industries, where the potential for remote work is far lower.
Illustratively, the World Economic Forum has found that "in the United Kingdom, the workforce could effectively spend up to a third of its time working remotely, while China's workforce could devote no more than 16% of its to remote work without losing effectiveness". Similarly, McKinsey research has shown that there is a wide gulf in the "potential share of time spent working remotely" among workforces in different countries, as seen in the chart below:
This exemplifies the real danger of the widespread adoption of remote working to widen the global development chasm, seeing technological advances and flexible working structures offer geographically and industrially exclusionary benefits, and further disadvantaging emerging economies, smaller businesses, and primary sector workers.
WHAT'S NEXT: solutions for remote working amid structural inequalities
In response to these three crucial layers of inequality - all of which threaten to be made worse by the increase remote work - increasing emphasis must be placed on technological advancement in three key arenas: education, corporate budgeting, and developmental initiatives.
The incorporation of technology into training, business spending, and macroeconomic development will better equip current and (especially) future workforces to engage successfully with virtual and remote work. As a result, workforces will be more able to engage with the highest-skilled, white-sector, service-sector professions that most easily and readily adopt remote and flexible work.
In the first (educational) arena, the promotion of technological literacy in schools and professional upskilling schemes will enable more employees to take advantage of remote work, and engage in its most effective application in skilled employment. As a further result, a greater proportion of the workforce will be better insulated against crises like the coronavirus pandemic.
Emphasising technological advancement in the second (corporate budgeting) arena manifests when companies offer 'work-from-home allowances' or spending packages for their employees, equalising the access to necessary remote working equipment across their employees. For instance, Google announced a $1000 'home tech' allowance per employee in May of 2020, responding directly to the potential for inequality created by remote working in the pandemic. This could effectively be subsidised by governments, particularly for smaller businesses and in industries with traditionally low digital penetration.
Finally, the third arena of developmental initiatives addresses the disparate levels of remote working 'readiness' across advanced and emerging economies. In this instance, the greater promotion and proliferation of basic technological infrastructure - such as reliable, universal internet access, as well as access to professionally- and educationally-useful devices and software - is crucial in bridging the international technological development gap that prevents countries from gaining equal access to remote work and, as a direct result, skilled service-sector industries.
Work-from-home and remote teleworking are set to be an increasingly important and prevalent feature of future workplaces. Similarly important and prevalent, then, should be the comprehensive and technology-driven solutions that we use to address the structural inequalities emerging across domestic economies, and the world at large. Without these holistic approaches to technological inequalities, the successes of working from home will fail to include and uplift those who would benefit most from its progressive flexibility.
by Ingrid Bahnemann