Emma Clayton, Managing Director of Grey Bear Consultancy, looks at how the pandemic has changed working practices – what are the benefits and challenges of this increase in remote working?
It’s clear that the once-gradual transition towards flexible working has been accelerated considerably by the pandemic, driven by the changing working model where we all had to work from home and in our remote teams, something frowned upon by many organisations up until the point where we had little choice. When FTSE 100 company, Schroders, told its workers recently that they are no longer required to come into the office, even after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, it made headline news. This move might have been unthinkable when lockdown was announced back in March. Yet organisations of all sizes were forced to transform their working practices overnight and since then, remote working has become commonplace.
Many UK organisations are expected to follow Schroders’ lead, or to continue a degree of remote working – or flexible working in general – in the long term. What does this mean for companies and their people?
“For some, remote working has meant longer working hours and the blurring of boundaries between their professional and personal lives”
The future office
Widespread remote working represents a major shift in traditional working practices. Offices will become places where people meet for physical group interaction and client meetings, while most routine work will be done remotely.
Consequently, many organisations are realising that they need less office space overall, which has significant cost saving implications. Some have already adapted to using reduced office space on a rota basis, with different teams allocated to different times of the day or days of the week. Where employees previously had a long daily commute to the office, they can now save time and enjoy a better work-life balance. Some smaller companies, including Grey Bear Consultancy, have been using this model for several years to great effect. We find that not only does it provide all the above benefits, but it importantly allows us to attract the brilliant female talent who left the corporate bubble to raise a family and who the long commutes and 9-5 hours no longer suit.
Changes in working patterns have not been easy for all, however. For some people, lockdown necessitated their first experience of home working and it was a struggle to adapt. It is vital that managers take account of this and support their teams through major changes.
Embracing digital communications
Digital and cloud-based technology has paved the way for successful remote working, allowing people to join meetings and complete projects from anywhere, at any time. Organisations that were already set up to make use of this technology were at a distinct advantage during the early weeks of the pandemic.
It has, without doubt, enabled a more cost-effective and efficient way of working. Zoom, Skype and Teams calls have become the default meeting space and we no longer need to wait weeks to schedule in a face-to-face meeting with a client or colleague. In some cases communications have improved as many regularly use video calls where behavioural and body language clues were frequently missed through phone calls.
A key facet of successful remote working is maintaining connection between colleagues. By scheduling regular team meetings, including informal online ‘hang-outs’, managers can give home workers the opportunity to connect and build relationships. Focusing on effective communication will ensure that key messages are received, whether people are working from the office or at home. Likewise, planning regular check-in meetings with individuals will reduce any feelings of isolation.
It is also essential for companies to provide their managers with guidance, training and support to help them to manage remotely.
The lost demographic
Remote working allows for increased flexibility and autonomy for employees. More specifically, it increases the capacity for women to keep their positions in the workplace, lessening the stress associated with commuting and juggling childcare. Some felt there was a lack of trust in their ability to work remotely and adopt flexible working patterns before the pandemic, yet most people have proved to be more productive under these circumstances.
Progressive organisations are now reviewing the potential of adopting flexible working practices in the long-term as they see multiple potential benefits. According to the CIPD, wide ranging research shows that flexibility can support inclusion, help to reduce the gender pay gap, assist sustainability initiatives, attract and retain talent, increase productivity and support wellbeing.
There are, of course, some potential downsides to remote working. For instance, mental health implications, such as feelings of loneliness, isolation or stress should be considered. While the use of videoconferencing and similar technologies has allowed employees to maintain engagement levels and productivity, for some remote working has meant longer working hours and the blurring of boundaries between their professional and personal lives.
Managers also need to think about how different personality types might react. For example, introverts may need encouragement to stay connected with their colleagues, while extroverts could struggle with a lack of face-to-face contact. Creating regular ‘virtual coffee break’ opportunities is a good way to help people stay connected outside of business meetings.
Office of the future
For the long-term success of innovative and flexible working practices, including remote working, organisations must take a fresh approach. Now more than ever companies need to embrace this new way of working – not least because new generations to come will be expecting it.
Covid-19 is an undoubtable blow to the world, but it has no doubt brought about many opportunities. The office is no longer a building, but a network of diverse people brought together by digital technologies. For some time, enabling better mobility and remote work has been consistently discussed as vital.
The recent pandemic has provided a fresh stimulus, meaning the need for change is now more important than ever.