Remote working: the biggest global experiment ever undertaken

via flickr © Tobyotter (CC BY 2.0)

via flickr © Tobyotter (CC BY 2.0)

  • Response to the pandemic has been quick, effective and remarkably smooth
  • Many organisations successfully transitioned to remote working within a week
  • Technology stood up well and most glitches were minor and quickly resolved
  • However, troubles looming over old-fashioned management styles and systems in a changed world

This morning an interesting new report wafted zephyr-like into the TelecomTV editorial email inbox - and, for a change, it's not from one of the usual research houses, so that's a novelty in itself. The London-headquartered international specialist staff recruitment company, Robert Walters, has published the results of a survey conducted with 2,000 global enterprises and 5,000 white-collar professionals on how organisations and individuals who work for them have reacted to and coped with the biggest, unforeseen and unplanned remote working experiment ever conducted.

The coronavirus pandemic and the population lockdowns that resulted have caused massive disruption and almost overnight changes to how, when and where businesses work. Some of them, such as the unprecedented expansion in home and remote working and the abandonment of bricks and mortar local, regional offices and even national headquarters may well be permanent features of life, post-Covid 19.

The report shows that, overall, the response to the pandemic has been remarkably rapid, smooth, seamless and very effective. Across the globe companies almost instantly initiated remote working programmes with some 47 per cent of enterprises and organisations moving their staff to remote working environments within two days while 61 per cent took a while longer but had new regimes in place within a working week. The Top Five countries that managed the unprecedented transition the quickest were led by Canada where 85 per cent of companies moved to remote working within a week, second was Switzerland with 82.5 per cent, third was Ireland with 81.82 per cent, fourth was the US with 75.68 per cent and the UK was is fifth place with 69.70 per cent.

The UK might be at the bottom of the list but that position must be understood in light of the fact that prior to lockdown a mere 11 per cent of enterprises had stated that their personnel were able to work entirely from home. In other words, 70 per cent of UK firms transitioned from office-based working to remote working within seven days, a remarkable feat. What's even more impressive is that more than half (53 per cent) of that 70 per cent completed the transition in under two days.

And it's not only senior management who are satisfied with the success of the abrupt changes, 71 per cent of workers said the transition to working from home was straightforward and easy and 82 per cent expressed complete satisfaction with the set-up of their new "home office environment" which, it turns out, is often a bedroom, a kitchen table or even a sofa. Obviously that will have to change if, as seems likely, home working becomes much more of a norm - and that will be a big problem for companies in general and their IT departments in particular. 

Firms may well save money on office rental but they'll have to spend at least some of that on making sure that their remote working staff are provided with the equipment and support they need and that may well mean giving assistance with the expense of converting a room or a little used area into a proper home office whenever that is feasible. Indeed, the Robert Walters survey shows that 52 per cent of staff expect their company, post-Covid-19 to invest in technology to improve and enhance working from home.

Technology availability was a short-term problem

Of course, the sudden shift to almost total home-working placed a huge reliance and burden on comms technology and the availability of fast broadband access and company IT resources were put under more or less instant and intense stress. The logistics of getting company laptops and other devices out to suddenly remote workers was the biggest headache early on in lockdown with 59 per cent of firms reporting troubles. IT infrastructure and security concerns were next at 28 per cent and the provision, robustness and reliability of video conferencing software and apps, such a Zoom, stood at 15 per cent. Thankfully, most of these issues have now been resolved.

The new survey also reinforces what has long been known anecdotally and empirically demonstrated in many research reports; that working from home makes people more productive than they are in an office environment. In this case 31 per cent of organisations said staff productivity has risen and 35 per cent of employees say their productivity has gone up. The increase is due in the main to the end of daily commuting into a central office (81 per cent), flexible hours of work and fewer distractions (51 per cent) and a more relaxed and less structured working environment (49 per cent). So great and positive has been the change that 87 per cent of staff expect to be able to work from home for more days a week than they had been allowed to before the pandemic and 20 per cent say that, henceforth, they would like to work from home permanently.

However, the changes have thrown into stark relief the possibility of mental health issues that may well arise with some of those that are working from home for longer and longer losing out on the social interaction and sense of inclusion that being a member of an office team can confer. The new survey shows that 30 per cent of remote workers already feel that their mental health has been affected by radically changed circumstances. As Sam Walters, Director of Professional Services at Robert Walters says, "Economic uncertainty, health fears, furlough, risk of redundancy, reduced or longer hours, social isolation, poor physical work set-up, home schooling are all fresh concerns which employees did not have to worry about two months ago".

Management dinosaurs need to evolve or go extinct

It is both interesting and dispiriting to see that dinosaurs still roam the corporate landscape and seem incapable of understanding that the "Paradigm Shift" they have been blarbing on about for a generation and more is happening before their eyes, and it's not the one they expected. 

It's not true of all management but a significant minority are resistant to changes that might be perceived as a threat to the organisational pecking order. It's not new, it has been a problem in business since mercantilism gave way to the industrial society and it is still there in some organisations. Preserving the sense of self and self-worth becomes all the more important with every step taken up the ladder of management and, as they new survey shows, many companies are dubious (and probably scared) about their status and worth in a much more virtualised world. 

Managers (64 per cent of them) cite concerns about reduced employee productivity (even though all the evidence shows that people work harder and do more for their employers when they work from home) while 57 per cent of senior managers and "C-Suiters" prefer "traditional ways of working". 

Well they would, wouldn't they? It justifies their positions, self-esteem and salary levels We'll see how that washes out as the pandemic waxes and wanes and major industry events return to the calendar. Then we'll be able count the number of head honchos and their satellite acolytes willing to risk infection by flying to foreign climes to give the keynote speeches and tour the world burnishing their own and their company's credentials at meetings with analysts that was one of their main purposes in life BC (before Covid-19.)

Also cited in the report is that managers are worried about their ability to oversee teams of remote workers and are already compensating for this and reinforcing their own positions by the over-management and intrusive policing of their staff. More than 30 per cent of managers say they have increased the number of "catch-up" calls they have with their staff with 20 per cent calling multiple times a day. 

The approach is already shown to be counterproductive. Some 30 per cent of remote workers report that the increased requirement to attend virtual meetings, sit in on conference calls and generally report-in several times a day is actually impacting their productivity, and not in a good way. Furthermore, 21 per cent of remote workers said they are under a lot more pressure to produce work and desired results to a much shorter timescale that was or would be the case in a traditional office setting and that over-frequent progress-chasing is affecting their mental health. Virtual presentee-ism is as insidious and soul-sapping are physically being in the office for longer and longer hours to prove "loyalty" and justify employment.

The answer to their travails is, of course, management training but 78 per cent of companies admit that their leadership teams have not had any and are not equipped to manage teams remotely. What's more a mere 25 per cent of organisation are actually providing managers with the necessary training even as working practices change forever. To make matters even worse, 29 per cent of them don't have even the sketchiest strategy for a return to the office, the old ways and the status quo ante.

Something needs to be done, and quickly. Sam Walters again, "The extended period of remote working means that employers shouldn’t just expect ways of working to return in the same way as before. We have now had the joy of no commute, more time with loved ones, and genuine flexi-hours. Professionals have also had time to reflect on their wellbeing and identify trigger points - such as pressure from management or long hours and so will be returning to the workplace with a heightened sense of awareness towards these issues". 

Change is here and more is on the way. Remote workers have adapted, management will have to do the same.

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