A global surge of remote working amid the Covid-19 crisis could leave a lasting footprint, according to US public policy think tank the Brookings Institution.
In a recent blog (Brookings Institution, 6 April 2020), the organisation writes: “Until now, telecommuting has been slower to take hold than many predicted when remote work technology first emerged. This inertia probably reflects sticky work cultures as well as a lack of interest from employers in investing in the technology and management practices necessary to operate a tele-workforce.”
However, it notes, “the pandemic is forcing these investments in industries where telework is possible, with more people learning how to use remote technology. As a result, we may see a more permanent shift toward telecommuting.”
The Institution points out that previous crises have galvanised remote working, with New Yorkers flocking to it in the wake of 9/11 and New Zealanders taking it up in increasing numbers following the Christchurch earthquake of 2011.
Even so, the organisation flags up some potential downsides, arguing: “Professional isolation from telecommuting can have a negative impact on wellbeing (de Vries et al, 2018) After the earthquakes in Christchurch, many employees reported that they combatted isolation by occasionally teleworking in the same location as co-workers (Donnelly and Proctor-Thomson, 2015).
“Co-working from home is obviously at odds with the current need for social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but under more normal circumstances, telework appears to be most successful when alternated with face-to-face contact. For instance, face-to-face groups perform better than virtual groups in creative teamwork tasks (Allen et al, 2015), but working away from the office can improve focus on individualised tasks.”
The blog also notes: “A new study of employees at a US technology services company found that extensive telecommuting is associated with fewer promotions and lower salary growth, but that telecommuters who have face-to-face time with managers or who perform supplemental work outside of normal hours have better outcomes.”
Despite those issues, it adds: “Covid-19 may permanently change the way many of us work. At present, shifting as many people as possible to home-based telework is a necessary response to a terrible crisis. In the post-pandemic world, it may stay with us as a popular practice that, if done well, can improve job satisfaction, raise productivity, reduce emissions, and spread work to more remote regions.”
Could the rapid adjustments that organisations have been forced to make render bricks-and-mortar premises obsolete?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Covid-19 has forced people to learn how to work remotely with very little preparation time. The necessity to learn quickly and to engage with this way of working has meant that people have upskilled with amazing speed – and no doubt many professionals have found that they’ve been able to handle this adjustment really well. So now they have a choice in a way that they didn’t have before, because they faced barriers such as not having the correct technology, not knowing the ropes of remote working and/or feeling that it is so much easier to come in and talk to colleagues face to face in the same premises.”
She explains: “With new skills, you are in a position to do things differently going forward – because you will never go back to being exactly the same person you were without those skills. And overlaying that expansion of people’s skillsets are two, main drivers: firstly, businesses will now be thinking from a far more costs-conscious perspective about whether they really need all the office space they are currently paying for – and secondly, individuals will be wondering whether they really need to commute into the office, having experienced the benefits of working from home during the crisis. They are big questions, and will have a significant impact on organisational decision making.”
Cooper notes: “Of course, that gives rise to other issues. For example, in a typical workplace scenario, people tend to want to come into work at the same time to collaborate with each other, which means that the small amount of office space on hand is rarely, if ever, sufficient. So you require schedules for when people are going to come in – and firms may need to refine those plans if they decide in large numbers to contract their office space. But hopefully, that sort of planning will be nothing like as immediate, urgent and sudden going forward as it had to be as the crisis flared up.”
She adds: “I’m particularly fascinated by the blurring of work-life boundaries that the current situation has necessitated. Managers have had to engage with the totality of their workers’ lives. They have been Zooming into employees’ bedrooms, kitchens and lounges, with children, husbands and dogs roaming around. So even the most businesslike managers have been forced to engage at a much more holistic level with how their staff live their lives. I hope – dare I say, predict – that this will lead to a much more compassionate and understanding management style, simply because senior figures have had to get to know their people differently, and in a better way.
“Fundamentally, as a national workforce, we are sociable people who like to meet and be together. But for the time being, we’ve just got better at not being together. Will we stop wanting to congregate in the long run? Probably not. But there will be a recalibration of our working habits.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on communicating