Making the most of remote working

In March the UK saw a culmination of events that led to a countrywide lockdown, much like most of the world. The ways in which we work changed very dramatically in a short period of time. 

What has become abundantly clear these past few months is the absolute key role technology plays in making remote working viable. Use of digital platforms to bridge communication gaps goes hand in hand with ensuring employees are kitted up with the right kind of tools for their jobs, including but not limited to internet access, laptops, phones and appropriate software. Digitisation has been on the forefront of local government service planning in recent years, but 2020 has seen a hitherto unparalleled forwarding of the agenda.

But systems and technology advancements are in some ways the easiest part of progressing change. The bigger challenge is the impact on (and buy-in of) the people using that technology.

Since April, in partnership with the Local Government Association, we have been providing coaching to senior managers responsible for leading the local response to the COVID-crisis. Feedback from these sessions indicates that the pandemic has shifted many organisations’ view in regard to home working by proving its benefits. This includes the ability to deliver meaningful and productive work and at the same time contribute positively to the climate change agenda (with fewer shared work spaces to run and lessening of the daily work commute). With this in mind, I have been inspired to take a look at the new challenges and opportunities that this transition has created, the impact this has had on employees and how this can better help us inform recruiting practices for the offices and workspaces of the future.

In a 2017 a BBC web article on the subject entitled Why We’re Different People at Work and at Home, a personality scientist at Cambridge University, Dr Sanna Balsari-Palsule, was quoted as saying that we are accustomed to acting out of character for the sake of professionalism. Dr Balsari-Palsule further argued that: ‘We are now working in increasingly fast-paced environments with globally dispersed teams, being flexible and adaptive is hugely important.’

This is now more true than ever before. Even local teams that met regularly in person before have now moved to virtual meetings and digital hangouts, much like those who work in global teams. The dispersed teams models is no longer restricted to companies with geographically dispersed teams, but is now affecting teams of all shapes, sizes and locations.

While behavioural adjustments serve us well in some working scenarios, they can be burdensome to carry out over long periods with no relief. The impact of remote working on areas such as mental health, productivity and overall organisation culture are going to continue to emerge in this brave new era, but there is already a swathe of early research on the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on these key subjects.

A survey of 2,000 UK adults, in partnership with The Mental Health Foundation found that due to the blurring of lines between work and home time, people are feeling overworked and under greater pressure to respond out of working hours. The same report also highlights positives that have emerged from this style of working, which includes 44% of respondents feeling more connectivity with family, 24% reporting more time to exercise and 17% reporting eating healthier. The deciding statistic, however, is that more than half of all surveyed saw the benefits of home working and wanted their employer to give them an option to do this more when lockdown is over.

The COVID-19 digital and ICT impact survey report published by Socitm, based on more than 2,500 responses, found that working from home by UK local authority staff has increased to 82% through the pandemic (as opposed to the pre-pandemic 5%), and that 46% said remote working improved their work life balance while 43% believed it increased their productivity.

This increased productivity was based on several factors such as a lack of distractions, higher motivation at work without having to deal with a commute and meetings being more productive over video call/phone rather than face to face. Of those who did not report a bettering of work/life balance, many indicated that workload due to employees being on furlough and having to adapt to working on unfamiliar projects were the reason for this, rather than the remote working conditions.

A key finding of another report created by DataTruth, titled Lessons of Lockdown, indicated that 75% of their survey respondents felt that their team’s productivity had stayed the same or increased during lockdown. 

These reports would suggest that historic fears on how remote working affects productivity may be unfounded and that while a degree of flexible working may be here to stay, work load management is still a crucial part of ensuring that employees are not over worked and are all contributing equitably to the team.

Some helpful ways to adapt as pointed out by the DataTruth report are: effective and frequent communication, sparing use of video calls, scheduling regular social events (virtually in the short-term but this can evolve to shared spaces in the future) with teams and clients, and establishing boundaries between work and home life.

This last one is the most important, as risk of employee burnout was identified as a key negative impact on overall employee mental health in the earlier mentioned LinkedIn survey. A helpful way to mitigate this is to enforce clear regulations where employees are given a degree of flexibility in setting their work schedules, at the same time as setting clear guidelines that there is little expectation for work out of office hours. 

A quick look back at these last few months tells us that a form of agile working may be here to stay long-term and that there are risks around adverse mental health effects that need mitigating for long-term success. People as well as organisations have actually found the shift to this style of working far less difficult than first anticipated, but those longer term impacts are now starting to materialise and it is how these are addressed that will help define what a good employer looks like in the post-COVID age.

Crucially, we are still learning, so the importance of keeping an open mind and adapting to evolving circumstances and learning will be key to ensuring the continued development of effective recruiting practices for the offices and workspaces of the future. 

Karishma Vakta-Smith is Business Support Advisor – Interim Team at Solace

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