In 1974, Arthur C. Clarke was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In the interview, which appears in Danny Boyle’s 2015 film Steve Jobs, Clarke predicted that by 2001 every household would have a compact computer that contained all of the information anyone needed for everyday life. He also predicted that these household computers would be connected across the world.

“They will enrich our society because it will make it possible for us to live anywhere we like. Any businessman or executive could live anywhere on earth and still do his business through a device like this. And this is a wonderful thing, it means we won’t have to be stuck in cities, we can live out in the country or wherever we please,” Clarke said.

Although flexible working wasn’t an entirely alien concept by the time 2001 rolled around, it wasn’t as widespread as it is today. While it has been slowly growing in popularity since the turn of the millennium, COVID-19 has unwittingly thrust it upon even the most sceptical of employers, forcing them into a remote working experiment and to rethink the necessity for office space at all. The good news is that early indicators appear to suggest that this experiment has been largely successful, perhaps too successful for some employers’ liking.  

Before the pandemic, conventional wisdom dictated that offices were critical to productivity, culture, and winning the war for talent. However, estimates suggest that 62% of employed Americans worked at home as a direct consequence of the pandemic in April 2020 and for many, the results have been far better than imagined.

Formerly the preserve of freelancers and one-man bands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) are now seeing the benefits of enabling and empowering their staff to work from home. But what exactly are the pros, cons and challenges of remote working, and is this really a marker of the new normal or just a temporary fix until the pandemic passes?

On the obstacle side of the debate, cybercrime and security are big hitters. In the EU there has been a big upward tick in cybercrime since national lockdowns were announced with phishing attacks particularly prevalent. CIOs have been flabbergasted by the logistical nightmare of extending VPNs to thousands of staff working from home almost overnight. Reduced security on mobile devices, inadequate backup and recovery systems, and GDPR compliance are just a few on an extensive list of concerns keeping risk management heads up late at night.

The other big obvious drawback is the effect on the mental and physical health of employees as well as the impact on corporate culture—unless your workplace has one which is particularly toxic in which case, remote working might come as a welcome relief.

As you would expect, some have embraced remote working while others have struggled to adapt—different strokes for different folks and all that jazz. Many employees have reported feeling isolated or juggling other commitments since making the remote working switch. Others have argued that without the clear-cut change of location and defined office hours, the line between personal and professional time was becoming increasingly blurred. Both lead to new mental health challenges that employers would do well to take seriously.

The next issue is a contentious one—productivity. Some managers worry that productivity and focus are adversely impacted if people are working in more informal locations, such as home or a cafe. The people themselves largely tend to disagree and find that by working from home, they get a lot more done.

Technology obviously plays a key role in the remote working movement. Videoconferencing tools like Skype and Zoom bring people from a variety of locations together. Employers can use task tracking software such as Monday and Mavenlink to monitor the progress of individuals on projects.

With technology such a driving force behind the relatively easy adoption of remote working during the pandemic, its little surprise that big tech companies were some of the first to make the switch to remote working. Twitter’s head of HR, Jennifer Christie, said: “Overall, working from home doesn’t change your day-to-day work; it just means you’ll be doing it from a different environment.”

Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumblr “Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick. This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work,” he said.

On the subject of long commutes, a big question hangs over the awareness of just how big a sticking point this is for businesses across the board.

How many of your colleagues do you know personally who have an absolutely horrendous experience with their daily commute? According to a new UK study by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Porter Novelli/Opinium, employees are wasting an average of 2.7 hours a week due to travel disruption or delays—that equates to 125 hours or 5 days over the course of a year. Basically, by insisting that employees come to the office, employers are losing an entire week in business productivity per annum. If you think that’s an eye-opener, consider this, that same amount of commuter waste is the equivalent of four million hours per year, or 448 years according to the consumer group Which?

Never mind the business, though, what do employees make of the daily commute? If you’ve ever had to squeeze yourself on to a London underground train physically, you’ll know how unpleasant the experience is. Not only will you probably have a stranger’s armpit in your face throughout the incredibly uncomfortable journey. But you’ll also need to master the fine art of balancing in the middle of a rocking carriage with so little space you can’t even manoeuvre sufficiently to get your smartphone out of your pocket. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Nor are you alone in increasingly questioning the purpose and value of spending an exorbitant amount of your salary and non-work time every day to travel to a location to do a job you can just as easily perform from home.

And while Britain’s extremely shoddy overground trains are primarily culpable for this commuter hell, it’s not exclusively their fault. Although it seems a lifetime ago now, it was only last year that Extinction Rebellion protests effectively crippled central London’s roads leading to executives stuck in the back of a car when they were supposed to be in a meeting room.

By saving the ridiculous sums of money wasted on commuting, employees are much more likely to accept roles with less remuneration. But businesses that don’t have to shell out massive overheads for office space will also free up capital to offer more attractive salaries to potential employees, allowing them more flexibility to cherry-pick from the talent pool. A win win all round.

Let’s take a moment to consider that talent pool angle. What are the things people like about working from home? A flexible schedule, the ability to work from any location, and no more commuting were the top reported benefits. If, after coronavirus, company leaders expect things to revert back to normal, then where is the incentive for top talent to apply for positions where employers refuse to offer remote working? Especially when 98% of people surveyed during lockdown have now said that they would like the option to work remotely, in some capacity at least, for the rest of their careers. Furthermore, two-thirds of the workforce in the UK now claim having a choice of work location is a key consideration in choosing an employer.

Another consideration when weighing up remote working is that it is shown to create a more inclusive workplace. For example, a Mas and Pallais study suggests that women with young children place a higher premium on flexibility associated with remote working. Feedback from the market seems to indicate that remote workers are also less likely to take short absences due to illness.

In summation, COVID-19 has provided office-based businesses with an opportunity to change their way of working sustainably and reap the benefits over the medium to long term. One of the biggest obstacles, aside from those already mentioned in this article, is simply resistance to change. While many business leaders now recognise, because of the pandemic, that their business can continue to function without an office to operate from, many refuse to budge from a rigid office-based model. This could prove as fatal as Blockbusters failing to adapt to online streaming.

The worst thing that companies can do is ignore what they have learned about their workforce and how they like to operate. Companies who have resisted the new world of work until now have had their worlds turned upside down, but there is a real opportunity for HR leaders to help them continue their digital transformation.

Remote working is here to stay and will more than ever become an integral part of the way we work. Now is the time for companies to prepare for the new normal.

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