Star Interview

Is remote work the panacea?


The last few months has forced many organisations to turn to remote work to keep business moving, but for some this way of working isn’t a possibility...

Words by Jade Burke | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Jade Burke


Design by Matt Bonnar

As the economic climate changes so too have businesses in order to adapt and survive. This has never been more paramount than in the current coronavirus pandemic, where the world of work shifted overnight and will likely never return to the way in which business operated at the beginning of this year. Due to this, organisations across the UK had to make a fast move to remote work, and those who could not had to shut up shop and apply for the Government’s CJRS to protect employees jobs.

While many employers looked to remote work in order to keep business moving, it’s important to question whether this way of working is a panacea. Firstly, not every organisation will be able to implement remote work. Even if a business can, all upswings come with a caveat. Although employees have shared that they have been able to get tasks done quicker at home as result of less distractions, while others have been able to save thanks to not going out at lunch to buy meals and commuting long hours, they have shared increasing feelings of burnout as a result of remote work. This is echoed in recent data shared by Instaprint, which discovered that 25% of British workers have confessed to sleeping on the job whilst working from home. Similarly, research from LinkedIn's Glint revealed that burnout doubled from March (2.7%) to April (5.4%) 2020, which suggests that remote working may not be the answer for every organisation and its staff.

Some business leaders don't trust their staff to produce sufficient output when working from home. I believe this kind of thinking is dangerous

This is a notion Justin Ukrainski, Head of Learning and a People Transformation Lead at Royal Mail, points to. He tells HR Grapevine: “It is a bit of a misnomer to assume that everyone can work from home because a lot of businesses there’s no chance for 95% of our workforce to work from home.” Elsewhere, Jaakko Kaikuluoma Co-Founder of software company Teamspective, which helps organisations create healthy feedback cultures and psychological safety, also adds that remote work could be considered ‘inadequate’ if it was to continue long-term. He says: “Remote work is definitely one component of getting the current crisis under control. The most significant daily transitions come from commuting, so reducing it will save lives. But remote work alone is inadequate.”

 

Pros and cons of remote working

Pros

1. Working from home has allowed employees to save money on expensive commutes and lunches out with team members, which has improved employee wellbeing during this period, while also helping to cut down emissions to improve the environment.

2. The flexible hours remote working offers has given staff the opportunity to enjoy a better work/life balance. For example, they are able to spend more time with loved ones and take up more exercise thanks to the extra hours before and after work.

3. Offering candidates the opportunity to work from home allows an organisation to attract even more talent, as jobseekers often seek out a better work/life balance when looking for a new role.

Cons

1. Throughout the lockdown period, employees have felt a growing need to be ever present online, in order to show that they are working. This has led to an increase in e-presenteeism, resulting in widespread burnout and stress.

2. With individuals working separately from home, opportunities to be collaborative and creative has been difficult to achieve. This has led to more virtual meetings and the use of software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which has left many feeling fatigued by the use of more tech on a daily basis.

3. While at home there are less distractions that are found in the office, such as phones ringing and colleagues asking for assistance, the temptation to do some housework or play with a furry companion could lead to a lack of productivity.

Trusting staff

Employers who do and do not trust their staff has been highlighted throughout the current pandemic. Research published by Gartner in March 2020 revealed that only 56% of managers actually let their employees work remotely (before the pandemic) — even when policy allows it, due to a lack of trust. Throughout the lockdown, several news outlets have suggested that numbers have increased when it comes to employers purchasing spy software to monitor remote workers, which may indicate why remote work is not the panacea for some organisations.

According to Kaikuluoma, this way of thinking is ‘dangerous’ as he implores employers to trust their staff, especially during this time of crisis. He explains: “Some business owners and leaders don't trust their staff to produce sufficient output when working from home. I believe this kind of thinking is dangerous. If you don't trust your staff to begin with, they will know it and feel disengaged. My advice here would be to start by deciding to trust your employees and let them take responsibility for their own work without excess supervision. People perform best when they enjoy trust, autonomy, clarity of goals, and sufficient support.”

 

Sometimes you need to force it and that’s what’s happened with the lockdown

New mindsets

Many employers who preferred the traditional office space to work may have found the current transition hard to comprehend, however, Royal Mail’s Ukrainski believes now is a time to gauge how employees are feeling about the ‘new normal’ and shifting mindsets to see the benefits remote work can offer for both the company and its staff.

He shares: “I’ve seen leaders who would never encourage home working who had no choice to do it and have now completely shifted their mindset. Sometimes you need to force it and that’s what’s happened with the lockdown. This is a great time for pulse surveys and studies. There’s an opportunity here to study productivity, wellbeing and what individuals want, because nothing is going to be right for everybody.”

Flexing policies

As remote work isn’t a possibility for all companies and their staff, Melissa Proles, HR Manager at confectionery manufacturer Perfetti Van Melle UK, believes that HR has a duty to flex policies, to ensure work is as manageable as possible for everyone involved. “I think as I said before, a review of the work from home /flexible working policy is essential. We have proved that we can still function as a business during this crisis by creating a policy where all feel comfortable working from home, it’s now just about flexing that policy to ensure it works for all parties but that we continue to move forward at speed,” she continues.

This approach, according to Proles, has allowed the business to witness an increase in employee engagement and satisfaction, while a decline in sick days despite the pandemic has meant productivity has increased at the confectionary giant. She says: “A happy worker is a more productive worker generally, so it’s got to be beneficial to both parties.”

I think this will be the wakeup call that many organisations need to change their ethos and approach to daily working life

A ‘wakeup call’

For some, the idea of remote work was a concept incredibly alien and something employers were not keen to embrace. With this in mind, Ukrainski reveals that it’s important to understand how employees can still make a huge difference even from the comfort of their homes. He enthuses: “We say the new normal and I think we are starting to go from seeing it as a kind of thing that we had to do as a negative, to actually people realising they can thrive working from home, and my team can thrive, so it should shift from something we have to do to something we like doing.”

Similarly, Proles tells HR Grapevine that the shift was a much needed ‘wakeup call’, and that while remote work may be suitable for every organisation, adapting how it operates and how HR looks at certain functions will allow a business to flourish. She concludes: “I think this will be the wakeup call that many organisations need to change their ethos and approach to daily working life. Having great job descriptions and clear objectives in place so both employer and employee know expectations is the elixir for harmonious home working, makes employees feel empowered and ultimately with the right hires and people in place will ensure that a business continues to develop, win and grow.”


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