The Covid-19 outbreak has led to a worldwide experiment in remote working as employees across the world are forced to self-isolate.
But will workers return to the office en masse once the disruption caused by the pandemic ends? Or will working from home become the new normal?
Remote working, once quaintly known as telecommuting, has been on the rise for decades, thanks to the availability of digital communication and collaboration tools that enable staff to do their jobs outside of physical office.
The trend has accelerated in recent years, aided by a new breed of business-focused group chat apps like Slack and more reliable, user-friendly videoconferencing tools that make it easier to connect with colleagues and be productive without sitting the same office, or even the same country.
Remote working increased by 159 per cent between 2005 and 2017, according to an analysis of U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data by FlexJobs, a job search site specialising in remote and flex-time jobs, and research firm Global Workplace Analytics.
Despite advances in technology and steady growth in adoption, however, remote workers remained in a minority — just 3.4 per cent of the workforce (4.7 million), according to the FlexJobs study.
The coronavirus outbreak has changed the situation markedly in the past few weeks as office-based employees around the world are told to carry out their jobs from home. This has rapidly accelerated the existing trend, as businesses rush to adopt remote working on a wider scale than ever seen before.
“Decisions that would have been endlessly debated over and over and taken an age are now being made in days — for example, the shift to online lectures by universities,” said Chris Rowley, professor emeritus of human resource management at the University of London’s Cass Business School. “That is the nature of emergencies — the risk of stasis suddenly outweighs the risk of change.”
Once remote working policies are put in place, the introduction of these practices could be hard to reverse.
“The changes in turn will create their own momentum — and inertia — when it comes to returning to previous practices,” said Rowley. “It may be that many Covid-19 induced short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of organisational life.”
Tipping point for remote work?
Not all employees are able to carry out their job away from their place of work, but for those who can, remote working offers a variety of benefits, both for staff and employers. This includes greater flexibility, reduced commuting, higher staff retention and even increased productivity.
Although remote working doesn’t suit everyone — isolation from colleagues can be a major downside of having a home office, for example — many welcome it. A survey from job search site Glassdoor showed that 67 per cent of employees said they would support the decision by their employer to mandate employees “work from home indefinitely” due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Some companies already have extensive experience with remote working. Software company Zapier has more than 300 employees across 27 countries and 35 U.S. states.
“Zapier has been a fully remote team since the beginning,” said CEO Wade Foster. “Not only does being fully remote provide access to the top talent around the globe, but it also saves money on things like office space, time lost because teammates are stuck in traffic, and other expenses that come with having physical office locations.”
A reduction in office costs could be one of the key reasons for businesses to adopt remote working more widely, said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight. “There’s a good chance that lots of businesses will see the opportunity to reduce their office space costs through broader support for remote working in the long term,” she said.
Indeed, 74 per cent of CFOs and finance leaders responding to a recent Gartner survey said they intended to move at least five per cent of their on-site employees to remote positions on a permanent basis.
“The likelihood of a gradual return to office-based working, with a sustained period where some employees return to the office on an irregular basis, while others remain working from home due to ongoing social distancing, means that we’ll see a growth in hot-desking strategies,” Ashenden said, referring to a system of having multiple employees use the same workspace at different times.
“This will become more and more normal for businesses, which will realise their offices don’t need to be so big and will look to downsize.”
There is already some variation in the way people like to work remotely. A FlexJobs survey of 7,300 U.S. workers in 2019 showed that “fully remote” (76 per cent) was the most highly preferred way to work remotely, followed by a “flexible” schedule (72 per cent), “part-time” schedule (46 per cent), “alternative” schedule (45 per cent), and remote work “some of the time” (43 per cent).
This variation will continue, with a “sliding scale” of remote work adoption in the future, as well as the increased use of hot-desking, said Rowley. “Of course, some jobs, employment, and sectors are clearly better suited to such work patterns — e.g., the self-employed usually work from home more.”
Remote work in a crucible
Companies that realise the benefits of remote work during the current crisis will be more likely to continue it long term, said Zapier’s Foster. These organisations are more likely to have a good remote working strategy in place already, he said, as well as the right tools and processes to make the transition easier.
“In terms of [the Covid-19 crisis] accelerating the movement, I’m fairly optimistic, but I think it will go one of two ways,” he said. “Companies with good communication systems in place that are already used to using things like chat, documents, and videoconferencing systems will see the benefits right away and will perhaps do more remote working in the future.”
The opposite is also true, said Foster. “Companies who don’t have effective systems in place are winging it in a lot of areas right now. They’re going to have a hard time with this sudden transition. They are being thrust into an environment where they have no structure.”
In these cases, he said, the “wrong type of management, misaligned culture, and lack of essential tools” could contribute to negative remote work experiences. “My worry is folks will claim remote work was the issue rather than addressing the underlying issues with their management, culture, or systems and processes,” he said.
A lot could depend on where businesses were before the Covid-19 crisis in terms of remote working adoption, said CCS Insight’s Ashenden. “For those who previously did not support remote working at all, we’re unlikely to see a massive shift in favour going forward,” she said.
This is partly due to the fact that — despite the benefits of being able to connect workers virtually — a crisis situation will not necessarily show remote working practices in the best light. Broadband connectivity could be an issue for those toiling away at home for the first time.
And while increased productivity is often cited as one of the advantages of remote working, the distraction of a global pandemic and having other family members at home could lead to a drop in productivity.
For example, a 2015 Stanford University study that highlighted a 13 per cent increase in productivity and a 50 per cent boost in employee retention as part of a remote working trial at a Chinese travel firm was conducted under ideal conditions.
The 1,000 workers taking part in the trial did not have their kids at home, were required to have their own home office rather than a repurposed kitchen table, and were told to come into the office one day out of five. The trial was so successful it led to a company-wide remote working policy.
In contrast, the current conditions are a “productivity disaster,” according to the report’s author, Nicholas Bloom, who was quoted in a recent Stanford blog post.
Even so, organisations with a remote working strategy already in place are more likely to reap the benefits, and consequently to continue to support remote workers down the road, if these benefits outweigh the challenges.
“For those businesses where people were already able to occasionally work from home, and where there had already been some adoption of the technologies to support remote working — if only in pockets across the business — I think the adoption of these will increase significantly, and will likely remain consistent going forward,” said Ashenden.
“Those businesses with mainly desk-based workforces will also inevitably be more likely to embrace the opportunity of remote working, if only for unusual circumstances like these, or to support other efficiency opportunities around office space, for example.”
How to make remote work work
Swapping physical interactions for online collaboration can be a challenge for any organisation.
There are two core aspects to remote working strategies: one is technological and the other — arguably more important — involves preparing workers for a significant change in how they work. “The problem has been primarily human, not technology related,” said Gartner research vice president Lisa Pierce.
The question, said Pierce, is how well remote work practices and policies address some of the “people problems that have been inhibiting adoption of telecommuting.” This means addressing the needs of both employees and managers.
“[Make] sure both the job and employee are suitable candidates for telecommuting,” said Pierce. “Provide the appropriate tools to the employee — including access to collaboration tools.”
It is also important to make sure that managers are comfortable with any arrangement, Pierce said, and have access to relevant tools and training so that they can review employee performance “based on agreed-upon outcomes, not the length of time the employee is at his/her desk.”
Ensuring that employees have the correct equipment to carry out their job is vital, too.
“Companies with knowledge workers must have in place viable solutions for working from home, including collaboration software like Slack or Microsoft Teams, video and presentation solutions like Skype or Zoom, along with security for remote endpoints,” said J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “If you're not ready, your business continuity will be in tatters.”
“Tools should be familiar, easy-to-use and mobile-friendly,” said Julien Codorniou, vice president of Workplace at Facebook. “With the widespread use of communication platforms, employees should be able to message, call and video chat to meaningfully engage with their peers and company leaders.”
Providing workers with laptops and other hardware devices is crucial, while virtual private networks (VPNs) are also a necessity to provide secure access to sensitive data. Connectivity matters, as well.
“From a technological standpoint, companies need to think strategically about the tools that people will need to work in a remote scenario — including laptops and other hardware, cloud-based collaboration tools and also access to core business applications — but it’s also vital to remember that people need to have reliable connectivity to use these cloud-based tools,” said Ashenden.
“To enable and support remote working at scale, businesses will have to have policies on how they support those employees who don’t have good connectivity.”
Businesses also have to consider governance and compliance requirements for remote work, said Ashenden. “For example, should contact centre workers be able to work from home if they are handling customers’ financial data?”
While remote working tools will be a necessary investment for many organisations during the Covid-19 crisis, the benefits will be felt long after. In this sense, the Covid-19 response also represents an opportunity for many organisations to modernise infrastructure and processes.
“This crisis may be a forcing function for many organisations to realise what tools they need to keep their business afloat when the unexpected happens,” said Codorniou. “Once companies realise they can stay afloat with a remote workforce, they’ll likely be more flexible in the future — ideally outside of times of crisis.”
For conferences, meetings and more, VR to the rescue?
Businesses are just starting to adapt to remote working on a large scale in the current crisis. Although there are many collaboration and communication tools at their disposal, it is inevitable that tech companies will seek create products and services to better meet the needs of users to connect digitally.
This could lead to innovation in a number of areas.
As demand for videoconferencing skyrockets, we could see renewed efforts to create “always-on” video tools, such as start-up Around, making workers more comfortable with continuous video.
Virtual and augmented reality could also play a greater role, connecting workers for a variety of business purposes.
As large tech conferences fell like dominoes after Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress was pulled in February, many events have moved online. HTC even switched its Virtual VIVE Ecosystem conference to a VR event, with execs represented digitally as avatars.
Although replacing in-person conferences — where much of the attraction is around spontaneous face-to-face interactions — with virtual events will be a tough sell outside of a crisis, VR could help provide a more immersive experience than simply tuning in to a live video stream.
“Online-only events lose a lot of the value of in-person events, though in a pandemic situation they are better than nothing,” said Forrester’s Gownder. “What's needed is a better format for collaboration, something like Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR, where participants can mill about, simulating the physical experience. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of videos, not a real collaboration that mimics attendance.”
Rather than a replacement, virtual events — whether VR or not — could simply offer an additional way for people to meet and share ideas.
“There is no substitute for the excitement one experiences when with a gathering of like-minded people,” said Gartner’s Pierce. “So for a big effect, a live event is still the way to go. But it’s possible to augment with digital events — the great thing is they are of shorter duration and people can elect which topics are of greatest interest and attend accordingly.”
“I am seeing a significant uptick in people embracing the use of VR to conduct meetings and share 3D assets and models with others,” said Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.
“New tools are launching every day, and the longer that this disease stays a threat to society and isolation continues, I expect that demand for VR collaboration platforms and headsets will increase,” he said. “People will start to realise that they will want more from meetings other than 2D slides and video meetings, and demand for improved collaboration through AR/VR will increase.”
For example, Spaces, another start-up in this area, bills its app as a bridge between VR and video meeting apps such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts Meet. The app, which Spaces says on its website was “born during this worldwide pandemic,” lets participants view a virtual environment containing a digital whiteboard and an avatar of the VR presenter.
“Things are absolutely speeding up, and I think that the longer these isolation orders continue, the greater demand there will be for VR/AR collaboration,” said Sag.