Future of Work
Remote Working, the Future Normal
What it means to be at work is changing forever, and our lives will change along with it
The surge in remote working that the coronavirus has forced has prompted a rapid adjustment in the way millions of people do their jobs, but it is also transforming the future of work for good. Lucy Ingham explores how remote working is here to stay, how it is transforming how we think about and experience work and what that means for employers
For millions of people, remote working has become the new normal in the coronavirus-changed world, and as the lockdowns continue, the prospect of a future where things go back to the office-based 9-5 format of the past is looking increasingly unlikely.
“Coronavirus has undoubtedly changed the landscape of working forever,” says Ashleigh Otter, chief of staff at online learning library Perlego.
“We've now seen that as an entire business we can be just as effective whilst working remotely.”
While the move into remote working initially proved challenging for many businesses and their employers, growing numbers of people are now wondering if they ever want to go back to a working life sandwiched by hour-long commutes on packed public transport, time-consuming in-person meetings and meal deal lunches.
Employers too, are waking up to the benefits of remote working, as their own concerns about the practice are assuaged by the new reality they find themselves in.
“The coronavirus pandemic has forced many companies around the world to adapt to remote working and find ways to make it work for their teams. For those more unfamiliar with remote working practices, this experience is allowing employees to prove that they can work successfully from home,” says Chris Griffiths, developer of intelligent digital workspace Ayoa.
“When done effectively, I believe it will also allow employers to see the benefits that remote working can bring to their company.”
A return to the office is a long way off
While growing numbers of companies were supporting en-masse remote working before the coronavirus, many more have had to adapt significantly.
At the time of writing, most companies are at most two months into this vast remote working experiment. However, many are now anticipating it to continue for far longer, as countries cycle in and out of lockdown or limit reopening to parts of the economy where physical presence is essential to work.
“Working from home will be the new normal for the next 12 months until the Covid-19 pandemic can get to a state where its transmissibility rate is not as severe,” predicts Geeman Yip, founder and CEO of cloud solutions provider BitTitan.
Yip argues that such an extended period of time away from the office will cement support for remote working immensely, as not only will businesses become better equipped to support the practice, but they will also see significant productivity gains.
“It makes a lot more sense for companies to operate in such a way – it's better for the company's bottom line, our environment and employees' work-life balance.”
“Workers are more focused and will participate in less in-person meetings, thus resulting in more results from the same workforce,” says Yip.
“In addition to increased employee focus and productivity, organisations will see lower operational costs with real-estate leases and office supplies, which are the second most significant costs aside from wages.”
This combination of reduced costs and higher productivity are also expected by Dhruvin Patel, a leading optometrist and founder of Ocushield.
“Employers will save money on overheads such as office space, while productivity will be increased by employees due to fewer hours spent commuting and getting involved in office politics,” says Patel.
“It makes a lot more sense for companies to operate in such a way – it's better for the company's bottom line, our environment and employees' work-life balance.”
To return, or not to return
However, not every employee is likely to welcome the idea of never having to go into the office.
“We're noticing that lots of our teams and colleagues from across the business are missing the social aspects of being in the office,” says Neil Alexander, CEO of online investment management service Nutmeg.
But there is a growing acceptance among a wide variety of companies that remote working will become a standard part of the mix. And even among those who are keen to return to the social world of the office, the option to work from home on some days is becoming increasingly appealing.
“Once we pull through this pandemic and make our way back to ‘normality’, this demand for remote working is likely to continue,” says Griffiths.
“Whilst I’m sure we’ll see many itching to get back into the office, we’ll likely see an increase in the desire for less traditional working practices.”
“Whilst I’m sure we’ll see many itching to get back into the office, we’ll likely see an increase in the desire for less traditional working practices such as flexible working hours and the option to work from home, that we’ve all become so used to over these past few weeks.”
Bruce Davison, CEO of real estate management software provider GoSpace AI, agrees.
“I think we’ll see a giant increase initially, from existing levels of 10% to between 30 and 40%,” he says.
“But we will need a balance here. Office space will be perfect for people to get together when required, while people have the option to work remotely when they don’t need to be in the office. I don’t think remote working will result in the death of the office, but it’ll definitely increase in acceptance.”
Pandemics ahead: Remote working and the future
This alone would be enough to prompt a change in the nature of the office, but this flexibility is also set to be exacerbated by growing uncertainty about future pandemics, as Covid-19 is unlikely to be a one-off.
In an age of increased interconnectivity and ever more dense urban populations, the risk of diseases rapidly coursing across the world is increased. We are already seeing an increased rate of epidemics, and it is projected that their rate will continue to climb in the coming years.
In this environment, businesses will need to build the ability to react to pandemics into their operational practices, which will mean a far greater occurrence of remote working.
“Organisations need to be prepared for pandemics like Covid-19 occurring again. We may have multiple waves of the coronavirus over the next 12-18 months or future viruses that we haven’t encountered yet,” says Yip.
“Organisations need to be prepared for pandemics like Covid-19 occurring again.”
“Given this, companies will want to prepare for not only having their entire workforce working from home, but also the ability to implement social distancing when needed.”
This, he argues, will make pandemic preparedness a part of risk mitigation for some organisations.
“Once they’ve made these arrangements, organisations will need to test these capabilities on an ongoing basis to ensure that they work effectively,” he says.
“Because of this, I can see organisations providing greater flexibility for employees to work remotely, which will result in the transformation of how we think of the traditional office space.”
From 9-5 to fluid working: The new future of work
With some employees keen to work at home at all times, while others will still value the socialisation that being in the same physical location provides, we are entering an age where flexibility in work will be essential for many businesses – particularly if more lockdowns are expected. And this will prompt a step-change in the way work forms a part of our lives.
“It’s important to note that not all companies have the ability to work remotely. But for those who do, the opportunities and flexibility that remote working provides can offer a dramatic shift in the way we think about work,” says Griffiths.
“Work was very much a rigid concept only a few years ago. The vast majority of people worked 9-5 in an office environment, often with a hefty commute bookending the day. Now, flexible working has given people the opportunity to adjust their working hours around their personal lives.”
“There needs to be flexibility for workers, as they may not be able to work eight hours contiguously anymore, but can work eight hours within the 24-hour day,” adds Yip.
“This can be advantageous for employees as it eliminates daily commute time and allows more time at home during the day. Moreover, this extra time may be especially helpful if they are caring for children who are unable to attend school.”
We’re adapting to remote working under lockdown, but Griffiths argues that post-coronavirus remote working will be a very different experience.
“There needs to be flexibility for workers, as they may not be able to work eight hours contiguously anymore, but can work eight hours within the 24-hour day”
“The rise in remote working could see a huge shift in the way our daily working lifestyles are conducted,” he says.
“Commuting time will be cut down dramatically, allowing employees to make the most of their working hours. Once the pandemic is over, people also will no longer be confined to the four walls of their homes; instead, communal spaces are likely to see an increase in popularity and footfall as employees move away from the office and mix up their working environments to stimulate their creativity and productivity.”
This phenomenon may also prompt a dramatic change in where employees will choose to live.
In the UK, for example, many people opt to live in London and the south east primarily due to the range of job opportunities in the region. However, this comes with eye-watering rents, cramped living conditions and very limited opportunities to get on the property ladder.
If work is no longer so firmly tied to location, the primary deciding factor for where to live may become broadband speeds, rather than commute time, giving employees a far wider range of options for where they call home.
Perlego’s Otter highlights that this phenomenon could also prove beneficial to businesses, such as those operating from the UK’s capital, as it will enable them to look “beyond London for talent who could save on salary costs”.
Co-working: The dominant office model of tomorrow?
A rise in remote working could also spark future growth in the already surging co-working model, as it offers an environment for the twin desires for out-of-office work and socialisation.
“With fewer people filling up offices, we could start to see a rise in the number of co-working spaces. As much as people may like to work remotely, for many this may not necessarily mean working from the confines of their home,” explains Griffiths.
“Interaction with other people and the hustle and bustle of busy surroundings can help motivate and inspire workers to stay focused and productive. This would be interesting to see develop, as teams could potentially work in physical contact with others outside of their immediate company more often, causing a dramatic change in who we spend our working hours with.”
Such spaces could be voluntarily joined by individual employees, but they may also be chosen by companies as an alternative to a centralised office structure. This would see organisations pay a subscription to a chain of such co-working spaces, with employees given the opportunity to work at their nearest location as and when they choose to.
“The biggest application that we're looking at right now is improving people's productivity through helping them with focus.”
Yip believes co-working-style environments could also replace the standard corporate headquarters, arguing that the opportunity to reduce costs associated with real estate and office supplies, the “second most significant costs aside from wages”, will prove appealing to employers.
“There may be a transformation of offices from having traditional desks to a private WeWork-style office with flex space and conference rooms,” he says.
“These spaces would support physical collaboration and allow social distancing when needed; however, the space will be primarily designed for team-level collaboration rather than individual work.”
Others may ultimately opt for a completely office-less approach, something that some forward-looking businesses are already exploring.
Blockchain software developer IOHK, for example, has taken inspiration from its core technology to build a company structured and operated around the decentralised working model, where all employees work remotely in countries across the world, enabling the company to recruit leading talent without the constraints of location.
Changing office culture: Remote, but engaged
Amid all this, the need for a strong office culture remains. We may be physically separated from our colleagues, but we still need to be able to collaborate and support one another as we would in a traditional office space.
However, technology is making this possible in ways that would have been entirely unachievable a few decades ago.
“When we think of workplace culture, we tend to think of water-cooler chatter or office socials. However, remote working stretches our office culture to global teams,” says Griffiths.
“The rise in technology has allowed teams to communicate and work together, wherever they are in the world. Video conferencing and instant messaging tools, in particular, have made communication between teams fluent and effective. It’s likely that these tools will continue to play a huge role in the workplace, allowing teams to communicate from remote locations even after the pandemic passes.”
Companies that already took a remote-first approach prior to the coronavirus rely heavily on such technologies to support office culture, such as fintech startup Digital Clipboard.
“When we think of workplace culture, we tend to think of water-cooler chatter or office socials. However, remote working stretches our office culture to global teams.”
“As a remote-first company, the impact of working from home has been fairly minimal. We start our days with morning standups and check-in via Slack,” says Brian James, CEO of Digital Clipboard.
“Many of our meetings were already on Teams or Slack, so we just extended these to meetings that would normally be face to face.”
However, for businesses such as Nutmeg that have placed significant emphasis on in-person collaboration, technology is needing to be paired with considerable employee effort to recapture this culture in a remote environment.
“Our workplace culture has always been one of cross-team collaboration. In ‘normal’ times, we operate from our office in Vauxhall, all 180 employees on one floor. The benefits of sitting alongside different teams in this horizontal structure is that it sparks inspiration, maximises capabilities and fosters creativity,” says Nutmeg’s Alexander.
“While we’re still able to launch new features, Nutmeggers are making a special effort to keep the social culture alive remotely.”
Communication is key
Vital, then, to this transition to remote working – whether it is for the entire company all the time, or just some individuals some of the time – is maintaining strong lines of communication.
“Communication is likely to be the biggest make-or-break when it comes to remote working. Businesses will face the challenge of ensuring every employee, wherever they are based, as kept informed and able to carry out their role as effectively as possible,” says Griffiths.
“Miscommunication can easily occur when colleagues are physically separated, so working under a lockdown has made it vitally important for employers and their teams to establish clear and effective communication across the entire business using the right technological tools.”
“Management will need to dedicate time to communication, which means that some of the tasks they’ve traditionally performed will need to be delegated to others.”
For Yip, this may prompt a change in task priority for management.
“Management will need to dedicate time to communication, which means that some of the tasks they’ve traditionally performed will need to be delegated to others,” he says.
This also extends to mental health, which has been put under particular strain amid the coronavirus crisis.
“With many people feeling the effects of isolation, employers and employees alike are making more time to check in with each other in the hope to combat feelings of loneliness and support each other’s wellbeing,” says Griffiths.
“This is expected to continue as teams adjust once again to a new way of working once the current restrictions are lifted.”
Running businesses in a transformed environment
Aside from changing office infrastructure, recruitment practices and the use of collaboration and communication technologies, a long-term rise in remote working will require organisations to take a fresh approach to many aspects of their operation in the future.
According to Yip, this will see investment being prioritised into several key areas, including business performance analytics. This will enable companies to have real-time visibility into their organisation, regardless of whether their employees are physically present.
“Organisations will need to have real-time dashboards and insight of their organisational data,” he says. “This will allow them to tweak strategies in real time in a dynamic environment.”
However, handling data held on remote devices also presents new issues, particularly around IT and cybersecurity, where the usual security and regulatory practices need to be upheld in a far more fragmented environment.
“IT organisations need to be able to manage devices that contain company data remotely. These can be company-issued devices or devices owned and utilised by employees,” says Yip.
“From an employer perspective, more metrics and dashboards for employees to measure their own progress is important.”
“IT organisations need to be able to push policies, install and remove software and disable access from the cloud.”
Perhaps most important, however, will be the ability to monitor, support and train employees without requiring them to be physically present. Collaboration and communication tools are a vital part of this, but Yip argues that businesses will also put greater investment into tools “to increase and measure employee productivity remotely without human supervision”.
“From an employer perspective, more metrics and dashboards for employees to measure their own progress is important. It’s important as an employer to know how productive the workforce is in addition to the ROI being achieved,” he says, adding that e-learning tools will also see a rise in use.
“Digital learning platforms and content need to be adopted and leveraged,” he says.
“Having a platform to utilise digital learning content will allow employees and remote workforces the convenience of learning at their own pace.”
Knock-on impacts: How the world will be changed
While a move away from traditional office-based working is set to be transformative for businesses, the shift to remote will also create a future with powerful knock-on effects for a host of industries.
For Yip, it will prompt entirely new opportunities in the software space, where emerging technologies will come to the fore.
“Because technology will play a large role in enabling a remote workforce, it opens a new category of software to emerge around the organisation, engagement and development of employees,” he says.
“Data will also play a larger role as we can no longer measure engagement through physical cues but rather digital cues from employees.”
However, it could also prove highly detrimental to other areas, as the ecosystem surrounding office-based industries unravels.
Real estate, for example, may see immense transformation, as the shrinking of central offices would lead to many buildings being entirely shuttered. If enough employees opt to move out of employment hotspots, it could even prompt a slump in house prices in in-demand areas.
“Remote working could prove highly detrimental to other areas, as the ecosystem surrounding office-based industries unravels.”
However, this may come with a silver lining, as it could provide a solution to the long-established housing crises that plague many of the world’s largest cities. If housing becomes cheaper and vacant office space is increasingly converted into residential properties, it could enable far more people to get on the property ladder for the first time.
An industry with more severe prospects, however, is the foodservice industry, or more specifically the segment of it that caters to office workers on their lunchbreaks. Pret a Manger, a giant in this space, was forced to close all but 10 of its 400 UK stores due to the lockdown, with the remaining operating limited services to provide food to hospital workers. When it does reopen, it may well find that it is unable to match the footfall it enjoyed prior to the pandemic, with damning implications for the business.
The fashion industry is similarly threatened by a long-term shift to remote working. The lockdown has already taken a sledgehammer to sales, with online clothing giant ASOS seeing a 25% slump. If remote working becomes more widespread, consumers are unlikely to match pre-coronavirus purchasing rates, particularly given the prospect of a recession.
This also may help fuel the already growing slow fashion movement, which shuns seasonal purchases in favour of small numbers of long-lasting garments and second-hand items. Positive news for the environment, but less so for the fashion industry.
With a recession firmly on the horizon and the end to the pandemic unclear, these are immensely challenging times for businesses, with winners and losers emerging across many industries and sectors. Remote working is emerging from this as a practice that will also produce winners and losers, but regardless, it is certainly here to stay.
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