Traditionally, the office was always been considered the ‘hive’ or core of an organisation. Physical office space was perceived as central to a company’s overall productivity and culture, while working from home was thought of as slacking off on the job or jokingly referred to as ‘the alternate sickie’.
However, COVID-19 has drastically shifted these assumptions. When it was declared a global pandemic in March, companies worldwide were forced to adapt swiftly to a new way of working that even the most extreme business-continuity plans hadn’t envisioned. Many were sceptical about remote working – could this really achieve the same results long-term? However, the results thus far have been surprisingly positive. According to a recent survey conducted by The Guardian, an overwhelming percentage of Australian’s said they had changed their minds about working from home since the COVID-19 crisis began; 81% of respondents thought employees should now be able to work from home, even after physical distancing restrictions eases. A separate report conducted by data visualisation platform Tableau Public, claimed that 64% of Australians were feeling productive over this period, despite changes to their work situation.
Closer to home, when Design & Build consultants asked their network about what their preferred working arrangements would be once restrictions ease, only 13% of respondents voted on going back to the office full-time. Most preferred to commute to the office either one to two days a week or maintain a 50/50 split.
What both the pandemic and these results have proven -particularly to managers- is that not only can businesses survive with all of their employees working remotely, but they can thrive. With restrictions starting to ease across Australia, many companies are at a crossroads on what direction to take moving forward. While it’s obvious that flexible work has its benefits, organisation’s must navigate what their ‘office’ will look like moving forward and what they could potentially lose if transitioning to a predominantly virtual workplace.
The Benefits of Remote Work
While remote work can have multiple benefits for the individual employee (work-life balance, productivity, convenience) it can also have significant benefits for an organisation.
- Employee Productivity and Retention
We know that employees have cited feeling more productive since working from home, but this has also been reflected in research data. Even before the mass transition to remote work this year, Stanford University had conducted a remote work productivity study where researchers followed 500 employees who were divided into either “remote’ or ‘traditional’ working groups. Not only did the ‘remote’ working group generate a boost in productivity- in terms of hours and output - but the group also suffered from less sick days and a 50% decrease in employee attrition.
- Attracting Talent
Flexible work options have been considered an attractive driver for employees in recent years, and now that the majority of the workforce has had a taste of working-from-home consistently, many aren’t interested in going back to the office full-time. For companies to remain competitive and ensure they are attracting the best talent moving forward, offering flexible working schemes is paramount. Of the nearly 5,000 HR professionals surveyed for Linkedin’s annual Global Talent Trends report, 51% said that attracting candidates was the top benefit for implementing more flexible options.
- Diversity and Inclusion
Working remotely allows the talent net to be cast even wider, by proving opportunities to workers who were previously hindered by the traditional ‘9 to 5’ work schedule or the office commute. Being able to work from home makes it easier for those with disabilities, those living in rural areas, single parents and primary caretakers to find and maintain full-time and part-time work. Linkedin also found in a recent survey that remote working could make a significant impact on the gender diversity gap, with 22% of women claiming flexible work schemes like working-from-home would be a key motivator for taking a role.
- Cost Savings
Many companies have discovered that having fewer employees in the office can reduce business costs. Less people can condense a company’s real estate footprint; they can utilise hot desking and identify ‘wasted space’ where desks or offices remain empty. Software company Dell, were able to save an average of $12 million a year, when they transitioned to a flexible work program and reassessed their workspace usage.
The Drawbacks of Remote Work
On the other side of the coin, not being able to experience face-to-face interactions with colleagues, team members or your manager can become isolating and monotonous for the individual, while research suggests, it can hinder a team’s ability to collaborate, innovate and communicate overall.
- Professional Isolation and Workplace Relationships
In an online poll of 11,383 workers across 24 countries, 62% of respondents said that they found working remotely to be socially isolating. This can be especially difficult for employees working within industries that place a high value on building relationships and teamwork, like sales and recruitment, client service or roles based within the arts. These people rely on being able to communicate and collaborate with others to perform their job effectively and this is made that much harder when you’re forced to communicate virtually. Communicating online can allow for misinterpretation, partly because you can’t easily see non-verbal cues to help derive meaning from a conversation, and partly because you’re at the mercy of a strong internet connection to successfully get a message across. This is reflected in the results of another research study, where employees voted face-to-face interactions over phone calls, email, instant messaging etc as the most effective communication method to maintain their workplace relationships (both in a social and professional context).
This can have a negative impact on a company’s workplace culture, as effective communication and a sense of belonging among colleagues is key to instilling a positive work environment. Isolation can also negatively impact employee morale and engagement in the long-term, which can hinder a company’s overall performance.
- Innovation and Collaboration
According to a research paper published by the Association for Psychological Science, there have been several studies demonstrating the importance face-to-face interactions play in creativity and collaboration. Which could explain why Yahoo chief executive Marrissa Meyer banned working from home in 2013. Meyer claimed that in order “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”
One of the key reasons face-to-face interactions are believed to play such a significant role within the collaboration and creative process is knowledge sharing; the process in which knowledge diffuses from one individual to another within organisations. Accomplishing key tasks and formulating new ideas can’t be achieved without the exchange of information between co-workers, and this is easily facilitated through physical interactions.
In one particular study by the Association for Psychological Science, a common aspect of office life respondents valued, were the informal chats and idle conversations they had with each other. These conversations would often result in learning and knowledge sharing- finding out a colleague was promoted for example, or learning that new features would be included in the latest product update. This type of interaction is often referred to as ‘water cooler chat’ and helps foster trust and collaboration between employees. These conversations are also incidental by nature; they occur when you randomly cross paths and therefore can’t be replicated online as virtual meetings, emails etc. are often pre-meditated and within a more contrived environment. Which again, makes it that much harder to facilitate knowledge sharing within a wider team.
Finally, remote work can raise issues of trust. Without being able to physically see what the rest of your team are working on, how do you know if they’re actually working? And it’s not just the uncertainty derived from being unable to physically see your colleagues ‘working’, it’s the difficulty in trying to gauge if they are on track to delivering their KPI’s; do goalposts need to be moved? Targets reset? Managing a team’s workload can be difficult at the best of times, but when working remotely, the likelihood of miscommunication increases. Face-to-face contact makes it easier to assess what employees are prioritising, how engaged they feel and how long tasks are taking; you can easily pop by their desk and check in. But remote work makes ‘checking in’ difficult, especially as consistently checking in online doesn’t feel organic and instead can begin to feel like micromanagement, which suggests a level of distrust you have in your colleagues to do the right thing. Without having a clear idea of what your team are doing, it can be that much harder to hold them and yourself accountable to deliver on projects, which will then negatively impact on productivity.
The New Normal
While it’s been established that working remotely has a lot to offer workplaces, as we move towards a post pandemic world it’s clear that physical interactions will always play an integral role in a workplace. How workplaces will look and function moving forward will vary depending on the needs and objectives of the individual organisation, but experts advise that a combination of both remote working and ‘physical office time' will cater to the majority of worker’s needs.
U.S global company MckInsey & Company, have provided three key steps, to help companies incorporate the best of both worlds into their business model moving forward:
- Reconstruct your processes
During lockdown, the majority of organisations focused on adapting their key work processes and functions to a remote context, so that they could continue working with minimal disruption. However, some processes work better than others within a remote environment. Organisations should take the opportunity to reflect on their recent experiences and identify what has worked well and what hasn’t. Maybe brainstorming was harder to manage remotely but tracking a project’s progress became easier. Develop new processes that incorporate the best of both worlds, rather than simply reverting back to how the office functioned before COVID-19.
- Reallocate your talent
As organisations reconstruct how they work and what can be done remotely, they should consider their talent; what roles must be carried out in person and to what degree? Does the business require roles that aren’t eligible for remote work? Are there roles that can provide just as much value or more, if performed remotely? Furthermore, organisations should consider what portion of their talent prefer to work remotely- can you widen the talent pool if you advertise a role as predominantly working-from-home, for example?
- Rethink the design and purpose of your office space
Traditionally, offices were a mixture of cubicles, meeting rooms, private offices and shared amenities, however post COVID-19 this layout may have to be reconsidered. As established in recent research, the key advantages of working in an office is the opportunity to collaborate and interact with colleagues. Moving forward (in addition to the health and safety guidelines that will have to be followed) it could be more effective to re-design office spaces so that they can support business priorities that cannot happen remotely; meeting and collaboration rooms, mini workspaces closer to where employees live or technology that minimises the boundaries between being physically in and out of the office (videoconferencing and virtual whiteboards for example).
Ultimately, there is no one-size fits all solution for ‘returning to the office’. Organisations are now faced with a unique opportunity to reflect on the policies both before and during COVID-19, that have been most effective and combine the best of both working remotely and traditional office life, to ensure they are a company well equipped for the future.