The remote-working challenge: ‘There are huge issues’

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Hyperbole about remote working has given way to an understanding that making it work for everyone brings challenges and opportunities

Since the 1970s, management gurus and scientists have been forecasting that some time in the future – they usually predicted it would happen within a decade or so – we would stop moving people to offices where the work is, and start moving the office work to where the people were. The march of technology, changing lifestyle needs, and concern for the climate would make it inevitable, the predictions went.

In the end, the technology made it possible, but it took a pandemic to make the global experiment in remote working happen.

The experience of Covid-19 answered the question of whether, in an emergency, remote working can work. But it didn’t necessarily solve the problem of how to make it work sustainably. Sixteen months on, the early hyperbole about the remote working revolution has given way to a dawning understanding of the challenges and opportunities involved.

Employees who swore that they would never set foot in an office again have begun to consider the long-term benefits, but also the difficulties, of merging their home life and their work life. Employers are weighing up how to manage a remote or hybrid workforce, give everyone an equal shot at career progression, and look after their employees’ health and wellbeing from a distance, without leaving both sides feeling burnt out and exhausted – and all the while making sure the work still gets done.

“The narrative has been so pervasive over the last while that remote working has been super; it’s completely effective; the Government is rolling out supports for it; it’s where everybody is going. You’ll be able to choose where you want to live, so you can now buy somewhere that you couldn’t afford previously,” says Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec.

“But employers are kind of saying, ‘Well, that’s not really the case. They are becoming more concerned about this sense that it’s a free for all, and you’ll be able to have whatever you want [but] we’re not going to be able to achieve that.”

Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec believes health and safety is an area that is likely to prove a significant issue for employers
Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec believes health and safety is an area that is likely to prove a significant issue for employers

The emerging new ways of working put the onus on employers to reinvent ways of “communicating, motivating, monitoring, paying, promoting,” says Tony Dundon, professor of HRM and Employee Relations at the University of Limerick. “How do you communicate? How do you have a performance appraisal? How do you monitor someone? How do you make sure the health and safety is right?”

All of this goes some way to explaining why we are where we are: less than two months away from the mooted date for return to the office, Delta and other variants allowing, and most people still have no idea what the new ways of working will look like for them. “The logistics of how we navigate this are real and impactful. Not only on individuals, but on companies and the future relationship [between organisations and] customers.” He suggests a title for this article: “The nightmare of sustainable remote working.”

Illustration: Fuchsia MacAree
Illustration: Fuchsia MacAree

From an employees’ perspective “WFH (Working From Home) has the potential to reduce commute time, provide more flexible working hours, increase job satisfaction, and improve work-life balance,” a recent study by the University of Chicago entitled Work from home & productivity: evidence from personnel & analytics data on IT professionals noted.

That’s the theory, but it doesn’t always work out like that. The researchers tracked the activity of more than 10,000 employees at an Asian services company between April 2019 and August 2020 and found that they were working 30 per cent more hours than they were before the pandemic, and 18 per cent more unpaid overtime hours. But there was no corresponding increase in their workload, and their overall productivity per hour went down by 20 per cent.

Employees with children, predictably perhaps, were most affected – they worked 20 minutes per day more than those without. More surprisingly, the employees had less focus time than before the pandemic, and a lot more meetings. “Time spent on co-ordination activities and meetings increased, but uninterrupted work hours shrank considerably. Employees also spent less time networking, and received less coaching and 1:1 meetings with supervisors,” the report found.

There’s been this narrative that employees are getting a taste for remote and home working, and I’m not sure that’s true. A lot of people who thought it was great in the beginning now want to be back in the office

In theory, remote and more flexible working solutions offer enormous benefits to employees: they allow them to work from anywhere, at the times that suit them. But in practice, Prof Dundon suggests, what some are finding is that their working day is “disrupted and fragmented. People working remotely might have degrees of flexibility about when they work and when they complete the tasks.”

When work is fragmented, it “tends to disrupt the efficiency and productivity”. The working day gets longer – but it doesn’t mean that more work is getting done.

This is compounded by the problem of “digital presenteeism”, or the pressure to be seen to be online and available for work. “There’s been this narrative that employees are getting a taste for remote and home working, and I’m not sure that’s true. A lot of people who thought it was great in the beginning now want to be back in the office,” says Prof Dundon.

McElwee adds that “while there’s a very large narrative around the fact that we will all choose how we want to work and that there’s a free choice around this, actually there isn’t . . . If it doesn’t work for the business, it doesn’t work. I think we need to start to roll back a little bit the narrative that people can choose how and where they want to work.”

Employers’ perspective

Only a few big companies have so far divulged their vision for the return to the office, or the future of remote or hybrid working. These include Twitter, which was early out of the traps in May 2020 with an email from founder Jack Dorsey telling staff they could work from home “forever” if they wished.

Facebook offices at Grand Canal Square in Dublin. The company said it would allow employees to work from anywhere once the pandemic was over. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Facebook offices at Grand Canal Square in Dublin. The company said it would allow employees to work from anywhere once the pandemic was over. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Facebook has also said it will allow…

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