As the UK Government looks to begin easing lockdown rules and people are adjusting to life working from home, questions have begun to be asked about if remote working will become more common - or even the norm - when we all begin to return to work as usual. Even the German Labour and Social Affairs Minister, Hubertus Heil, has stated that he believes the ability to work from home should be a worker’s right wherever possible.
There are strong arguments at both ends of the scale, so we’ve been discussing the benefits and busting some myths with a few remote working evangelists. This week, we chat to Gemma Dale – an experienced HR Director, regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics, and much more – about the benefits and challenges of a remote working future.
Is remote working the future?
“Generally, I believe that some of the future of work is remote. Some jobs will always have to be done at certain times or at certain locations.” Gemma begins. “What the current situation has exposed is the potential for us to work remotely and challenged some of the myths and barriers that have limited remote working for years. However, whilst the current situation has opened up possibilities, it has also reminded us of our need to have connection with colleagues face to face. What we need to do is find a new balance between the benefits of the old ways and the benefits of the new.”
Questions have also been asked about whether companies are going to immediately try to go back to how things worked before, or if we are going to see real change and a shift to flexible working. Gemma believes that we will see a mixture of both.
“Some organisations (and their people) will have adapted more easily. Others will have found it a challenge. These experiences will impact on how they move forward, and if they have a desire to go back to ‘normal’. This desire to have back some of those things that we have lost may lead us to try and recreate the past,” she explains.
What are the biggest obstacles and challenges with remote working?
As the business world has begun finding its feet with remote working, we’re beginning to uncover what the biggest obstacles and challenges are - the most common being work/life balance, childcare, productivity, and trust. When we asked Gemma what her biggest challenge has been whilst remote working during the pandemic, she also cited work/life balance.
“We have to remember however that what we are experiencing now is not typically remote working,” she points out, continuing, “When we undertake remote working strategically with its benefits in mind, we do it in an organised way, with training, plans, processes. What we are doing now is working remotely in a crisis, and we must remember that when we learn lessons for the future”
A large part of this struggle to balance our personal lives with work during this pandemic has been the issue of childcare and home-schooling for workers with children. We asked Gemma if she had any advice for parents who are trying to juggle working from home with childcare and home-schooling.
“Cut yourself some slack,” she suggests. “You cannot do everything, and neither should you try! You are not a teacher, and you are not required to deliver a curriculum. Just do the best you can with what you have.”
Trust, or lack there-of, has been cited as a main concern of businesses and management teams when it comes to the future of remote working. Many business leaders are used to being in the same space as their employees and having easy oversight of everyone’s workload. We’re hearing that managers are unsure how to maintain productivity when their team aren’t physically in the office. Gemma suggests:
“The problem is that the requirement for trust goes against what some managers believe. We often judge people by their presence and the hours that we can see them
work, especially in the absence of other metrics.” Gemma states, explaining “This isn’t really about practical steps because you are asking people to challenge and change their fundamental beliefs. Many people believe that given the opportunity their workers will skive or do the minimum. This situation is challenging the micro manager, and the manager who doesn’t trust. How often do you REALLY need to track work done daily? The one thing that companies can do is train their managers and support them in making this transition.”
One of the biggest talking points during these strange times has been the feelings of isolation that have arisen. Many people who have never struggled with their mental health before now have reported feelings of loneliness and anxiety. This was backed up by our research with The Happiness Index, when we asked people one simple question: How are you feeling? (Read more about that here).
At the same time, the past couple of weeks we’ve been hearing about ‘Zoom fatigue’, where constant video calls and meetings are taking their toll. So how do you keep a remote workforce engaged and connected, without crossing the line?
“There’s a need to keep up connection – but within reason. Wellbeing is different for everyone – for each person that feels isolated and in need of contact with family and friends there is another who is overwhelmed by constant video meetings.” Gemma explains, going on to suggest, “Informal connection should be offered – casual online meetings where people just chat with coffee, online social groups are another good idea. I have come across online pub quizzes, craft groups and book clubs. For thosewith staff who have been furloughed, they can be included in these non-work activities.”
She does offer a word of advice for those leaders organising these online social activities. “These should be offered without any implied expectation that people should attend.”
Remote working myths
During her many years in HR and consultancy, Gemma has no doubt heard many myths when it comes to remote working, so we asked her what is the biggest myth she has heard used as a case against remote working.
“Where to start?” she exclaims. “There are so many – some have been challenged by the current crisis but not all. Many people believe that remote working will be abused, and employees will not work when they are not being supervised. There was previously a belief that you cannot work effectively – but we are now showing that you can.”
The benefits of remote working
There are many benefits to flexible and remote working, both for businesses and for employees. Those with young children may find it easier to work around school hours, remote working cuts down commute times to zero, and the option to work from home could also open up the job market. Large numbers of the best talent who were unable to work usual ‘office hours’ become available to more employers and we’re no longer tied to those who live within a commutable distance of the office.
“Increased flexible working (including remote working) can enable wellbeing.” Gemma says. “Many people, including disabled individuals, are locked out of the labour market because they cannot work the default Monday to Friday 9-5. Opening up flexibility can support disabled employees, parents, carers and older workers to access the labour market. It can also support the reduction of the gender pay gap.”
Whilst staying optimistic and saying that she hopes that this will change attitudes to remote working, she adds that “this will rely on employers (and their people managers) being open minded after the current situation has ended.”
There are many other benefits to offering remote working as an option to your employees, as Gemma points out; “It can support inclusion, enable wellbeing (although this is nuanced and it doesn’t improve the wellbeing of everyone), it is good for sustainability too - through reducing carbon footprint from commuting.”
The possibility of remote working can even be used as a way of attracting talent to your organisation. “From an organisational perspective offering flexible working opportunities in general can be a big driver of talent acquisition and retention – especially when you consider how few employers offer it up front.” Gemma explains.
The concept of remote working becoming commonplace once the coronavirus pandemic has passed remains a polarising one, but one thing is becoming clear: We have been given a unique opportunity to examine our working practices, and if they are working for us.
Gemma is an experienced HR Director, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics including employee engagement, flexible working, wellbeing and social media.Gemma is a qualified mediator and coach, and an award-winning blogger at www.hrgemblog.com. Gemma is the co-author of several books on HR, social media and wellbeing.Gemma’s book ‘Flexible Working’ will be published in December 2020.
Gemma is also lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University, as well as running her own business, The Work Consultancy where she focuses on focuses on policy development, wellbeing and coaching.
You can find Gemma on Twitter @HR_Gem