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Exploring the challenges and opportunities of remote working

Lee Johnson Co-Owner - Laws of Attraction

HR departments around the world have achieved what might once have been perceived as the impossible over the past year. Not only have they presided over a shift to working from home, with all the practical, managerial and wellbeing considerations involved in that process, but they have also needed to keep people strategies working for their business at all levels during an unprecedented time of challenge, anxiety and economic upheaval. And the challenge was open-ended. When companies sent their teams home to work from their kitchen tables back in March, no-one knew how long it was for. As we begin 2021, many of those who called ‘goodbye’ to their colleagues as they left their office back then have not been in the same room with them since. For others, a tentative return to the workplace was followed by renewed guidance to ‘work from home if you can’.

It’s been tough. But as we look forward, it’s also clear that it’s been a learning process. Never has the adage ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ been more apt to the HR function. But the learning process has delivered much more than how to go about transitioning to remote working en masse; it has also revealed benefits in working cultures that we couldn’t have anticipated.

Communication
As the situation has changed over the course of the past year, keeping people up to date has been one of the key challenges. According to Gartner, when SARS spread to four continents in 2003, executives around the world suggested that managing employees’ concerns and questions was one of the most time-consuming activities.

But against this backdrop of having to keep people informed, it would appear that remote working has had a surprisingly positive impact on the calibre and frequency of communication across companies and teams. While we might assume that communication could suffer when colleagues are not physically located in the same building, data would suggest that the opposite is true because physical separation makes the need to communicate effectively more obvious.  In a recent analysis of Glassdoor reviews carried out by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), employees of Culture 500 companies gave their corporate leaders much higher marks for honest communication and transparency during the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic as compared to 2019. MIT found that Employees were twice as likely to make positive comments about the quality of communication from top leaders and 88% more likely to be positive about leaders’ honesty and transparency. We can infer from this that, far from being a barrier to effective communication, the remote working regimes prompted by the pandemic have actually encouraged both companies and senior leaders to communicate more effectively. Communication has become recognised as a core discipline for keeping employees motivated and engaged. This is not only a key legacy of the pandemic but also a central learning point for future remote working strategies.

Moving beyond the pandemic to more sustainable remote working strategies, organisations need to take several actions to ensure their communications remain robust.  These include determining appropriate communication channels to keep everyone informed, which may involve new or different channels to reach all workers. Though tools like Zoom or Slack are commonly used to meet the needs of the workforce, technology is not a complete solution. The move to remote working has prompted more structured approaches to communication across teams and the frameworks established to touch base regularly, inform and engage will remain valuable elements to company cultures in the longer term, whether organisations adopt prolonged and widespread remote working or gradually transition back to a largely office-based model.

Employee Engagement
The pandemic also prompted new communication protocols to support rapid and regular dissemination of information, with new processes for gathering, reporting, checking and approving communications. Importantly, this has involved collaboration across different departments regardless of their location. This collaborative approach to ensuring communication is clear and consistent for all employees, will continue to be a valuable culture shift as more long-term remote working strategies are rolled out. Indeed, the pandemic has highlighted the potential for greater collaboration across departments and locations; when no-one is based in the same space it has become much more obvious that colleagues do not need to be physically together to collaborate creatively and effectively.

Now is a good time to measure how well managers and leaders have done in terms of employee engagement and interdepartmental collaboration to ascertain whether this is a benefit of remote working on which the organisation can build and develop winning people strategies. Carrying out a 360 process enables HR professionals to understand how colleagues feel about managers and leaders in your organisation, enabling great leadership behaviours to be recognised. It also allows any less positive leadership traits, which may have had a negative impact on employee wellbeing and remote collaboration to be picked up, overcoming the lack of visibility caused by working from home.

Looking forward, companies that aim to make remote working a permanent feature of their business practices and a viable option for both employees and leaders, need to consider formalised listening processes to establish employee preferences on the type and frequency of communication. Too much can be over-bearing and too little can be isolating. Only by engaging with all departments at all levels can both official and informal protocols be put in place that work for the organisation and the individuals within it.

Similarly, employee and leadership feedback have an important role to play in determining remote working policies. Now is the time to gauge the appetite for working from home at all levels and determine a structure that can be applied fairly and consistently without compromising operational efficiency or the personal preferences of leaders and employees. Once again, a formalised listening process that combines feedback and data analysis can provide a useful tool in policy-making, in terms of both making informed decisions and supporting the rationale for homeworking policies with an evidence-based business case.

Recruitment and Retention
The experience of remote working during the pandemic has not just opened up fresh ways of working for companies, leadership teams and employees; it has also opened up a wider pool of talent for recruitment. A company that is able to facilitate working from home, some or all of the time, can cast the net much further when looking for suitable candidates, beyond feasible commuting distance or even internationally. This will allow companies to aim for a ‘best possible’ rather than ‘best fit’ candidates for key roles and will be particularly useful to organisations operating in niche sectors or less appealing locations. The opportunity to work remotely may also be an attractive draw for talent and a catalyst for diversification, enabling the flexibility needed for those with caring responsibilities or mobility challenges, for example.

The ability to choose to work from home is also likely to affect employee motivation and morale, which could prove to be the most valuable aspect of a transition to flexible remote working policies for many companies. Those who value the ability to work from home are not only likely to be more engaged and productive because their working day complements their home life, they are also less likely to give up their established remote working privileges to move employers. Enhanced productivity is, in itself, a key element of morale because employees feel as though they are ‘winning’ and have achieved what they needed to do by the end of the working day. With online meetings, fewer distractions and no commute, coupled with the improved communication and opportunities to collaborate discussed above, increased productivity has been one of the most compelling outcomes of remote working over the past year. The assumption that a lack of supervision might result in reduced productivity, which held many companies back from allowing remote working prior to the pandemic, has proved to be wide of the mark for most.

While there are clear recruitment and retention benefits for developing more permanent remote working policies, HR professionals must also remain mindful that remote working is not the preferred choice for everyone. For some, the routine of going to work and the separation between work and home is an important part of their work/life balance, motivation and morale. It can be hard to switch off from work when your desk is in your home environment and working from home can involve a range of challenges for some, such as lack of space, poor internet or phone signal, and family or cohabitants. Once again, engagement with members of the team at all levels and across the organisation is key to understanding how to develop a remote working policy aligned to the company’s needs and a level of flexibility and personal choice should be prioritised in order to make all stakeholders feel valued and accommodated.

Cost Benefits
It is clear that there are potentially significant cost benefits to enabling remote working. While more space is needed for fewer employees for as long as social distancing regimes remain in place, longer term, remote working policies may enable reduced office space along with a reduction in associated overheads. The productivity benefits and reduced time spent in meetings also have beneficial financial implications, as does enhanced staff retention. With a lower staff turnover, recruitment costs are reduced and any relocation costs associated with recruiting personnel from out of area or internationally may be avoided.

Not all the cost implications are positive, however. During the lockdown, working from home was done very much on a make-do-and-mend basis to keep things ticking over while we worked through a crisis. People may have brought equipment home from the office but, regardless of the mammoth achievements of IT departments, the set-up was decidedly temporary. For companies that plan to make a more permanent transition to remote working policies, the cost of facilitating permanent homeworking while maintaining an office presence is a key financial consideration. IT and ergonomics at home should match the effectiveness and health and safety considerations of company policy, which could require investment in new hardware, software and furniture for homeworking, along with maintenance considerations such as PAT testing of company-owned electrical devices.

Alongside the financial cost equation of remote working policies, the environmental cost benefits also deserve a mention.  Allowing people to work from home is one of the most effective things a company can do to reduce its carbon footprint because so many commuter journeys are irradicated. At a time when corporates are being challenged by everyone from investors to customers to demonstrate their commitment to positive environmental change, this is not just a factor in CSR performance but could contribute to the bottom line too.

Making Remote Working Sustainable
We’ve come a long way in the past year, forced by circumstances to look at remote working with fresh eyes and driven by experience to understand how to tackle the challenges it involves and embrace the advantages it offers.

But our fresh understanding of remote working is still a work in progress and individual companies need to understand the full implications for their own operational requirements, leadership and employee preferences in order to design more permanent policies. It’s a sea change that provides a milestone opportunity for aligning people strategies to commercial and operational goals, and a cross-departmental, multi-level understanding of what’s important to stakeholders across the organisation is an ideal starting point from which to develop sustainable remote working structures.

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