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Is Remote Working Here To Stay?

Workplace culture that employees left behind before this crisis will not be the same anymore

Photo by Callum T on Unsplash

The pandemic is one of the biggest challenges of our time. It unquestionably will have lasting effects on corporate cultures, escalating change in many areas of society. It has forced CEOs to rethink the nature of work. 

It caused companies to pivot fast, reorganise and rally their employees to push forward. Public safety measures have heightened the importance of technology, communication and collaboration. There will be a shift in the overall workplace transformation, the acceleration and momentum will be far higher going forward.

For now, distributed teams and remote working seems to be the mainstay. There’s a growing sense this will be a seismic change, possibly a permanent turning point. Singapore’s National Development Minister Mr Lawrence Wong in his Facebook post-dated 23rd May urged employers to adjust their mindsets and embrace telecommuting as the new normal indicating that he expected most of the workforce to continue to work from home.

With many countries slowly lifting lockdown measures in full or partially, and airlines resuming some flights, there appears to be some form of optimism around a resumption of normalcy—or at least the ‘new normal’— in the coming months. Social distancing, wearing masks in the office, in crowded places, and non-contact greetings such as handshakes will probably be the norm for some time. One thing is for certain: workplace culture that employees left behind before this crisis will not be the same anymore after they return. 

The question on every employee’s minds these days is “will remote working be the working style after the crisis dissipates?” This will be the biggest post-pandemic question that employers must prepare themselves for. Since the lockdown, employees have started using video conferencing applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Many for the first time. Digital disruption had rapidly become a driving force of business prior to Covid-19. For a while now, innovative technologies and models have impacted product and services across all industries. Now it will replace business as usual. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a demand for virtual workplace solutions that fosters collaboration, communication, and seamless flow of operations. Many employees are benefiting from the efficiency, convenience and transparency that comes from bringing work online. 

A new way of working has taken hold – With most people in Asia living in apartments, there is limited space for setting up a home office. A domestic worker, kid or grandparent wandering into a Zoom meeting is now an accepted part of the corporate world. 

There will be greater virtual work and less face-to-face collaboration. This has been challenging for managers. Many are used to leading teams within the confines of their office, but not remote teams, let alone managing, inspiring and engaging a team during a pandemic filled with volatility and uncertainty. Salespeople who are used to pitching in person to clients are finding it hard to get used to and awkward even to do so via video conferencing.  

Organisations must be prepared to engage customers and employees in both physical and digital worlds, and the ability to switch between them seamlessly as conditions dictate. However, switching to a remote working set-up isn’t easy. Teams, tools, and processes are three key factors to making remote working successful. 

Remote working will not work if employees are not ready for it. A successful transition to remote work starts at the top, it depends first on a motivated well-prepared senior management that can provide clarity, direction and guidance to the front-line managers. For many managers, the process may be overwhelming, hence training in IT tools, people and communication skills and engagement, etc., is crucial. 

Employees are the backbone of all organisations. The common practice of any organisation has always been to put customers first. But no business can effectively serve their customers without going that extra mile first for their employees, especially now. Top priority remains the health, welfare and safety of employees. Till a vaccine is developed, daily temperature checks and wearing of masks at the workplace could become mandatory. The idea of coming to work while sick will surely be socially unacceptable. Good airflow and ventilation will be important considerations in office design. 

Large offices may become a thing of the past. Given the ease at which many employees have switched to a remote working setup, companies may shrink their office space, move out of expensive prime or CBD districts. JP Morgan, Barclays and Deutsche Bank are already reconsidering their location strategy to cut cost. Rentals for office and retail will fall as leases will be shortened or flexible workspace would become popular. Physical layout of the office will change.

As organisations seek to create a safe, healthy and productive work environment, employee workspace will probably never be what they once were as they forgo dense crammed office and communal spaces for more spaced-out workstations with dividers providing private areas. New social distancing rules may only allow employers to accommodate half of their team in the office with the other half working remotely.  

A whole new protocol for a safe workplace must be established. Rethinking floor layouts – changes may include wider corridors with one-way foot traffic, better air filtration, frequent cleaning policies, touchless elevator controls, antimicrobial materials in new construction, etc. Thermal imaging screens to screen body temperature at the lobbies of office buildings may be a norm. Lifts may only accommodate 4 people at a time to maintain safe distances. This may create chokepoints. The government too, needs to table new labour policies reflecting remote work expectations and responsibilities, compensation, health, safety etc., which are not only in favour of employees but for employers too as both are supplementary to each other. 

There is both efficiency and challenges operating via the virtual world. The benefits can be in the form of reduced costs in terms of office space and utilities, even increased productivity, e.g people may work harder and longer and refrain from taking sick or personal days off. There are also financial benefits for the employees too, in terms of savings from commuting, office meals, and other miscellaneous expenses. 

The challenges and cost can be significant. For remote work to be effective, employers will have to provide employees with the tools and training needed to be productive. This includes a small stipend that will allow workers to customise their space in a way they think is conducive. Companies may also subsidise electricity and internet subscription fees. 

Returning to work will be a gradual process. Some companies may adopt a scenario where employees continue to work from home on a rotational basis. In such a scenario, new methods of measuring employee productivity must be developed. HR managers must define clear metrics, expectations, and performance measures. It’s difficult to measure performance for remote workers versus standard measures of productivity such as physical presence: punctuality, number of work hours, interpersonal skills, cooperation with colleagues and clients, etc. 

Companies with remote work programmes need to create more outcome-driven expectations so that their people can deliver on goals. Results-oriented measures such as percentage of tasks completed on time; meeting goals rather than the number of hours they clock in each day; increase in customer satisfaction. Remote working measures must be based on quality and quantity instead of time worked. Outlining expectations and responsibilities, creating and communicating remote work productivity measures is essential for morale and allows companies to both measure the effectiveness and get insights on how to improve. 

Younger employees may prefer to work remotely. Working nine to five is unsuited to the demands of this modern workforce. Some employees may favour a flexible work arrangement in which they can blend their work and familial responsibilities. However, changes can be difficult for older employees when the everyday personal interactions with co-workers are cut off, especially those used to social energy and treat the workplace as one of their communities. These employees are also under significant stress as they try to cope with new mental stressors such as isolation and the disruption of social support networks, job insecurity, financial responsibilities, sick or unemployed family members. This may impact productivity.  

We’ll see a new norm around trust and respect. In the West, the trend of working from home had been gaining momentum incrementally for years. In the East, especially with SMEs, the work culture demands constant face-to-face interaction. Managers tend to assess their employees based on the hours they put in, rather than their output. It’s a culture (especially in Japan) that endorses time spent in the office as a sign of diligence and commitment. Many managers don’t trust their staff to work from home, and many companies are just not set up for a remote working structure. But this crisis has forced companies to change their mindset.  

These businesses are starting to understand that only by fostering and incorporating trust, patience, and mutual support, it will ensure stability and progress in these difficult times. Leaders that don’t trust their employees will find transitioning to remote work difficult. Moving forward they must change their mindsets and vigorously engage their employees. Working from home will no longer be a privilege but a necessity.

A study by a group of Stanford University and Peking University scholars found a 13 per cent increase in productivity for employees working from home, with scores given by both managers and employees. Work collaboration apps will likely have a long-term impact on office space. However, capacity of the infrastructure and hardware should be able to sustain the digital load. Most organisations continue to struggle with unstructured data and disparate systems. Investment in technology platforms may be necessary to support teleworking. Optimising technological solutions is critical for a successful remote working environment during this time. These investments can generate cost savings by reducing office and utilities costs. 

The IT department will be more necessary than ever as remote work brings new security challenges and supporting expertise and infrastructure. Employers will need capable IT staff to support both in- and out-of-office employees. New policies will also have to be written and maintained as the infrastructure changes.  It is important to have a security policy in place before transitioning to remote work. Business trips as we know them will be a thing of the past. With greater interest in social distancing and as telecommuting is adopted at scale, organisations are expected to cut their travel budgets. With a reduction in large scale events such as exhibitions, conferences and conventions in the foreseeable future, the volume of business travels will be reduced. 

Remote working isn’t for everyone. Neither can we do all business from home. People had to work from home because of the pandemic and government regulations but given the choice most employees, even organisations, may prefer the physical office environment. The office culture and infrastructure of an SME’s may not support a full home base team but instead may choose staggered working hours or split teams. 

Twitter has given the option to their employees to work from home forever if they wish. However, expecting all other companies to go fully remote after the pandemic might not be easy as there are several considerations, such as nature of business, cultural and social issues, infrastructure cost, etc. Considering there may be a prolonged slump in the horizon, companies will need to weigh the cost and benefits as the focus now is to drive revenue and lower cost. 

Challenges often give their survivors a new perspective. Organisations must focus on quickly defining their desired culture and move toward it. They must embrace positive changes and let go of traditional beliefs and processes, adapt, build a new and more collaborative way of working. Leaders must listen more to employees’ concerns, fear, and their perspectives to identify the experiences they value, and don’t. It’s an opportunity to build relationships with the people they work with, start fresh. 

Leaders must realise that the future of work has changed. It’s important they glean learnings from this crisis, use it to strengthen their organisations’ ecosystem. Personally, I do not foresee a major shift where workers will start working from home entirely, especially not with the SMEs. Frontline – operational essential activities such as the MICE industry, and teaching – and services sector such as healthcare, retail and tourism will still require on-site presence. 

However, if organisations embark on structural changes that will allow a more agile way of working and communicating, more employees, their families and communities will reap the benefits of improved health and well-being from a happy productive workforce. This crisis will likely go down in history as the greatest experience of our life. If we keep our minds open, we can learn much about people, business, the economy, and how to make our companies more enduring in the future.

Patience, agility and adaptability are keys to come out from this crisis. Only time will tell if remote work could become the new normal. 

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Shaun Jayaratnam
Written By

Shaun Jayaratnam is an international sales and business development professional specialising in the strengthening of industry and the establishment of operations throughout Africa, Russia, East Europe, Middle East and APAC. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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