Covid-19, coronavirus, first revealed in Wuhan, China in December has now infected over 2m people in virtually every country around the world, with the death toll having risen to over 126,000 (15 April 2020). Tragically, right now, the virus is still spreading . The impact this is having is being felt not only on individuals and the way they live their day to day lives, but also significantly on the global economy, financial markets and businesses that operate throughout the world – a situation that may prove to be without precedent in modern times.
Many employers have now implemented policies designed not only to accommodate those infected, who show signs of symptoms or who may have possibly been in contact with suspected carriers, but also as a pre-emptive measure designed to protect their staff and in turn sustain their business.
Many are now taking a closer look at remote working, either to directly address current threats or, thinking forward, to explore what had anyway been a growing trend. Back in 2018 a BBC5 survey revealed a 74% jump in the number of people working from their own home in the UK when compared to 2008.
It may well be that this “black swan” permanently re-shapes the way we work and live our lives in years to come. Technological developments were already having an impact, Covid-19 may bring a step change. Such a change in behaviour was, by way of an example, experienced in Greece with the use of credit and debit cards pre- and post the financial crisis. In mid-2015, to prevent banks from collapsing, individuals could only withdraw up to €60 per person per day. Prior to that, cash was the currency of choice, that used in most everyday transactions. From then onwards the use of credit and debit cards escalated. Importantly nowadays, whilst cash is still popular, the use of plastic is now second nature, something many would never have foreseen just a few years ago.
With remote working, such a long lasting behavioural change seems all the more likely given that employees will not only have been set up to work from home, but also the enabling methods, processes and technology will have been put to the test, with improvements having been made where they were found to be necessary.
Remote working, the pros and cons
First of all, it has to be noted that remote working will never be available to all. Those employees required to be “on-site”, for example on a factory floor or in a retail outlet, most probably will always lack the opportunity for this way of working. For the remainder, the flexibility and freedom that comes outside the office will be welcomed by many.
In a 2019 survey by Zapier, a poll among over 880 “knowledge workers” in the US found that
around 74% would leave a job that did not allow remote working for one that did, that
around 95% want to work remotely, and
26% had actually left a job because remote working was not allowed, and
57% say working remotely is the perk they would most prefer, and
it’s more popular amongst the younger workforce – 31% of millennials and 27% of Gen X work remotely, whereas only 11% of baby boomers do
Some employers are reluctant to allow home working because they fear a drop in productivity, caused by the perceived presence of distractions. On the contrary, a number of surveys have found, along with anecdotal evidence, that many employees actually experience an increase in productivity. A 2015 survey by Connect Solutions reported that 77% said they were more productive when working remotely and 30% that they achieved more in less time than when they worked in-house. Furthermore, remote workers were less likely to take time off, working even when ill, and some even worked much longer hours.
The downside to remote working however is that it does not suit everyone. Some workers, especially those who are more extrovert in nature experience a feeling of isolation. In response, the use of co-working or community spaces can help improve the experience. These may become a popular feature of remote working once the current circumstances are behind us and the practice again becomes more widespread through choice rather than necessity.
A mixture of the two, in the longer term, may be the preferred solution. Good, old-fashioned conversations around the water fountain can not only improve camaraderie amongst team members, they can also shed light on opportunities that would otherwise forever remain in the shade.
Even the needs and desires of those employees working in factories and in retail can be accommodated to some extent. Provision could, for example, be made to lengthen shifts, allowing four days a week working as opposed to the five day norm.
For those employers who actually do experience a drop in productivity, this is no reason to abandon the policy. As with any other policy regarding people who fail to meet their targets, flexible working is no different. Further investigation by a line manager will be necessary and steps taken to help employees change their behaviour.
Some of the benefits to an employer, other than from improved productivity, can include:
a company ready to respond to everyday disruptions such as those associated with public transport, family matters, the weather etc, and
employees who are more willing to work through such challenges as might come about through a temporary lack of childcare provision and minor illnesses, occurrences that would ordinarily result in a whole day being lost
Technological aids for remote working
Group email or shared mailboxes: this is nothing new. It was a cornerstone of CompassAir software when we first started. It’s used by our clients throughout Europe, the US and Asia, where they find it unlocks productivity and efficiency. Put simply, it makes communication transparent, allowing teams to work together on joint projects and share resources. Group email (group mail) is simply where a group of people have their own email address, and whenever an email is sent to that address everyone in the group has access to that email. A group mailbox (shared mailbox) is the inbox accessed and managed by the group.
It matters not where those employees are working, they each will have access to a common mailbox, even when on the move with a mobile app and using a smartphone or tablet. Collaboration is ultimately about value creation (see our article on collaboration software). Our software saves time, giving instant access not only to emails but to the files and information a team needs to operate effectively.
Outside of individual teams, when a major part of an organisation operates remotely, it can be useful for there to be a separate mailbox, accessible by all, to be used for making company-wide announcements. In effect, a staff noticeboard, one that can be monitored to ensure that all important messages are actually opened by those to whom they are addressed.
By giving common access to files, documents, address books etc (to pre-defined users of an individual mailbox or, alternatively, by giving “public” availability, i.e. to all employees), our clients have reported significant improvements in workflows. Other tools we have available, for example, enable team members to see instantly who has processed messages, smart automation to automatically extract data and pending outboxes (with flexible despatch times/dates) that allow messages to be reviewed by others prior to being sent.
With employees being in different towns, often even in different parts of the country, communication is crucial and video conferencing for remote meetings is now in high demand. In response to current circumstances Cisco has expanded the capabilities of their free Webex offer in all countries where it is available, not only those impacted by Covid-19. Microsoft Teams also offers many valuable video conferencing features, hosting calls up to 250 members, with the ability to share screens and record calls, also using smartphones and tablets. Microsoft has also extended the trial periods of its paid versions of Teams in response to the pressures on businesses brought about by Covid-19.
Remote working is made possible by many recent and not so recent developments, including cloud based technology, communications and collaborative tools as well as the plethora of devices to support all these features. However, what must not be forgotten is the importance of security. Working from home presents more opportunities to hackers looking to steal information or commit online fraud. The use of VPNs to create encrypted connections between a home device and an employer’s server will hopefully be available. Some home broadband providers however do not permit the use of VPNs, in which case workarounds may be necessary, such as the use of mobile hotspots etc.
In addition to secure access, companies will need to ensure that their existing servers can cope with a significant increase in the number of users working away from the office. Stress testing may reveal a weakness that might need addressing either through more powerful servers or making the move to the cloud (see our articles both on comparing cloud based services to on premise and that which compares the services offered by the main players in the public cloud arena). Still on practicalities, users will also need to ensure that their home internet connection is reliable and sufficiently fast to handle the demands of a modern data-based business, especially where video conferencing needs to be accommodated. It may be necessary to upgrade certain users both in terms of speed and/or fibre-based provision.