Being forced to work from home may reveal the benefits of remote working to many companies that have previously resisted the trend
Society and business find themselves in truly challenging and unique times, completely unprecedented. While one could write many column inches on covid-19 and its potential short-term, medium-term and long-term impacts, I want to focus on the obvious implications of remote working for the industry and how the current forced regime has the potential to change working patterns forever.
Remote working allows people to work outside of a traditional office environment, based on the concept that tasks do not need to be done in a specific place to be executed successfully – which I acknowledge is not a new concept.
Promoters of remote working would say that rather than commute to an office each day to work from a designated desk, remote employees can carry out their work and surpass their goals wherever they please, with the flexibility to design their days to allow professional and personal lives to coexist harmoniously.
However, until recent days (in which we have been rightly forced to work from home), many employers and employees have resisted operating in this way – why is that?
Well, let’s explore some of the pros and cons of remote working arrangements, starting with the pros. Flexibility and improved work-life balance is possibly top of the list.
Even if an employee is not a parent, there is a good chance that their motivation and engagement will increase thanks to less sickness and stress due to a better work-life balance, and the knowledge that their employer is putting trust in them by allowing them to work independently.
Trust is a key word here and where this mutually exists, it has the potential to increase productivity and output – you could find that your colleague is getting even more done than usual because they receive fewer interruptions from others in the team, and their commute is eliminated.
Home working can also allow employers to retain key people who want to relocate to other parts of the UK, or even the globe. For example, if the partner of a much-valued member of your team takes a job relocation, rather than lose your employee to a competitor it could be feasible to allow them to work remotely from the place they move to.
Companies in London see many professionals relocate to other parts of the UK in attempts to get on the property ladder and reduce the very high cost of living in and around London. In a similar vein, your talent pool could get deeper. Cast your net further and you could find the perfect candidate, who just happens to live 150 miles away.
But it is not all plain sailing – there are cons to remote working too. Perhaps the most obvious challenge is communication, and particularly group communication. Lack of physical interaction is often cited as the number-one drawback of remote working, and if your business is professional services or consultancy then that is a fair claim.
Some small issues that could be settled at someone’s desk can become more complex when emails, voice calls or WhatsApp messages are the primary form of communication. This is exacerbated by the flexible nature of remote working, when schedules are more fluid and the ability to speak to multiple people together, right there and then, is often not realistic.
Two other drawbacks to a lack of physical interaction include reduced learning from an inability to overhear and observe or experience impromptu coaching from more experienced colleagues. The other is a substandard environment for mental wellbeing and stimulation, which can be more difficult to satisfy in a lonely environment.
Another key challenge of remote working, particularly in today’s world, is that of security threats. Unsecured networks, for example when using a coffee shop’s internet connection, can cause data breaches. A personal laptop is not likely to have the same level of antivirus software or defence against malware attacks as office-based computers.
The truth is there is no “one size fits all” here, and the most appropriate way of working comes down to factors such as size of organisation, nature of business, company culture, IT budget, client expectations and so on. But even taking these into consideration, I think that many organisations in our industry will have their eyes opened over the next few months to how well work can be done in a remote environment.
If the industry needs preserving through a greater commitment to work offsite, why should this be limited to assembly of construction components only?
Iain Parker is a partner in Alinea