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Remote working in the new world of work

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  • Picture of Dr Neil Thompson FRSA
    Dr Neil Thompson FRSA
    Independent writer and online tutor
  • Future of Work
  • Employment

Covid-19 has massively increased the number of people working remotely. Dr Neil Thompson FRSA explores some of the advantages and pitfalls of working from home and argues that there is much to be gained but there is much to be thought about and sorted out if the transition is to be a smooth and effective one.

The RSA has been an important voice in the debate about the future of work, reflecting the number of significant changes that have arisen and continue to arise. One such significant change spurred in large part by the pandemic has been the renewed focus on home-based remote working. I say ‘renewed’ because, contrary to what many people seem to think, it is not a new phenomenon; for a high proportion of self-employed professionals and tradespeople, it has been the norm for some time.

However, what is different with this new wave of interest is that a self-employed person has a high degree of control over their working life. Indeed, this is one of the major attractions of being self-employed. What we are now seeing, though, is organisations recognising from their pandemic-enforced use of home-based working that there are many advantages to it and therefore now seeking to impose this way of working on significant tranches of their workforce.

Embracing remote working

Of course, remote working will not suit every employee due to differences in home circumstances (space, facilities, distractions, access to high-speed broadband and so on), in personality (introversion/extroversion) and in type of work. There will also be various balances to consider. For example, for some people with a short commute, any hassles associated with home working may seem more trouble than they are worth, whereas someone with a long commute is likely to be more forgiving of any such hassles if the reward for doing so is making considerable savings of time, energy and money by not having to commute.   

So, when it comes to deciding on whether or not remote working is a good thing, the short answer is: it depends. What I fear most is that some organisations will see remote working in simple terms as a short cut to lowering costs by being able to save on property rentals and associated expenses. If they do not consider the wider picture and weigh up the pros and cons (for both the organisation and its employees) and simply focus narrowly on the cost-saving element of the equation, the results could be calamitous.

Prepare for the worst

It is not too difficult to imagine scenarios like the following developing in circumstances where home-based working is imposed on the workforce:

  • Three of the company’s most talented (and difficult-to-replace) employees struggle to adapt and therefore leave, finding jobs with competitors who have taken a more flexible approach to the potential benefits of home working.
  • An employee’s minor back problem becomes a major problem as a result of not having proper desk and seating arrangements. She decides to sue her employer for failing to undertake a proper health and safety risk assessment.
  • Closing down the works canteen triggers a long-running battle with the unions over redundancy issues. What was once a peaceful and productive atmosphere now becomes tense and morale sapping.
  • An employee injures himself at home in the course of his duties, leading to huge complications over insurance and potential compensation. No one is entirely sure of the legal position and the whole situation becomes time consuming and distracting.
  • A member of staff goes through a painful divorce and has other major problems arise at the same time. He starts to drink heavily and, because there is no one to notice this and help nip the problem in the bud, he develops a serious addiction problem.
  • Members of staff who are not given the opportunity to work from home lodge a discrimination claim on the basis that their colleagues are having benefits they are being denied.
  • Teams that really worked well in a shared office space start to lose their cohesion when they are no longer in the same physical location. Quality and quantity of work start to go down quite noticeably.
  • Two members of staff who had long since recovered from mental health problems earlier in their career feel isolated and unsupported in the new regime and therefore find themselves struggling once again to fend off anxiety and depression.
  • Having IT equipment dispersed across a high number of home-based work stations significantly increases the cost of equipment maintenance and repair and technical support, compared with having all the technology in the same building.
  • New home-based recruits struggle to feel welcome and to engage with the organisation’s culture, resulting in a high turnover of staff that is both expensive and disruptive, having an unsettling effect on everyone.

This is not to say that remote working is a bad move, but what definitely is a very bad move is making any major change without first thinking through carefully the short-, medium- and long-term consequences of doing so. Embracing the opportunities presented by remote working is no different. It has the potential to be very beneficial all round, but only if possible problems are identified and appropriate strategies for dealing with them developed. Naively jumping into a radical new way of working without being adequately prepared for it is a disaster waiting to happen.

The importance of effective management and leadership

What this new phase in the history of the world of work is likely to do is ‘amplify’ the quality of management and leadership. What I mean by that is that poor practices are likely to have even more of a negative effect while good practices have the potential to produce even better results. For example, a manager who lacks engagement skills and therefore fails to win the trust and respect of staff is going to be even more of a liability with dispersed, home-based staff where opportunities for ad hoc communication and ‘connection’ are few and far between. In parallel fashion, a manager who scores highly on trust, respect and credibility is going to be in a stronger position to take advantages of the opportunities offered by this new phase in the history of work, to reap the benefits more fully.

But, it is not just about individual managers and their capabilities. Organisational culture will have a big part to play. Consider, for example, a culture in which open and free communication is not a strong point in an organisation that is embarking on a widescale home-based working approach that presents many additional challenges. Similarly, a culture characterised by low morale, cynicism and defeatism is going to present a major obstacle to success in making the transition if so many people have already decided it is not going to work before they have even tried.

As with so many aspects of working life, so much depends on the culture and the impact it has. Of course, all cultures will have a mixture of positive and negative effects; no culture will be 100% positive or entirely negative, with no redeeming features.

Much of my work has involved helping organisations identify the negative, destructive aspects of their culture and addressing them, while also recognising the positive aspects and building on them. The problem for in-house managers and leaders is that they will have become part of that culture and so they will struggle to see it and its effects. As the saying goes: the fish is the last to see the water. But, once it becomes clearer what the core elements of the culture are, there will be plenty of opportunities to make a positive difference. Having this awareness and these opportunities puts leaders in a much stronger position to manage effectively and major change or transition; that includes switching from an office-based ethos to a largely or entirely home-based one. By going into such a major change process from a ‘culturally naïve’ starting point is likely to be a major disadvantage.

Yes, there is much to be gained from making more and better use of remote working, but there is much to be thought about and sorted out if the transition is to be a smooth and effective one. As with new eras generally, the success or otherwise will largely depend on how wisely and skilfully the benefits are exploited and the potential problems and drawbacks are addressed.

The world of work is definitely changing. Whether these changes help or hinder remains to be seen. As always, luck – straightforward social chance – will no doubt play a part, but what is likely to be much more significant are the quality and extent of planning, the quality of management and the effectiveness of leaders in shaping a culture that is supportive of the changes, not an obstacle to them. It is going to be fascinating to see how things shape up.

Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and adviser and a former university professor. His books include The Managing Stress Practice Manual and The Problem Solver’s Practice Manual (both published by Avenue Media Solutions). He works as a consultant with Cloudbase Partners, remote working facilitation specialists. He is a life fellow of the RSA and his website is at www.NeilThompson.info.  

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