By Alice Wilkinson
At the end of March last year, I started maternity leave. So, whilst I was learning how to look after my new baby, everyone else was learning to navigate working life in a global pandemic.
In the year that has elapsed, my colleagues have mastered Zoom etiquette, set up home offices, had virtual drinks, and managed to maintain business as usual in a world that is anything but.
The world of work that I now return to is very different from the one I left behind. Still, it is easy to see that remote working has its perks, especially as a new parent trying to figure out what work/life balance looks like with children. Working from home minimises the logistical stresses of daily life, and losing the daily commute feels like receiving the gift of time.
Furthermore, productivity has increased under lockdown. A report from the University of Southampton, ‘Working from Home under COVID-19 lockdown: Transitions and Tensions’, found that nine out of ten employees felt they got at least as much, if not more, work done at home as in the office.
However, though remote working makes some aspects of life easier, the consequent isolation has been a struggle for many.
A sharp decline in face-to-face interactions has made it harder for workers to learn from their peers or feel connected to their organisations, and has damaged opportunities for creativity. Digital communication has not been an adequate substitute for ‘real life’ relationships, and feelings of isolation were widely cited by participants in the University of Southampton study.
Meanwhile, improved productivity under lockdown has come at a cost. Pressure to demonstrate trustworthiness has led to an ’always on’ culture and, without an office to go to during business hours, or the commute to bookend the working day, it has become difficult to separate work and home commitments.
The mental health issues caused by extended periods of home working were brought into sharp focus when the legal ‘right to disconnect’ was introduced in Ireland this month, giving workers the power to refuse to work routinely outside their normal hours.
Ministers are now under pressure to introduce a similar law in the UK, indicating that not only is remote working here to stay, but we are ready to do it properly.
Indeed, though the last year’s mass transition to working from home is likely to be relatively short lived, the majority of companies want to continue with some form of remote work post-lockdown. A survey of company leaders by global research and advisory firm, Gartner, found that, going forward, 80% plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part time, whilst 47% will allow employees to work from home full time.
Moreover, the recent shift towards digital has made the introduction of flexible working policies far more feasible. Until recently, poor digital infrastructure within businesses represented one of the greatest barriers to truly flexible working. But, as governments issued the stay-at-home orders, companies scrambled to invest in the technology required to maintain business continuity. As one CEO quoted in PwC’s CEOs Panel Survey put it: “The organisation has had to pivot very quickly to working digitally, and we fully intend to build on that to transform how we work in the future.” Having taken the digital plunge, there is no going to back to onsite-only working for many companies, post-pandemic.
So, as we emerge from lockdown, it is time to think about how we can establish a best-of-both working world, one that blends the benefits of working in an office with the flexibility of remote working.
There are important lessons to be learned from the way we worked under lockdown. For instance, employers planning to adopt flexible working policies will need to acknowledge that the increased productivity levels seen in the past year are not sustainable. Employee wellbeing and mental health initiatives must be prioritised in order to prevent burnout.
The way businesses approach career progression will also need to be addressed. Traditionally, remote workers risk being passed over for promotion in favour of their onsite peers. In the coming months, employers will need to learn to value their at-home workers as highly as their more visible counterparts.
Likewise, the University of Southampton report revealed that “only a minority of line managers have received any guidance on how to coordinate the different working patterns necessitated by lockdown or how to manage geographically dispersed teams.” To ensure resilience, continuity and long-term growth, companies will need to deliver training that develops the new people management skills required by remote and flexible-working business models.
For me, returning to work whilst working from home has some serious pros and cons. I would really like to see my colleagues again in person, but I am grateful to be able to work whilst getting laundry done (parenting, it seems, is mostly doing laundry).
Still, it’s hard not to be excited about the future of working.
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that employers and employees have a huge capacity to adapt. We now know that working from home works. If businesses can take on board the lessons of lockdown, whilst building on and refining the digital modifications made over the last 12 months, then the future of working looks incredibly bright.