This Flexible Working Day (10 June), it’s time to recognise that a lot of people – perhaps a majority – prefer working remotely. How should organisations manage this?
A Sydney-based professional services firm with 1000 employees had enacted its return-to-work strategy. The office was prepared. It was cleaned and rigorous social-distancing measures were put in place to ensure staff confidence. The company wanted to stagger days in the office so split its workforce into ‘A’ and ‘B’ streams. Due to ongoing social-distancing rules, going into the office wasn’t compulsory. On the first Monday back – the A stream day – less than 150 people turned up. The remaining 350-400 opted to work remotely.
This story comes from Paul Flanagan, founder of Life Street (who works with the above firm). But the company is not alone. All over the world employers are finding that the forced ‘global experiment’ in working from home has been very successful – perhaps too successful. Most organisations were up to the challenge of facilitating working from home, but many are now discovering a lot of employees are intransigent about coming back.
Why is this the case and what should leaders do about it?
This is not just a health issue
It would be reasonable to surmise that a big reason the professional services firm had so few people returning was because many were still worried about the risk of infection. But survey after survey suggests that, setting aside health concerns, employees want remote working options. And, while the data is not conclusive, it seems like the majority prefer it over office work.
In the US, a Gallup poll of workers found 59 per cent wanted to “work remotely as much as possible”. In Australia, an NBN co survey found 67 per cent of workers “expect” to work remotely more frequently.
Data from before the pandemic has consistently shown that long commutes align with less job satisfaction. One study even found that adding 20 minutes to the commute had the same negative effect as a 19 per cent pay cut. So it makes sense getting rid of the commute entirely has made people happier about remote work.
Buffer and AngelList surveyed 3,500 workers from around the world (including Australia) and found 98 per cent want to work remotely at least some of the time “for the rest of their careers”.
Of those surveyed:
- 57 per cent are currently working remotely 100 per cent of the time
- 16.5 per cent are working remotely 76-99 per cent of the time
- 10 per cent were remote working less than 26 per cent of the time
Given this breakdown, it’s impressive that 70 per cent were happy with the amount of time they’re working remotely and 19 per cent wanted to work remotely more often. Only 11 per cent wanted to work remotely less often. It’s particularly astounding if you remember at the start of this year it was normal for companies to limit remote working opportunities. The convention in a lot of places was to prevent people from working from home as much as possible.
Now, there is a caveat to this data. A third of respondents either worked freelance (3 per cent) or worked for a company that had a fully remote workforce (30 per cent). So while two thirds were part of a blended workforce, those who have crafted careers around remote work are possibly over-represented in the sample.
However, the survey also found data that doesn’t need any caveats. Ninety-seven per cent of respondents said they would recommend remote work to others. This is proof of a very simple truth that all organisations should never forget: people really like working remotely.
Returning to the professional services firm, this was a group of people who had been working remotely for over two months. Knowing that remote work was still an option for the foreseeable future they had every reason to return to work, even if just to break up the routine. So it’s quite possible that COVID-19 was the secondary cause, and the main reason most didn’t return was because they didn’t want to.
Rethinking the challenge
As HRM has previously written, research broadly shows that individuals are more productive when working remotely, while teams are more efficient working in-office. Given this, for most organisations the future should likely involve a blend of both types of work.
This means there will be times where employees want to work remotely but the organisation would benefit the most from them being in the office (and vice versa). While each job demands what it demands, there are ways you can strike the right balance between employee wishes and organisational needs.
A good place to start is by figuring out why employees prefer remote work, and seeing if they can be satisfied in other ways. While different surveys produce different results, all answers to the question of why people prefer remote work can be broken down into two main reasons: autonomy and work-life balance.
If someone says they like remote working because it means they have schedule flexibility and the ability to work from anywhere (the top two benefits in the Buffer and AngelList survey), they are effectively saying they like the ability to have control over how they work.
If someone says they like remote working because of the lack of a commute, meaning they get to spend more time with family (the third and fourth ranked benefits), they are saying they want a better work-life balance.
For those in the first group, there are ways to offer more autonomy while still having people in the office. The most obvious is giving them control over their hours – letting them choose, with their team members, what times will be most conducive to both lifestyle and productivity.
You can also collaborate with staff on job crafting, which has also shown to help organisations thrive in difficult times.
Lastly, new ideas in office design were already catering for different kinds of work that are emerging. Creating spaces for each is useful as it gives employees the ability to choose the right space for them within the office..
It’s a little more difficult to satisfy the needs of those in the work-life balance group. In the past, organisations have tended to view work-life balance as the only benefit of remote working (hence why it was seen as a privilege and not a right), and so haven’t worried about employees being upset about the lack of it. But now that so many people have gotten a taste for it, this approach may no longer be as sustainable.
Again, offering flexible hours is a good option. Another idea might be to reward staff who need to come into the office for longer periods with things that will encourage them to spend quality time out of work later – whether that’s extra leave or something as simple as a restaurant voucher for their family. For working parents, approaching them to collaborate on a schedule that fits with their childcare demands can be advantageous.
It is still too early to say conclusively that remote work is the ‘new normal’, but it certainly is front of mind for everyone right now. So, for the moment, an organisational policy that insists on mostly working from the office is a policy designed to deprive employees of something they really like and that makes them individually more productive. As more and more organisations transition to the next phase after lockdown, they would do well to keep that in mind.