Remote Work – what will the future hold?

The average workday for workers in Europe, North America and the Middle East under lockdown has become nearly 50 minutes longer. But does this mean that levels of productivity are up, and how long can it last?

Longer hours, more roles

Before Covid-19 hit, it was not uncommon to hear how people could ‘get more work done from home’, where they were interrupted less. Commuting has also long been rated as ‘a least enjoyable activity’, from Daniel Kahneman’s 2004 work, right through to a 2017 study of workers prepared to take an 8% pay cut for the privilege of working from home. Britain’s Office for National Statistics showed commuters had higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of happiness, all adding up to less life satisfaction compared with non-commuters.

But forced working from home during lockdown has left us questioning some of the benefits of working from home. As it turns out, having a dedicated office and desk space can make a key difference to how much work you can get done, and the quality of that work.

Employees have not just moved their work home, they’ve also taken on many roles at the same time. A full-time job can blur with childcare responsibilities, and for some, care for the elderly. Paradoxically, as people wither under Zoom and Teams fatigue, some also confess to feeling strangely starved of meaningful connection.

Unlikely return to five day week commute for most

Given the potentially significant savings on office costs, it is unlikely that the ‘five-day week at the office’ that we are used to will ever return. Covid has increased levels of discomfort with returning to the office.

According to a Morgan Stanley survey reported in the Economist, only 50% of people living in five big European countries were spending every working day at the office. A quarter remained at home full time. Employees are more reluctant to use public transport and most live too far away from their place of work to walk or cycle. While reduced capacity offices can work with around 25-65% of staff observing a 2-metre distance, access to larger buildings and lifts can result in queues stretching around blocks, wasting time that could be put to better use. This may be unsustainable for businesses to manage from a financial perspective.

The challenge and opportunity for employers is to find ways of keeping people connected, motivated and productive as our more familiar ways of working dissolve and out of office working becomes more commonplace.

Do we need the office, all the time?

Proximity can help people to connect dots, generate ideas and find new solutions, but employees do not necessarily all need to be in an office for this.

We are starting to see phased models take hold where groups of employees come into an office on different days of the week. Another format is all employees come together at the same time, but for only a few days each month. Here the focus is on tasks that require working as a group or in teams.

There are companies that have been ‘remote’ since inception, with no permanent physical office space. Gitlab, the software company, has been remote since it was founded in 2014. They’ve been gathering their around 1300 employees from 67 countries about once a year. You can watch a quick video of what employees have to say about ‘all remote’ here. There is evidence to support this kind of modelling – a Carnegie Mellon and Northeastern study showed that rapid exchanges of ideas in a shorter time led to better outputs than constant but less focused communication. 

“By designing systems that facilitate bursts of communication and collaboration among team members, employers can achieve higher quality collaboration in their teams, all while balancing employees’ desire to work remotely.”
Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley

As in all things, it is unlikely that one size will fit all. Rather, we’ll be experimenting with new ways of working so that we can find the right approach for our people, our customers and our planet.

What is your ideal model for the future? What are the kinds of things we need to be talking about?

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