Remote working no longer looks so remote

Dec 07, 2020
Helen McCarthy and Danny Mansergh explain how firms can capitalise on the remote working revolution to the benefit of both their employees and their business.

It was a cliché among workplace consultants that the world of work was already, before COVID-19, changing faster than ever before. We did not, however, realise that the pace of that change was about to accelerate beyond what anybody thought possible as a global pandemic threw the chips of workplace practice into the air. Those chips are not going to settle back into their old positions magically; everything is different now. And in many respects, even amid the very real tragedy and uncertainty somany of us are confronting, that is potentially a very good thing.

Some of the barriers to remote working that seemed insurmountable in January turned out to be made of straw by March. The first myth, that remote workers would slack off, has been exploded. The pre-pandemic studies that proved flexible workers are invariably more productive than their less flexible counterparts have been comprehensively vindicated despite continued problems with childcare, which should not be a feature in the long run. The second myth, that companies allowing remote working would need sophisticated (read: creepy) technology to check that their people weren’t slacking off is similarly debunked. If you really need to watch your employees’ every move, you have problems that go way beyond the location of work.

A sub-optimal start

While the idea of remote working was gaining traction before the pandemic hit, only a minority of companies had truly embraced it. The genie is now out of the bottle, and companies all over the world are asking their people how they want to work. Responses differ, but the answers received by our own company’s staff are far from abnormal. About one-sixth of Mercer’s people are desperate to get back into the office, about one-sixth never want to see the office again, and most want to mix it up with a few days a week spent in the office and a few at home.

So, are we all expert practitioners of remote working now? Alas, no – whether you are talking about companies or individual employees. It’s hugely impressive that we all implemented remote working in a couple of weeks when many thought this might take ten years. It is quite another matter to suggest it was possible to implement it in the best manner in that timescale. What we have now isn’t best-practice remote working; it is an ingenious and impressive (but ultimately sub-optimal) exercise in making operational, IT, commercial and teamwork practices designed for an office functional outside an office. What we need instead are practices designed either for full remote working or for scenarios where people may or may not choose to be on-site.

The journey to ‘best in class’

What needs to happen? It’s a big job, but a really worthwhile one. Get this right, and the gains span productivity, building/facilities/travel expenses, employee wellbeing, staff retention and attraction, agility, culture change and, ultimately, profit. To do this correctly, however, several dimensions must be considered.

Business and HR leaders must shape a strategy around how work will be done and what this will look like – first obtaining input from their people and their people managers. What might have been an ad hoc and sporadic set of flexible working initiatives before COVID-19 now needs to be a clear and coherent strategy for how, when and where work can be done into the future. For some, this will be a game-changer for operating models and cultures, with organisations using it as an opportunity to usher in a very different way of doing business.

HR personnel must match whatever strategy is chosen with appropriate wellbeing, training and workforce planning policies to name but three. They also need to, probably urgently, review the way HR itself operates. To state the obvious, organisations will need a remote working policy from HR (and if they already have one, it likely needs serious revision).

People managers must transform the way they interact with their teams. New methods of team interaction, collaboration, and performance management must be devised to replace physical meetings. The social side also needs emphasis, and we can do a lot better than virtual coffees over Zoom. The solutions here need to come from the top and to leverage technology. Employees, meanwhile, need training on best-practice remote working, spanning their physical home working space, interactions with teammates and clients, time management, and technology.

The prize

One fundamental strategic question must be answered, however. Is the move to remote working just an employee-centric strategy, or is there a broader business case extending from employee productivity and talent optimisation into property and expense savings? The two need not be mutually exclusive, but they do provide different ways of looking at the issue and may produce different conclusions. A word of caution on any hard business case: the company’s culture and values need to play a big part in the decisions made. Employees and clients should not perceive any steps taken as being solely about cost optimisation.

Amid all the gloom and tragedy of the pandemic, it’s far more than just a silver lining that the new, post-pandemic world of work has the potential to be far better than the old one for employees and companies. Remote working is just the beginning; the pandemic has forced flexibility and adaptability in a host of other aspects besides where and when work gets done. It also provides an opportunity to change what work is done, who does it, and how they do it. 

It will take effort for companies and their people to get all of this right, but if they do, the rewards will be enormous.

Danny Mansergh is Head of Health & Career Consulting at Mercer.

Helen McCarthy is Senior Engagement Manager, Workforce Planning & Analytics, at Mercer.