Telecommuting, or remote working, has been frowned upon by employers for many years, who feared unsupervised workers would be much less efficient. However, developments in teleconference and telework technology and, most importantly, the constraints imposed by the coronavirus outbreak, have brought forward a great increase in the remote workers count, and key takeaways from the situation include a boost in employee productivity and reduction in fixed costs for firms, which not only mitigated the fears of employers, but also anticipated a shift in strategic and operational paradigms for firms.
Global crises are historically known to alter societal behaviours, namely on consumption and organizational levels, ultimately altering the path of history. The Black Death, the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, which is estimated to have killed nearly half of the European population in the 14th century, is credited to have dismantled feudalism, as serfs (peasants) searched for higher wages due to labour shortages.
Another example is that of World War II when, due to the allocation of a significant share of the male population to war efforts, women were encouraged to enter the workforce, and such effects persisted in the aftermath. COVID-19 is no different, and while changes in consumption habits may only be temporary, this might be the beginning of a new era for employment in general.
From companies’ perspective, it is not only expected, but necessary, an increased focus on reconfiguring the work space to promote safety, as well as on enhancing working-related software, de-risking their supply chains and raising efforts for crisis preparedness. What’s more, a survey conducted by PwC unveiled that 49% of companies plan to make remote work discretionary for positions that allow them to do so, 40% intend to accelerate automation and new ways of working and 26% want to reduce real estate footprint. The latter finding means that this transition in work ethic is likely to hamper office real estate, as firms opt for smaller office spaces or none at all as their workforce transits to their own homes.
Regarding efficiency gains, there is no consensus on how productivity is affected at home. Despite some studies suggesting that teleworking leads to a substantial decrease in productivity, sometimes as much as 45%, there is no clear evidence of such, as there are external factors at play, for instance the conditions of the workplace. In fact, the impact on productivity depends, in part, on the nature of the characteristics of occupations and the nature of tasks, as more creative duties are likely to experience a positive impact, while more dull, repetitive ones are likely to be negatively affected.
Regardless of the possible impact on productivity, the current crisis changed both employees and employers’ perception over teleworking and its benefits. A survey conducted during the pandemic showed 82% of employees in offices would like to telework one or more days a week after the Covid-19 crisis (Colliers, 2020), implying the experience has been positive. Furthermore, 74% of companies say they intend to formally implement telework (Gartner, 2020), meaning companies are also satisfied with the new working conditions.
In these times of great uncertainty, it seems as if one thing is certain:
the working experience will not be the same even when normality returns.
According to researcher Christopher Kent, work routines and rhythms will most likely be restructured, shifting from the general workday structures of a 9 to 5 towards a more objective-based workday, managed by deadlines and check-ins. Furthermore, the technological developments that enhanced and allowed companies to continue its operations should not be set aside, but integrated and internalized. Now that the majority of companies have already gone through the painful process of adaptation of these tools, it is important that firms take the most out of them even after the crisis has gone by. Lastly, business leaders and managers must be wary of changes in policy and regulations in the work environment in order to prevent future crises like the one we are currently experiencing, while ensuring viable forms of staff surveillance shall telecommuting persist.
Sources: McKinsey, PwC, BCG, Lavola, Forbes