If employees like the remote work option forced on them, how will they tolerate the daily commute when the crisis passes? And how will companies react, Massey's Alison Brook wonders

If employees like the remote work option forced on them, how will they tolerate the daily commute when the crisis passes? And how will companies react, Massey's Alison Brook wonders
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Many workplaces have so far resisted wide scale flexible working, but COVID-19 may change all that. Global companies like Twitter, Google and JPMorgan are all moving to a remote workforce mode to limit the spread of the virus. Even IBM, who ended remote work options three years ago, is now asking their employees in coronavirus-affected regions to work from home where possible. It is forcing a rethink for countries like Japan where long hours in the office are engrained in their work culture.

The global remote work experiment driven by the need for business continuity is an opportunity for workplaces to test out the future when, as Gartner puts it “automation has expanded the role of knowledge workers and the preferences of younger generations demand that organizations provide remote-work options.”

The current state of remote work

Even before it became a business continuity issue, remote working was on the rise. Working from home and remote locations globally has grown 159% since 2005. A 2019 survey found 61% of global companies currently allow their staff some sort of remote working options.

In New Zealand, over half of employees report having flexible hours, allowing them to start and finish work at different times each day, and one-third have worked from home. However, judging from the ever-growing queues of traffic on the roads at rush hour, most workers are still commuting to and from their workplace each day.

While a lot of employers may feel uncomfortable with the idea of remote working, it is increasingly what their employees want. Research conducted by leading flexible workspace provider, IWG, shows that 80 percent of workers in the U.S. would choose a job which offered flexible working over a job that didn't, and almost a third valued being able to choose their work location over an increase in their holiday leave. Another study from Owl Labs showed a third of U.S. workers would take a pay cut of up to 5 percent in order to work remotely.

Offering remote work may also create a more loyal and stable workforce. A FlexJobs study found that 76 percent of employees would be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible work options and according to Owl Labs, companies that allow remote work experience 25 percent less employee turnover than companies that don’t.

Despite this, in 2018, 44 percent of global companies still didn’t allow any remote working for their employees.

Trust and Productivity concerns

One of the main concerns employers have about managing distributed teams is whether they can trust them to actually work outside of the office environment. Many employers are simply not used to measuring workers based on results and rely on office hours as a proxy. However, there is evidence that remote work can actually lead to productivity gains. A Stanford University study measured the effects of call centre employees in a large Chinese travel agency working from home. Not only did productivity increase for the remote workers, but the differential amounted to almost a day a week per worker.

Challenges of remote work

Technology enables remote and flexible work and the coronavirus has been a boon for companies offering collaboration tools. The stock prices of team tools like Slack and video-conferencing software Zoom have risen in the past month. Zoom has obtained more new members this year than in the whole of 2019.

However, remote working is challenging for firms that do not have the technical infrastructure to support it. A recent Gartner snap webinar poll showed while 91 percent of HR leaders in Asia/Pacific has implemented ‘work from home’ arrangements since the coronavirus outbreak, many but were struggling with poor or insufficient technology environments.

Remote work exposes inequities between knowledge workers and the rest

A lot of service and manufacturing jobs clearly can’t be performed remotely which will tend to exacerbate the growing divide between knowledge workers and everyone else. So-called knowledge workers are increasingly calling the shots globally, and this is brought into sharp relief in the US where a recent study showed 95 percent of knowledge workers want to work remotely and 74 percent would choose to quit their job if they got the opportunity to do so.

It is clear that remote work is going to be a much bigger feature of the future work environment, and that change is likely to gain pace once the current mass exercise in remote work has passed. The question is whether New Zealand employees, who may experience remote work for the first time, will be willing to go back to their daily commute into the office. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. How will businesses in New Zealand respond?


*Alison Brook is from the Knowledge Exchange Hub at the Massey University campus at Albany, Auckland. She is on the GDPLive team. This article is a post from the GDPLive blog, and is here with permission. The New Zealand GDPLive resource can also be accessed here.

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32 Comments

"She is on the GDPLive team."
Well here's an input for you Alison - The ski season GDP is toast, and along with with it any industry or city that relies on it.

Australian PM: Don't travel abroad; crisis could last longer than six months.

Consulting companies have championed remote working by converting most of their work into well-organised projects. They also have clear, measurable KPIs around quality, timing and efficiency on each project that are tracked back to individual performance.
I read a post on LinkedIn where one of these companies' Sydney office allowed workers to take longer trips back to their home country and work part-time remotely from there.
What a morale boost that is in a city with more than 30% foreign-born residents.

So-called "remote working" will quickly turn into "remote gardening" and "remote drinking" for the masses.......

TTP

@ Advisor ...........LOL go back to your home country and work remotely from there ?

Shhhh dont Winston Peters about this idea , it would be his way of reversing all the migrants out of here .

We would then have to cut our own hair , run the dairies for 16 hours a day, flip our own burgers , pack our own supermarket shelves , drive the Ubers ( or Ola's) or even the buses for that matter . and who on earth will be left to drive the courier vans ?

EDIT..... . and oh I forgot , I would need to new Doctor , Dentist, and Physio ............they are all South Africans on the Shore

Never enjoyed working from home and won't do it if I have a choice. It forfeits too many advantages when you are working on large, complex projects.

Have worked remotely, for the greater part, for over a decade now. Don't miss the travel, commute and general aggro of finding food, refreshment and lodging in every new destination. I think you may find that to some extent, it's been part of many people's landscape for years. But still call in to the office every week or so, and trips up to HQ annually.

Sounds amazing

Yes

Will there be any insurance implications if i'm working from home for a few months, vs just working the odd night from home?

I think the time is ripe for universities to give lectures online. I'm an active seventy-two-year old now, but I sold my business when I was about 55 years old in the early 2000's and to help the new owners I worked for them part-time for a few years during which time I decided to take a few papers at university part-time.
I was gobsmacked by the almost complete lack of organisation at the start of the year as key lecturers took their overseas sabbaticals and last-minute replacement lecturers were thrown in the deep end in a frantic catch-up mode. One new lecturer's American accent was difficult to understand compounded by the fact that he had to read his lectures at break-neck speed to catch up on his late start. After four lectures I stopped attending lectures altogether and probably would have stopped going to tutorials too if they hadn't been compulsory. Our tutor was also an American and he also was difficult to understand because of both his difficult accent and his mumbling delivery which was punctuated by unnaturally long gaps during which you lost concentration. But I then choose to find out what content the course required us to learn, bought the set textbooks (which other classmates didn't want to spend money on), and googled the subject where I found some excellent relevant material. By this method I achieved an 'A' pass despite my being only an average student.
My younger classmates were also adversely affected by this situation but never questioned its inefficiencies.
Lectures are full of distractions as students cough, sniffle, open and close bags, and interrupt the lecturer to go over something again and thus causing the lecturer to hurry through the rest of his lecture.
So, I think the time is ripe to deliver uninterrupted lectures online..... much more efficient.
I realize that university is also meant to be an opportunity for young people to socialize; so, I would suggest that tutorials are made the focal point of attending university with the students getting exposure to perhaps two or more tutors, and so they can at least find one they can relate to. And perhaps more longer tutorials with breaks so students can socialise.
Bring on online lectures.

I'd highly recommend checking out Massey University's online offerings. I'm currently studying software engineering whilst working full time. All of the lectures are recorded, so you can watch them at any time, plus rewind them to re-go over the more difficult concepts, just like you could with any other video recording. I find this approach works exceptionally well for software engineering, as I can pause a video, attempt to code a solution myself, then continue the video and see how the professor did it.

In terms of access to (and the ease of digesting) the information, it is light years ahead of when I used to rock up to the lecture theater with my notepad and try to take notes on the fly whilst the lecturer did their thing.

Yes, your experience confirms my conclusions. I may very well check out Massey. Sounds more like my cup of tea.

Good book to read in these times is Ultralearning, too. Breaks down some very efficient ways to learn a new subject.

I'm doing the same, working full-time (so far) and doing a Uni paper at Otago. Lectures online so follow along and pause when completing exercises like you. They've now unlocked the Tutorials so they can be completed at home instead of only on the computers at the Uni. Just a couple of basic skills tests and the exam to do at the Uni. Makes it very flexible.

I've got a child at Auckland Uni and another that finished a couple of years ago. Most of the lectures are available online - ideal if you miss one and also for revision.

My daughter phoned this morning and said that there were hardly any students at lectures now and she was going to stop going and watch them online.

I need to get a custom made work station so that it will be just the right height for me sitting on the loo. After all a big stack loo papers need to be used at some stage.

Working from home only works for the very well disciplined (particularly if it is not your own business), for all others it becomes a race to the bottom.
The work still needs to be done and most people, funny enough, need to be at work by 8.30 otherwise work does not start till 9.30/10/11 to I can do this in the evening. We all know that tomorrow never comes.
Sure, great work/life balance, in most cases not a lot of work. That tends to get the employer less enthused.
There is also the issue that one needs the regular contact with colleagues and the bouncing of ideas etc, yes the phone and email are possibilities but it is not the same. Nothing gets the ideas flowing better than a passionate discussion with your work mates in the same room.
Every job is different and for plenty of jobs it could be an option to work from home for a day or two a week, but the issue is can the people handle the freedom.
Back to the top of this comment.

I'm the opposite. I find that I work better at home, as there is less noise and much less distractions.

Yes I agree, It's a lot more stress free giving a much better quality of life with not having the pressure of a noisy office environment. I get a lot more done when working from home but sadly I find it's really difficult to negotiate this with NZ companies.

I find working from home much more productive as I have a quieter, distraction free desk.

Few things kill my productivity as much as having colleagues ask me questions 10+ times a day when I am trying to concentrate on something unrelated, or having to turn headphones up to drown out multiple conversations happening around me.

Agree above, I'm taking a BA via distance learning and it is all online. I've completed 14 papers and have never attended a lecture. I'm going on full-time study next year and don't plan on attending lectures as I am more efficient at home with the textbook, google and less distractions.

Here, here!
My university experience (at Auckland University) was disappointing even though I got fairly high marks. I got frustrated in the end and stopped.
I had another bad experience learning how to use a computer (remember I'm 72-years-old, about 56 when I started learning ).......I initially went to a night school class but had a Chinese lady tutor with a thick accent who really shouldn't have been teaching. I pulled out on the third week of a 10 week course.
I then discovered that MIT ran a free course at the local Warehouse Stationary. In this course you sat in front of a computer with a step-by-step workbook that gave worked examples. There were at least 2 excellent tutors (available for individual help) roving the room per session (you could actually stay as long as you liked).
You worked at your own pace. I was soon flying. Absolutely brilliant.

I strongly disagree, was pondering this today waiting for the train while watching groups of people who had just all driven themselves separately to a communal exercise class.

Humans are social creatures and will congregate for the sake of it. I'm bored stiff working from home and certainly less productive.

Funny thing is that all our great authors from way back until the present worked in solitude mainly. And from my observations scientists seem to prefer to work in a non-social work environment. But I suppose a lot of people get their social needs met at work. Personally, I enjoyed working with people during my early working life as long as I didn't have to work under them. I'm not temperamentally suited to working in hierarchies. I preferred to work in my own business but I did enjoy customer contact.

They mixed it up, eh. Charged their knowledge and thinking in human company, and executed their writing in solitude and concentration.

Working home +1. No annoying forced social office politics or etiquette / do you want cake distraction. Just getting the job done. Am behind a screen all day anyway.

Unfortunately, this remote working that has been touted, will make the world just realised that it's merely an Admin function, the real front line hands touch & movement production is really the one becoming more visible for appreciation, 'disconnect for 2-3 days' of those remote workers? things will still functioning okay - but try to ask doctors, nurses, fruit pickers, rubbish collectors, barbers, dentist, car mechanics etc. to work remotely. Yip, we actually can cull those remote workers.. eventually about .. how many numbers? do we really need them. Company shall make more savings by staff reduction, less office space lease, so in theory? those savings can be put more into RE production economy.

Taxinda's decision to keep the borders open with the Pacific Islands was 100% political , in an election year !

Its well known that Pacific Islanders are a huge Labour -voting block

Now Samoa has its first case (from a person travelling from NZ ) in a hopelessly weak and under-resourced public health sector .

If this virus spirals pout of control in the islands , let it be on the PM's and Labour Party's heads , for plasying politics

From my experience working from home is great if you are older, have lots of experience and therefore expertise in your field. New graduates find it very difficult since most of their learning is gained by being in a company receiving support from more experienced staff members.
Unfortunately I've found that most NZ Universities are not teaching the essentials that most students need to know. This is simply due to lack of industry experience with their teaching staff, since most of them have never been in the industry that they are teaching. Again this is down to NZ Universities trying to cost cut.

History repeats itself, in 1665 Isaac Newton working from home when Cambridge University was forced to close as the bubonic plague swept England discovered Gravity. He continued to work on his Calculus, Optic's and Gravity theories from home. What will we discover this time around?

Commercial real estate is not my specialty however one must wonder whats in store for that market in the next 2 years.

Not only due to the coming recessionary impact (which we all know is inevitable) like company collapses, the domino effect, but also because if many companies do adopt the "work from home" model, even temporarily, some will discover the cost efficiencies to be had by having some (or all) staff based at home.

It's inevitable that some of the "work from home brigade" may not return to being in a company office full time even after this crisis is over.

Right now some very large organisations are mobilising hundreds of staff into home offices.
Perhaps they may find they don't really need all staff to be on-site full time at all so they may decide they don't really need the amount of commercial space they currently occupy. Once their lease term expires they may move to a smaller premise.

Of course the work from home model is unsuitable for many roles however for some it is ideal.

In the early 1990's recession I was involved in commercial banking and saw many companies collapse vacating their leased premises. Subsequently commercial real estate investors cashflows suffered when their tenants went under and walked away from the building.

Other companies simply didn't renew their business premise lease upon expiry and instead basically operated their business form a post office box and restructured turning staff into sub contractors working for themselves (usually from their homes or their own smaller office).

It became commonplace for commercial investors to have to entice new tenants by offering one years free rent just to get a tenant to sign a three year lease. Otherwise they just could not compete with the many other vacant commercial properties available to lease.

That recession was also the precursor to Aucklands inner city apartments initial boom as developers started buying up the vacant commercial properties in the CBD and converting them into apartments.

After that recession I decided residential investment was a much better idea because a company can basically live in a Post Office box but I'm yet to see any people live in one.

People need a building to live in, businesses sometimes don't.

Completely agree, Im sure businesses must be re evaluating this overhead if staff can show they can make it work. One point to add though, how many businesses are training their staff to complete the necessary risk assessment of their home workplace? 1 person tripping up at home while working and breaking their arm will ensure worksafe will ruin it for everyone.

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