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.