Well, HR finally got its wishes. Nope, not unrestricted training budgets and genuinely limitless employee benefits, but instead full organisational buy-in of a pilot remote working scheme.
It may not have considered that this chance would have come at the cost of a global pandemic, but if the past year has taught us anything, it is to be grateful for the opportunities which are borne out of challenging times.
As many of us bid adieu to the nightmare of 2020, it’s time to reflect on the year that has shaken up so many of our assumptions and expectations.
HR has long lobbied for more remote working privileges for its employees, arguing instead of the perceived long lunches and Netflix binges workers would become more productive and happier working to a rhythm which suits their personal and familial needs.
Many offices have already begun to embrace virtual working post-pandemic, with Facebook and Twitter announcing employees will be able to work remotely permanently.
By now, all the things workers despair about the office- the commute, the fluorescent lighting, the potential toxic politics- should have vanished and instead organisations ought to be witnessing a revolution in the way they operate. But has the remote working experiment been as productive as HR expected? And is it the ‘great equaliser’ it had hoped for?
With any large policy change there will inevitably lie a plethora of positives and negatives. Remote working for many has meant the end of the commute; working in comfortable clothes (goodbye heels!); spending more time with family and work flexibly. But let’s not forget that this remote working pilot has also coincided with a global pandemic.
Understandably, employee wellbeing has therefore been at the top of HR’s priority list. Health of loved ones, job fears, economic uncertainty, Trump, Brexit, Black Lives Matter- employees have had to dig deep to find resilience under an insurmountable amount of stress. Throw in home schooling, loneliness and cramped living environments, and suddenly remote working becomes less of an idyllic nirvana and more of a threat to public health.
One of the main draws of remote working has always been its ability to offer workers flexibility to match their circumstances and therefore create a level playing field when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Theoretically, anyone who has an internet connection can work from wherever they want, whenever they want.
This provides great potential for organisations to recruit from more diverse locations rather than being city-focussed, and means workers aren’t having to fork out a costly season ticket to fund their crammed commute into the city centre. The global talent pool should now be more open for organisations to become more inclusive, but the reality paints a different picture.
John Williams is director of real estate provider The Instant Group, which rethinks the workplace. He says that rather than remote working meaning more equal opportunities, it has instead led to employers avoiding the headache of creating truly accessible and inclusive workplaces.
“While many companies may claim to have disabled facilities, many businesses fall short when it comes to providing an accessible workspace because they are unaware of the entire disabled experience such as public transport, parking spaces, accessibility, exhaustion, privacy,” he says.
“Homeworking just further intensifies any feelings of isolation and estrangement. Not to mention the disadvantages it presents when it comes to collaboration which is vital for creativity and innovation.”
The change in location could potentially offer disabled workers more job opportunities longer-term, but not because of the role of the employer. He adds: “The pandemic has forced many businesses to consider more agile and innovative workspaces which provide the ability to adapt quickly and easily to changes – this might be working from home, working from a central office or a suburban hub – its most likely to be a combination of all three.
“What this does is it gives disabled workers more freedom of choice. This shift to more agile working means we are likely to see an uprise of job opportunities for disabled workers as the obstacles of workspace location andare dismantled.”
For some, it is the environment itself which is making remote working a challenge. Plenty of workers, particularly under 30, are in house shares and may not have access to a private working space. This risks exposing potentially confidential data, GDPR concerns and a lack of balance between home and work. Workers are beginning to ask whether they are living at work rather than working from home, with 52% of UK employees in an Aviva saying the boundaries between their work and home are becoming increasingly blurred.,
A recognition by employers and HR that even if remote work is possible, it may not be suitable, goes a long way. Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, says: “Good employers are recognising that working from home isn’t appropriate for all workers, even if their role could accommodate it. Many are keeping their workplace open during this second lockdown, simply for those who cannot work from home for health, wellbeing, practical, or safety reasons.”
There is also an unequal distribution when it comes to who gets to work from home. Many professions classed as ‘keyworkers’ throughout the pandemic, such a factory workers and delivery drivers, have no choice but to work outside of the home. Does this mean they are unfairly missing out on the benefits remote working has to offer?
Research by The Resolution Foundation finding that during the first lockdown, 44% of the lowest paid workers were working from home, compared to 83% of the highest paid. Neil Morrison, HR director at Severn Trent, says it’s important for HR not to lose sight of the fact that remote working is a privilege not given to all, so the idea that it is an equaliser is slightly far-fetched.
He says: “We have to remember the majority of workers cannot work from home and those that can tend to be in professions and roles that you could argue are already disproportionately filled by the most advantaged in society. And of course, this does tend to, once again, be a London-centric, or at best large city centred debate rather than addressing regional concerns.
“If we’ve learnt anything from the last year it is the critical role that our key workers perform in society delivering essential services, and of course these roles are overwhelmingly based in a work location or in the community. In many ways our future of work should be shaped around making their experience better and how we create better work for those working in other essential areas that have supported us all such as logistics and distribution.”
This touches on a fundamental issue regarding what we class as flexibility. The terms ‘remote working’ and ‘flexible working’ are often conflated and used as shorthand for one another, yet remote working simply means the only flexibility on offer is where you do the job, not how or under what timeframe.
For working parents, remote working plus home schooling throughout the first lockdown often meant they were working longer hours, and not by choice. Van Zyl adds: “Due to the pandemic, many of the working parents we surveyed in May and June were working more remotely because they had to do home schooling and childcare as well as work. They were often working early in the morning or late at night, but most of them wouldn’t necessarily want to retain exactly this pattern after the pandemic.”
Van Zyl now believes concerns over presenteeism have begun to shift, with some employees and their managers now questioning their attitude towards being in the office.
She adds: “The key isn’t just remote working in itself, but remote working as an aspect of a broader culture of flexibility and autonomy. Remote working can definitely improve workers’ lives—and many of the working parents we surveyed were very keen to retain more remote working after the pandemic—but only if it’s the way workers themselves want to work, and if employers recognise it as an equally valid way of working.”
The underlying health threat
The threat of burnout has been as frequent as NHS clapping and homemade banana breads in 2020. Because the boundaries between work and home have physically and mentally shifted, Nerina Ramlakhan, neurophysiologist and author, warns we could be facing a mental health epidemic if we do not deal with employees’ struggling to switch off from their work.
She says: “Working from home has exacerbated the ‘always on’ mentality and employees find it hard to delegate, ask for help or say no. They are fearful of making mistakes because they are worried about their job security.
“This can lead them to become negative and feel cynical and demotivated. Then symptoms of burnout develop, such as anxiety, self-doubt, sleep loss, and reduced concentration, productivity and self-confidence. Some may also develop mental health problems, such as depression.”
Ramlakhan therefore urges all remote workers to set up some non-negotiables. She adds: "Eating breakfast, setting up a good network of support both in the office and personally, keeping tech out of the bedroom and ensuring you get an early night three to four times a week.”
Setting good boundaries and routines when working from home will enable every personality type to thrive. All straightforward enough, but the onus has to be on HR to hammer this message across the workforce and, more importantly, lead by example.
No more drama
Seasoned HR professionals will have all dealt with their fair share of workplace politics. Whether it’s power play and disagreements or favouritism leading to promotion, working in a toxic workplace culture can be extremely challenging and demoralising both for HR and the rest of its employees.
Without the physicality of workers being in the same space, could these politics once and for all have been finally laid to rest? The remote working pilot should have meant it was easier for HR and managers to spot the talent which genuinely deserves the promotion, rather than the bosses’ confidante.
David Frost, HR director at Total Produce, argues remote working acts as an equaliser in terms of individuals’ visible signs of power and authority. “The size of the office, clothing, the brand of car in the car park and shear physical presence- none of these things matter over a screen. Instead, it’s about great listening, questioning, demonstrating empathy and personal organisation and self-directed leadership.
“These are all the qualities of great leadership and in this sense remote working serves to highlight the leaders that have really stepped-up. One could therefore argue that remote working acts in reverse when it comes to our leaders; if you can’t lead it’s very obvious.”
The switch has also meant employees have begun to engage with different technologies, which Julien Cordiniou, vice president of employee engagement app Workplace by Facebook believes has led to more equality in the workplace.
He says: “Thanks to [remote working] tech, all employees have the same level of empowerment where they can feel informed and productive from wherever you work from. We hear from our customers all the time that using remote working tech has meant HR has been able to identify talents faster and better and promote and celebrate them.”
But Angela O’Connor, founder and CEO of the consultancy HR Lounge, says using just technology to communicate can also mean it’s harder for people to be noticed. She says: “The old symbols aren’t there so it’s not easy to measure outcomes and success. People are very confused at the moment in terms of how they get their work known, how they get promotion and what the rules of the game are.”
The ugly stepsister of workplace toxicity is bullying- a much harder challenge for HR to catch and quash in a remote setting. A pre-pandemic report by the CIPD, published in January 2020, found a quarter of employees think their company turns a blind eye to workplace bullying and harassment.
Switching to remote working may take the bullying out of the room, but it can still be intrinsic within workplace culture, says Thom Dennis, MD of Serenity in Leadership.
“While bullying can sometimes be down to one individual, it can often be deep rooted right in the core of a business. Commitment and persistence are required to alter a culture of bullying because it will show up at every turn, taking many forms, therefore demanding systemic solutions.”
Some employees may not understand that what they’re doing is bullying, particularly when their messages can be interpreted incorrectly due to a lack of verbal and non-verbal cues which would traditionally aid a face-to-face conversation. Bullying can vary from spreading rumours and excluding someone, to undervaluing work and denying training or promotion.
It is therefore vital that managers and HR and managers work hard on a regular basis to bring teams together, Frost adds. “If mangers fail to bring teams together and reduce the focus on effective one-to-one reviews and catchups, morale will drop and engagement will reduce. We have noticed that managers need to increase the focus on two-way communication in order to maintain team cohesion.”
Sparks begin to fly
Much creative work is attributed to people being in the same environment, feeding off the energy in the room to truly create something innovative and original. When these conversations instead take place behind a computer screen, it can be difficult to replicate the atmosphere, inhibiting productivity.
Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane delivered a speech in October which said working from home risked stifling creativity and cuts people off from new experiences.
He warned that the losses of real conversation, such as the “chance conversations, listening to very different people with very different lived experiences and the exposure to new ideas and experiences” will at some point offset the benefits of avoiding a commute. The fear, he said, was that this lack of creativity will negatively impact business progression and resilience in recovery in a post-pandemic world.
But Nick Carter, learning and development specialist, says this polarised response to remote working is to be expected. “Whether it has been embraced or posed a challenge, we need to respect each other’s response.”
Yet Mark Simmons, founder of Genius You, says whether you adapt to remote working well or not depends on your personality. He argues it’s been revolutionary for introverts who can do much more without the watercooler moments. “It is the very lack of personal interaction that introverts crave when it comes to creativity. Their energy comes from the inside rather than the outside.
“The creative process may well benefit from personal interaction either to generate new ideas or build on existing ones. And undoubtedly, creativity can be a real team effort. But that does not require in the flesh presence over Zoom presence.”
Our shift to remote work could be harming some age groups more than others. In an international study conducted by CEMS, the Global Alliance in Management Education, most young professionals in their early to mid-twenties said that not being able to physically network with colleagues will negatively affect their long-term careers.
HR must therefore look to digitally-enabled learning to make sure younger workers are still able to navigate the world of work from their homeshomes, and prevent them from missing out on the vital conversations and knowledge which allow them to progress.
O’Connor from HR Lounge concurs, arguing a lack of physical interaction reduces the chances of meetings which could change the career trajectory of people’s lives. “All of those accidental meetings with the boss have gone and no one knows what to do now. People are missing out on bits of really valuable conversations, picking up the phone takes away from casual conversations and creativity.”
It may also be hard for HR and management to judge what kind of work is being created, sheadds. “It’s difficult in performance management terms for people to assess how well someone is doing. They may be seeing outcomes but not able to judge the quality of input. Measuring outcome is great, but it’s a challenge for HR to think about the quality of conversations that is being missed.”
When HR previously promoted the benefits of remote working, often this was to provide employees with the choice to decide where they want to work. Due to the pandemic, this option was taken away, meaning many workers were forced into a style of work which did not suit their personality type or circumstances.
Moving forward, HR should consider employees’ resilience and adaptability to change, says Nick Carter, learning and development specialist at Capital People.
“We are asking a lot of our teams currently, with moves back from working at home to a more hybrid style of working. Employers need to ensure the right mechanisms are in place to support employees through these changing times, be empathetic to one another’s needs, and ensure resilience and ability to manage change are being appreciated.”
Whenever we return to normal, whatever that may mean, HR will have a new expectation from employees to respect the unique rhythms of performance for each individual. So could this be the end of the binary remote vs office debate?
The ‘new world of work’ is a term which has often been bandied about without much thought, yet it’s real meaning may have finally come to fruition. Thanks to the pandemic, the workplace has changed beyond all recognition, with policies which may have taken 10 years to implement suddenly coming into practice overnight.
Depending on business, personal circumstances, tech availability and mental and physical health, every worker’s experience of remote work has been drastically different. So how can HR create a mould to fit?
The key lies with listening to the employee experience. HR should now work even harder with employees to figure out what works for them, trust them and provide them the freedom to thrive.
Remote working may have not brought in the productivity revolution HR had originally hoped for, but in its place has brought to the fore plenty of questions we need to continue asking.
How can we encourage those who do not traditionally push themselves forward to get ahead in this setting? How can we measure good work? How can each employee feel safe and valued? If HR stops asking these questions, it may as well stay in 2020.
The full piece of the above appears in the November/December 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.