Last reviewed 9 June 2021

While many have decided that remote working is here to stay, many organisations are planning for a return to the workplace. Is the “home-sweet-office” the real future or is it back to commuting? Jon Herbert investigates.

Many British workers have had more than a year without early alarm calls and the dreaded commute into work.

A large number of employees and organisations want to keep their new remote working freedom. However, others are reported to be keen to get back to the camaraderie, collaboration and first-hand co-operation that can be found in the workplace.

Lure of the corporate HQ

Google’s personnel head, Fiona Cicconi, meanwhile is reported to have written to the company’s employees explaining that if they want to work from home for more than 14 days from 1 September special permission will be needed. They must also “live within commuting distance” of the office.

Microsoft is said to expect homeworking for less than 50% of the time as a future standard. Goldman Sachs has told its UK bankers to be ready to return to the office in June, describing remote working as an “aberration”. In contrast, other organisations have cut back their office space significantly.

The disadvantages of homeworking

Canary Wharf Group head of strategies, Howard Dawber, believes a year at home has left many people “fatigued”. They want to divide their time between home and office, but miss “all the life admin things you can do in a city centre” — from haircuts to a good lunchtime coffee. Their return will be gradual but will reach levels seen before the pandemic, he believes.

That may leave many individual workers in a quandary. They may prefer remote working but their employers may disagree that it is equally productive. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) says individual results will depend on individual circumstances and job types.

Meanwhile, remote workers are warned that they could feel left out occasionally; networking is much harder from home, productivity expectations may differ, and working at home can be lonely (despite the cat/dog and/or family members). Homeworkers are also under pressure to keep their work-related knowledge and skills up to date.

Another downside is frequently back-to-back online meetings with no all-important two minutes of whispered corridor decision-making between them. It’s hard to read body language onscreen, or roll your eyes with like-minded colleagues.

Homeworking can also be far from fun. Two people working on the same table in a one-bedroomed flat is not uncommon. Business confidentiality can be a problem. Poor seating can mean bad backs. More space and ergonomically-designed office chairs beckon.

One study suggests that an average 1.5 hours saved in commuting has led to an 8.2% increase in the working day, being “zoomed-out” and the feeling that homeworkers simply eat and sleep at work.

An employer’s perspective

From an employers’ viewpoint, remote working has thrown up unexpected challenges, mostly linked to technology and security. But there is also a new element of people management.

Organisations are now reassessing their trust in staff they cannot “see” and looking at various metrics to judge whether productivity and creativity have risen or fallen.

No one size fits all. Executives and managers have found that some staff need more detailed instructions and supervision when working remotely, while others are best left to get on with it.

Dull tasks are done best in a structured environment; but research suggests too much structure can suppress creativity. There is also a reduced sense of belonging which impacts company culture and increases a sense of alienation. Employees’ problems can also go unnoticed.

Better remote working

Some bad results, such as a productivity slump, may result from not using remote working to its best advantage.

Part of the problem is that many employees depend on pre-existing relationships to get things done. Not being able to reach out to other people in 250+ employee companies for information, experience, support and knowledge reduces productivity, compounded by lengthening time-chains and response delays. This can transpose an individual’s sense of belonging and “team” into a list of tasks.

To counter this, employers are encouraged to generate a culture fostering remote kinship and visibility, given that staff needs, abilities and goals differ.

On the positive side, one experiment found that a four-day-at-home week can increase productivity by up to 13%. Of this, a 4% increase is because staff have fewer distractions (see caveat below) and so perform better, while 9% of the increased productivity is because they work more minutes per shift, take shorter lunch breaks, have fewer sick days, and do not waste time commuting. Flexible working hours and patterns also allow staff to choose their own peak performance work times.

However, the findings came with caveats: assuming no children, a dedicated work room that is not a bedroom, quality broadband connections and company-provided IT equipment.

Reasonable ground rules help too, such as staying in touch with daily check-in calls, providing continuous support for those who need it, setting measurable targets and leading by example.

Managers should set the frequency and timing of team communications, indicating when they themselves can be reached by phone, video link or text. It is also good practice to keep an eye on communications between team members (perhaps by using a group chat or asking to be copied into relevant emails) to ensure all necessary information is shared. Offering encouragement and emotional support where appropriate and recognising stress is also important.

Socially social distancing

More employees now enjoy video chats while eating lunch. This can help stave off isolation and loneliness. Other companies are organising social online events in the last hour on a Friday, with quizzes and chat. But beware blurring of work-home boundaries: one team noted a 52% increase in online chats between 6pm and 10pm. Given UN data showing that 41% of remote workers exhibit high stress levels compared to 25% of office staff, there are growing concerns that mental health and wellbeing are vulnerable without a strict demarcation between work and home.

Technical solutions may include software tools which ensure that nightly emails are sent the following morning. More one-to-one management/staff member meetings can help to remove bottlenecks and draw a line under the working day. Employees should also understand that they do not have to be constantly available.

Conclusion

Remote working was an unexpected experiment that for many companies is now part of — if not all of — the standard work pattern for many employees.

However, some employers now believe that innovation, creativity, productivity and competitive project delivery rates suffer with lower levels of staff co-ordination, information and knowledge sharing, poorer team-building and training difficulties. The blurring of homework boundaries is also problematic.

Reviewing how remote working is managed can provide remedies. But full-time homeworking — even where an easy option — is not always the best way of working for every team. The future could be a hybrid, with some degree of homeworking but also where the office becomes a space for regular interaction and collaboration. Engagement is crucial.