The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift to remote working in the UK. Although initially felt to be a temporary measure to help combat the spread of the virus, a significant proportion of workers and organisations say they wish to continue working this way either partially or entirely after restrictions end this summer. With the prospect of economic recovery in 2021 now gathering pace, employers across the country are beginning to plan for the longer term – including the extent to which hybrid working will become a permanent feature of their workplace.
Prior to the pandemic, remote working in the UK had been slowly increasing in recent decades. Figures derived from the Understanding Society survey show that in January/February 2020, approximately 5.7% of workers worked exclusively remotely, which rose to 43.1% in April 2020 (Felstead & Reushke, 2020). A CIPD survey estimates that after the pandemic, 37% of workers will work remotely occasionally, and as many as 22% of workers could work remotely all the time.
What we know about organisations coping with the shift to remote working
During the first national lockdown, employers and workers shifted to remote working within a few days of the government announcement, with many lacking the time to prepare training or tools. In some cases, this resulted in workers not having appropriate equipment, or lacking familiarity with important communication software.
Since then, employers have made an investment in infrastructure and tools, such as laptops and cloud-based services, and managers and employees have learned to communicate and work in new ways. This accumulation of knowledge and resources now represents the starting capital to a potentially longer-term shift to remote working. However, getting the best from this new form of working after the crisis will require careful planning, effort and further investment.
Advantages and drawbacks
There are advantages and disadvantages to working at the office, as well as working from home. Company culture, or “how we do things around here”, is thought to be more difficult to maintain online than in person. Also, there are some tasks that may be better suited to an in-person setting, particularly creative and collaborative tasks (Adams-Prassl et al., 2020).
Further, remote working might suit some more than others. Research conducted over the course of the pandemic has found mixed results for wellbeing outcomes for remote workers, with some experiencing wellbeing gains due to the lack of commute. This contrasts with the finding that some single, and younger workers are more likely to feel lonely and disconnected work has intensified. Additionally, those with parenting responsibilities (particularly women) reported taking on more hours of care work and home schooling, and experienced blurred boundaries between work and home life, leading to heightened anxiety and stress.
As for productivity outcomes, the Understanding Society survey found that self-reported productivity had remained relatively stable. This contrasts with findings from the ONS Business Insights and Conditions Survey, in which more businesses reported a decline, rather than an increase in productivity. That said, it appears that workers who had never worked from home previously experienced the greatest drop in productivity (Morikawa, 2020), indicating that with practice, training and the right equipment, this gap can be bridged.
Hybrid working – achieving the best of both worlds?
In March 2021, Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey predicted the shift to hybrid working will be permanent. In the hybrid model, an organisation may employ a workforce who work in one or several of these modes: A) entirely remotely, B) splitting time between the office and remote work, or C) working entirely on site.
Lessons on how organisations can successfully lead and manage partially or entirely remote workforces can be drawn from organisations with a pre-pandemic history of remote working. For example, Gitlab, a US based repository manager, note that having a hybrid workforce makes it all the more important to write up an employee handbook, detailing both written and unwritten culture. This should be treated as a living document that is amended over time.
This is particularly important in the context of a workforce that is partially on- and off-site. This could create a two-tier workforce, where those working in the office might have access to informal conversations, and better chances of having their contributions noticed and acknowledged, i.e., by promotions or opportunities for progression. To help mitigate this, businesses should invest in training for managers, particularly in supporting them to manage remote, and perhaps asynchronous schedules and communications.
The reality is UK employers are now facing significant choices as to how to structure their organisations and the extent to which they will adopt hybrid working for the long term – and this will have big implications for the shape of local and regional economies. In order to understand more about the ways organisations across different sectors and regions are approaching these choices, we are undertaking two research projects over the coming months.
The first, in partnership with colleagues at Newcastle University, will engage with businesses across the North of England from a range of sectors regarding their experience of remote working and their plans for the future.
The second, in partnership with the Chartered Management Institute, will engage directly with managers operating across a range of employment settings, to better understand the challenges and opportunities for those overseeing teams and responsible for the productivity and wellbeing of large chunks of the workforce.
If you’d like to find out more about these projects then do get in touch. We’ll be sharing findings over the coming months, so make sure to look out for more news on our website and across our social media platforms.
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