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The Changing World of Remote Working – or maybe not?

You are probably fed up reading articles on this theme over the last few months.  However, there are a number of aspects of this topic that are going to shape the world of work going forward, long after the pandemic has disappeared.  The key challenge is that organisations and their employees need to think and plan for these now.

While many people assume that remote working is a relatively new phenomenon, it has been around for most of our recorded history.  The Industrial Revolution changed that for good. As the world; and the world of work, transformed radically, most workers came to spend their days in factories or offices.

As technology advanced, new tools, including the phone and fax machine, made it possible for some people to work away from their offices.  The computer and the proliferation of internet access meant more and more workers could connect from anywhere around the globe.  As the internet sped up (depending on broadband!) and the cost of laptops fell, remote working became a more feasible option for increasing numbers of workers. Employees could do their jobs from the comfort of their homes, and firms could function in smaller offices while paying less rent.  Virtual work exploded when younger people, digital natives, entered the workforce.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic created the perfect storm for remote working and many more workers, managers, and organisations began to realise the benefits. Some of those benefits include reduced costs, better coverage of time zones, expansion into new markets and the availability of talent. As the months have passed from March of this year, we are seeing another crucial attribute; and that is the normalcy of remote working – most people like it and can see this as part of their work routine going forward.

However, remote working is not a panacea or everybody’s dream.  Those who don’t love it, hate it; and we have quite a lot of senior leaders who believe that ‘distributed teams’ are less productive and more difficult to oversee.  It is certainly not the path for lots of retail businesses, restaurants, factories and many front line workers. 

Remote working has significant downsides even in appropriate industries.  There has been evidence in the past that remote workers advance more slowly and earn less money than their in-office peers, so companies may need to provide ancillary benefits. Because remote workers can’t easily network with other employees, including their bosses and senior management, being at home may diminish their chances of promotion. They may also feel socially isolated.

Organisations can use different methods, tactics and strategies to mitigate these drawbacks.  The most important is establishing a strong “communication structure” to support these new arrangements. Each individual is likely to have a preferred way of staying in touch and for everyone to work well together, each person must also accept a common communication standard. A quick rule of thumb is that the ‘quality of communication’ always matters more than the “quantity of communication”.

Going forward we are likely to end up with some form of hybrid model.  It will be important to re-orient and train staff on remote policies and skills. Lots of things will evolve and change over the coming months, including the alignment of benefits for the new world of work.  This is a period of unprecedented change, and an exciting opportunity to shape the future of work.