The Covid-19 pandemic crisis has created a calamitous world-wide health and economic crisis and has shredded the entire fabric of normality. In response, governments across the world have implemented ” lockdowns” with a range of mandatory actions, all designed to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus. As public health is the absolute priority, it has been necessary to shut down entire economies. Commercial and business life has been halted as states grapple with the deadliest worldwide pandemic threat since the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-20.
For the foreseeable future social distancing, cocooning, hand washing and face masks will be the norm until the scientific world discovers a vaccine and it becomes widely available. As a consequence, we now see that Covid-19 will cause a major sea-change to pre-Covid work patterns. While this deadly virus remains active, social distancing requirements and the continued threat of infection will require companies, organisations and schools to re-configure work locations to adapt to the new realities of life post Covid.
In this scenario companies are undertaking expensive office and work-space reconfiguration to accommodate employees observing social distancing and a range of other health requirements. This will be possible for some but not for others. Accordingly,organisations and companies must face the new reality that many employees will have to relocate to safer work environments, usually in their own homes.
There had already been a trend towards remote working as Millennials and Generation Z employees have displayed a strong preference for more flexible working arrangements with provision for regular home working. Covid-19 has fast-tracked this trend with many flexible and adaptable companies and organisations making the sudden and rapid shift to a remote work model. There is now a very perceptible shift away from a predominantly office culture to a remote work culture or a hybrid of both.
The virus pandemic crisis is therefore a watershed moment for organisations and businesses in terms of how they manage their staffs and teams. For many it is no longer feasible to assemble all staff in a confined work location while the health risk is so great. Companies are quickly adapting to the new challenge of managing staff and teams who are working remotely. Virtual teams are replacing in-house teams and companies are availing of highly effective communication tools and collaboration platforms to stay connected with those employees, now working from their home offices.
In response to employees’ demands for better work-life balance, large multinationals such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter have been leading the change in work practices which accommodates many employees working from home, either full-time or part-time. This trend has been greatly boosted by the current need for businesses to accommodate the twin challenges of ensuring the safety of their employees and surviving the current pandemic threat. As a consequence, telecommuting and teleworking are now significant features of current work practices . To cater for their newly dispersed workforce, many companies have been significantly boosting their technological capabilities and enhancing their digital footprint.
Upfront investment in effective communication technology is being prioritised so that remote work can be efficiently conducted and remote teams can work collaboratively. Remote working is particularly suited to the tech sector where content creators will dominate. Visual editors, graphic artists, app creators and marketing professionals will be the least disrupted by a distributed or dispersed work model. Other sectors such as legal, payment processing and HR can also readily adapt to a remote work model.
To accommodate the recent sudden, forced, shift to remote working, there is a need for the entire organisational culture to quickly adapt and change focus to support remote working. Company policy and corporate culture must quickly embrace the shift to more distributed working arrangements.Surveys show that fears about loss of productivity are unfounded as remote working usually enhances productivity and output.
There are societal benefits also in terms of less traffic and less commuter stress. Even better, remote working can have a powerful beneficial impact on regions which have been deprived of commercial and employment opportunities. Communities can embrace new opportunities and experience regeneration as they are rejuvenated by the presence of remote workers who do not have to travel away for work opportunities.
Younger generations such as Millennials and Generation Z are demanding greater work flexibility and autonomy, so companies and organisations were already embracing the reality of managing an increasingly dispersed workforce. This trend was identified in a Linkedin survey which showed that 82% of workers wanted to have opportunities work from home (especially in the tech sector).
The rapidity of the recent trend to remote working and telecommuting has arisen from a basic need to survive in the context of lockdowns and social distancing. Telecommuting is the new reality so companies and organisations must treat remote employees the same as in-house employees. This requires the provision of enhanced digital capabilities such as effective communication and reporting tools for telecommuting staff.
Having accomodated the move to a remote work culture, managers must show empathy and equal respect for all employees whether working in-house or remotely. There will be far less in-person meetings and far more virtual meetings. Key to effective remote working is the provision of quality teleworking and communication technology applied to these new work environments.
The advent of cloud-based solutions in the areas of video-conferencing , file-sharing and project management heralds a new era of flexible work alternatives to singular workplace locations. Working from home, telecommuters and digital nomads must have the training, protocols, systems and tools to support their professional work. Good communication and collaboration tools serve to enhance telecommuters’ visibility, accommodate their collaboration and therefore contribute to enhanced productivity.
Web conferencing software and instant messaging platforms are essential if remote workers are to be treated the same as their in-house colleagues. Cloud-based communications tools such as Zoom, Skype, Slack, Flock and others vastly increase a remote team’s communication capabilities while also allowing for the monitoring of the team’s work programme. Likewise, collaboration software like Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive for Business enable remote employees and team members to work together on different activities and projects. Document exchange software, cloud conferencing and cloud-based team messaging provide a single hub for remote workers to communicate and collaborate effectively. Software such as Monday.com or Projectmanager.com make it easy for remotely located employees to work together on different assignments.
In recent years, massive digital disruption and the level of digital transformation has made it possible for organisations and businesses to quickly adapt to the worldwide disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. An organisation’s capacity to adapt to and manage a sudden chaotic tide of change, by integrating technology and maintaining digital capabilities, will require managers with high tech skills and strong project management experience. Managers will also need to be good communicators who can show their innate trust in their dispersed employees and teams. Managers need to be capable and confident in their own ability to set out clear process guidelines for projects , to assign tasks and to track progress.
Good management of any dispersed team requires managers to focus on goals not activity; to monitor output and not time spent on projects. They must agree deadlines and clearly set out expectations for each member of the team. Like employees co-located in an office, those employees working remotely and telecommuting need to know that their work goals and targets are aligned with the organisation’s goals. Remote or distributed teams and employees can then be treated the same as co-located teams and employees when monitoring productivity and managing projects.
Home working is now a global scale experiment where, for many, the daily commute to town has been replaced by a short walk to the home office. Working from home is the new commute, a trend which has been accelerated by a virus pandemic but made possible by technological advancements, employee demands and changed consumer behaviour. Many organisations and companies are now more remote-work friendly and have implemented distributed workforce arrangements in the interest of health and safety.
There is a growing realisation that a viable pool of remote employees can generate increased output and enhanced productivity. Companies are also increasingly outsourcing work to freelancers or outsourcing expertise on apps such as Fiverr and Upwork. As there seems to be no realistic chance of a vaccine in the near future, it is likely that those companies which have adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic threat, by implementing remote work strategies, will be best able to survive the unprecedented pandemic shock.
Telecommuting will be a significant feature of the future of work. For employees there are advantages such as enhanced health and wellbeing, a better work-life balance, less commuter stress, and living cost reductions. There can also be risks to wellbeing due to feelings of isolation and loneliness or uncertainties about job security. Instant communication and collaboration technology does, however, tip the balance in favour of advantages over disadvantages.
There are challenges to be faced when transferring to telecommuting working arrangements. Creating a suitable work space, having good wifi and setting boundaries between work and home life are essential prerequisites for any home office location. Some employees who are new to telecommuting may need to actively manage their time and avoid distractions. Having a daily schedule or routine is therefore important. To stay focused on work priorities it is useful to set time aside for use of phones, social media, mails and texts but thereafter to ignore such distractions. The use of time-mapping techniques and time tracking software (e.g.TimeCamp) can certainly improve productivity and output for telecommuters.
Being visible at work is also important for remotely located telecommuters. By using software like Google Doc they can show updates while collaborating with colleagues. Task management and project management software like Monday.com or Microsoft Project are useful tools for developing plans, assigning resources, tracking progress and managing budgets. Using a prioritisation framework like Eisenhower Matrix, it is possible for telecommuters to show the priority tasks they have accomplished.
Individuals or teams collaborating on projects do not need to be co-located when there are many good communication and collaboration tools at hand. Global teams, project teams, networking teams or production teams do not require face-to-face interaction or need to be co-located. But they do need objective-based management which focuses on results rather than observation-based management focused on tasks. Managers should behave more like team leaders rather than team managers.
The advent of cloud-based solutions has given rise to a new era of work-based flexibility. The need to rapidly implement remote work policies in response to the pandemic crisis has galvanised companies and organisations to adapt, manage and integrate new technology to support remote working. Their aim is to maintain digital capability while riding the wave of digital transformation.
Remote working and telecommuting will become an increasingly significant part of the future of work, especially with the looming threat of a possible second wave of Covid-19 virus. Social distancing has changed our lives but also our work practices. The shift to a remote work model is now a permanent and irreversible feature of work. Meanwhile, companies see opportunities to dispense with large offices and workspaces, with associated savings, in favour of more compact work locations with hot desks and meeting rooms.
Nobody really knows yet what the “new normal” will look like. But new work patterns are inevitable in the context of the threat of future pandemics. Spreading the workforce spreads the risk. Arising from the chaos and upheaval caused by the Covid-19 organisations and companies must constantly adapt, become stronger and learn to be more resilient. Many employees and companies will benefit from the autonomy of telecommuting. Remote work and flexible jobs are the way of the future. Remote work may well be the future of work.