Given our current and future travel restrictions, it’s fair to think that remote working is here to stay. For many of us overcoming our home technology challenges and getting on to zoom has felt like a real victory. At this stage, though, the downsides of telecommuting might seem more evident than the upsides. We think it’s worth reviewing virtual working so that you can get the most out of it and, who knows, you might even decide that remote working is the better option!

ADVANTAGES

  • Reducing social contact: This has to be one of the most critical factors influencing teams to work remotely. Only a month ago, the World Economic Forum reported that there were over 2.6 billion people in lockdown. Covid-19 induced lockdowns have created enormous pressure for teams to work remotely more than ever before.
  • Drastically reducing office, travel time and cost: Back in 2007, IBM estimated a cost-saving of $50million in travel and downtime costs alone, through the use of virtual teams.
  • Locating and retaining talent: The world is now your oyster in terms of finding and hiring the most talented employees since geographic location is no longer an issue, and they are more likely to stay working with you too. 2017 research by Stanford University found that remote workers have 50% lower attrition rate and take fewer sick days.  In a 2015 review on telecommuting Golden and colleagues found that telecommuting increased employees’ job satisfaction, performance and feelings of commitment to an organisation.
  • Improving performance: Virtual teams tend to be more diverse. This diversity of skills, attitudes and competencies is what creates greater creativity and originality amongst team members. McKinsey’s Diversity Study in 2015 found that companies with diverse teams have 35% more chance to outshine non-diverse crews.
  • Increasing productivity:  Gathering the best professionals in the field from different countries, along with having access to a 24 hr workday boosts company productivity. Also, research from Stanford suggests that remote workers were at least as, and sometimes more, efficient than office workers. They tended to take fewer breaks and took less time off.
  • Reducing discrimination and increasing equal opportunities:In a virtual work environment, physically disadvantaged employees can gain more access to the wider workplace than in a physical office. Also, since remote working tends to be productivity-focused as opposed to other attributes, conducting business online creates an environment that promotes greater equality and equity among employees.
  • Reducing impact on the environment:   There is much discussion around the impact of Covid-19 on the environment. While it is not known what long term benefits there may be, if any, there is an agreement that reduced travel and commuting have had a positive short-term impact. Already data from the Sentinel- 5P satellite is showing the nitrogen dioxide levels have plummeted across Europe. A study carried out in China was showing a 25% shrink in carbon emissions and 50% decrease in nitrogen oxides emissions. One earth scientist has predicted that this may have saved at least 77,000 lives over two months.

DISADVANTAGES

  • Reduced social and professional connectionIn general, remote working reduces non-verbal communication cues and more easily lends itself to being task and productivity focused. It takes extra effort and skill to make the connections relational or transformative. The 2015 Allen et al review found the key drawbacks to teleworking were social and professional isolation, fewer opportunities for information sharing and a blurring of boundaries between work and personal life.
  • Different attitudes to technology:   2018 research suggests that there are four going on five generations in the workplace, and each has a different technology mindset. Baby Boomers typically get their news from TV, read a book to relax and still post letters. While Generation Z spend an average of five hours a day on their phones, browse their Instagram feeds to unwind and prefer WhatsApp to keep in touch. These differing attitudes are likely to lead to different levels of expertise and knowledge when remote working.
  • Technology gap: It might feel great just getting onto a simple video conference platform and talking, but there is so much more out there to support remote working. There are platforms with higher levels of technological functionality and apps that can boost our productivity and performance, if only we knew about them. In 2017 the Work Foundation found that only 54% of managers believe their organisation is technologically forward-thinking. 
  • Poor operational fit:Remote working may not fit an organisation’s operational environment, or be an appropriate way of being productive for all organisations. For example, workflows that are highly sequential or integrated can pose challenges for virtual team working, as can the production of highly tangible goods and services. It is not a surprise that industries such as manufacturing and hospitality are not well suited to remote working.
  • Does not suit all: Individuals who need stimulation through lots of interaction with other people, or who need external structure to stay on track, are not well suited to remote working. MacRae, & Sawatzky suggest that, compared to non-remote workers, remote workers are more likely to be less competitive, have a higher approach to risk, show greater acceptance of ambiguity,  have higher levels of curiosity, be more conscientious and more able to manage and regulate their own emotions. 
  • Data exfiltration: This is a form of a security breach that occurs when an individual’s or company’s data is copied, transferred, or retrieved from a computer or server without authorisation. Regulation has meant that banking and insurance organisations have been unable to embrace remote working in the same way that other industries have. However, Covid-19 pressures have meant that organisations, such as the FCA, have found new ways to handle some of the data protection and security challenges.

Overall, the advantages can outweigh the disadvantages for the right kind of organisation, if the right kind of effort is applied. It might also be that when the restrictions are behind us, a blended approach will offer us the best way forward. Gallup’s research found that individuals were most engaged when they worked remotely 60-80% of the time.

Hopefully, though, this review leaves you feeling more optimistic, and maybe even a little excited about working remotely.  Nick Bloom who carried out the two-year 2017 Sandford study on remote working, was expecting the negatives to balance out the positives and to his surprise concluded that ‘there’s not much to lose and there’s a lot to gain’

In response to these difficult times, I’ve made available two coaching hours a week to support two Leaders and their teams facing crises at no cost. Contact me on a first-come, first-served basis if you are interested.

References

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