The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures that ensued has led to more employees working from home than ever before, with several organizations having to go 100% remote in a matter of days. This mass experiment in remote work has led many employees and organizations alike to rethink the role of the physical workplace and consider the benefits of remote work arrangements in the long run as countries open up and the option to work in the office becomes available.
There is certainly a demand for remote work – In a survey by Buffer, 98% of respondents said they would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers. But how do employees and companies actually fare working from home? Are there activities that work better at home, or in the office? As we move forward towards a ‘new-normal’ and gradually return to the workplace, organizations will need to evaluate the effectiveness of their work-from-home experiments through the lens of both leaders and employees to guide their workspace strategies for the post COVID-19 world.
To gain insight into the response to remote work across APAC, Paperspace has conducted employee surveys and leadership interviews in collaboration with four companies across Singapore, India, Thailand and Philippines. In total our survey reached 800 employees over four countries and collected data from 469 respondents over a two week period from June 11 to June 25, 2020.
Fixed or Flex? Weighing the Advantages & Disadvantages of Remote Work
Individual Activities are Well Suited with Remote Work, With Some Exceptions
Across all four countries surveyed, employees found Virtual Working to be more effective in supporting their ability to concentrate on work tasks, with the exception of India and Philippines, where there was little difference. Similarly, Employees rated Virtual Working environments as more effective, or similarly effective in enabling them to reflect.
However, employees rated Collaboration, Social Interaction, Learning, and Knowledge Sharing higher in the office setting.
As the old phrase goes – the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. While individual, focused work is highly productive, remote working lends poorly to activities that require interaction, collaboration, and sharing. Not only can this be a deterrence to organizational innovation, it can also lead to burnout over time.
“We’ve always had the capability to work remotely, but we miss those incidental conversations and the creativity that comes out of it.”
“People’s sense of humour is lost over calls. We need to keep the energy & spark going to create motivation.”
Leadership Conversation, Singapore
The Implication for Organizations – It’s not Either/Or, but Who, and Why?
Leaders will have to decide who should work from home. Many countries have mandated social distancing measures, which means some organisations may have to adopt a blended workplace model, either by placing certain teams completely on-site or remote, or set rotating schedules for employees to spend at the office or at home. In moving to a more virtual environment, leaders can develop criteria to determine who is eligible to WFH, and under what conditions this works for the entire organization. Criteria should consider the need for collaboration in certain roles, as well as requirement of certain technology and availability of necessary work tools and capabilities in the remote work environment. In addition, feasibility of executing day to day job duties remotely across each function should be considered. Take care not to use the criteria independently but in consultation with the employee’s individual aptitude and preference for working from home.
Does Remote Working Give us More Flexibility?
Although remote work is generally associated with more flexibility, employees in all four countries found Virtual Working was a less supportive environment for relaxing and taking breaks compared to the office setting. In addition, when asked to evaluate their organization’s COVID-19 response, the statements that had the least favourable ratings centered around lack of flexibility, suggesting that employees struggled to achieve work-life balance in a remote work environment, and lacked empowerment in choosing their work hours. Through focus groups and interviews, employees shared that collaborating across different time zones remotely and conflicting schedules between team members made it difficult to align their schedules and set meetings which led to longer work hours.
” Future work methods that must be changed, need clarity to find a way to help support correctly and quickly with a time frame of work.”
“WFH allows employers or supervisors to use us until working overtime, with the thought that this is normal, something that employees must do and there is no support for the internet, telephone, the electricity that the employees will bear more but the company’s expenses decreased. The employer simply told the employees to help the company. We must help the company to survive but when the situation returns to normal, when will the company help us?”
Interestingly, despite the challenges, flexible work arrangements remains a top concern for employees returning to the office. Our survey findings suggest that people like the idea of flexibility often associated with remote work, but in reality achieving this ‘flexibility’ is easier said than done.
How Can Employers Better Support Employees both Remotely and In the Workplace?
Refining Remote Work
Although it may sound contradictory, the very idea of Flexibility can actually lead to burnout. When working remotely, many employees struggle to manage their time, and end up working longer hours. To combat this, organizations must consider how they can provide a structure to remote working practices supporting work-life balance, and ensuring alignment between their teams schedules.
In addition to time-management and collaboration challenges, our survey results indicated essentials we often take for granted at the office, like desks, chairs, and access to network files also pose problems in a remote work environment.
While working at a subpar desk for a few weeks may be manageable for employees, over a longer period this is likely to impact their well-being and can even have a negative impact on their health. If your organization is planning on shifting more heavily towards remote work in the future, you may need to consider adding a budget to facilitate home-office improvements for remote work staff, or consider offering employees access to co-working spaces as an alternative workspace outside of the home. Similarly, organizations going increasingly digital will need to consider the technology requirements to facilitate remote work safely.
“Technology access and support have worked well for us in small
teams, but there are set-up challenges for over 10 pax”
Leadership Conversation, Singapore
Ensuring Safety and Wellbeing in the Workplace
Unfortunately, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and the return to normalcy is out of sight. To keep employees safe, organizations will have to make adjustments to the workplace, which may include frequent sterilization, temperature screenings, desk partitions, and socially distanced desks, among others. These changes are standard, if not required. The often overlooked question is, how can we maintain the health of our employees without making the office seem sterile.
To successfully transition back into the office, employers should exercise empathy. While safety in the workplace is a top concern for employees and a universal concern, there are varying degrees of comfort and fear between individuals that should be considered. In addition to following government safety guidelines, organizations must also consider how to make their employees feel safe and comfortable.
“We need to think about managing the perception of safety, and building employees’ well-being into our success.”
Leadership Conversation, Singapore
Where do we go from here? An Agile Approach to Workplace Strategy
As new trends in employee’s evaluation of remote work and traditional workplaces emerge, the context around the organization, its culture, and people present immense complexities when imagining the future of the workplace.
While there will be standard practices adopted widely across countries and industries to ensure health and safety, there are a multitude of possible solutions to consider in order to balance collaboration, engagement, and social interactions with social distancing. Finding this solution may feel like finding the needle in a haystack. To do it effectively, organizations will need to test quickly, while remaining people-centric. When deriving solutions, organizations must evaluate their experience with remote work, identify ideal behaviours and culture, define hygiene factors, and map workplace strategies to address these factors.
As part of our research, we have gone through this journey with four clients. Stay tuned to the next edition in this series where we will publish solutions for each client.