When we think of remote working, we now see it through the lens of a pandemic. And it’s largely been positive to see what was once considered impossible is now possible, and in many cases, highly successful.
The pandemic has shown that working from home is not a euphemism for slacking off in your pyjamas, but could form the bedrock of a future working model not rooted to the physical office. The pandemic also forced us to get real about how work gets done.
While some organisations are embracing how a future workplace might look, others are rushing back to pre-pandemic policies, issuing diktats demanding workers get back to being 100 per cent in the office. But why are company leaders reluctant to embrace remote work?
The myths about remote work persist – here are three of them.
Workers are less engaged when remote
In fact, employees who have access to remote work options are 75 per cent more likely to report they are engaged, according to our 2021 survey of global workers.
A recent study by Future Forum at Slack corroborates these findings, confirming that individual creativity and productivity improved with remote work. Team creativity was unrelated to being in the office but was related to whether a team member can take risks safely, as well as ask for help without being penalised. In other words, if employees feel psychologically safe then an innovative and collaborative culture is more likely, regardless of physical proximity.
Another recent Catalyst study demonstrates the importance of senior leader and manager empathy in driving employee engagement and innovation. Specifically, for women of colour, senior leaders who demonstrated high levels of empathy helped to reduce intent to leave and burnout.
Empathic leaders have played a crucial role in supporting team members during the ongoing turmoil. Employees with highly empathic senior leaders report higher levels of creativity (61 per cent) and engagement (76 per cent) than those with less empathic senior leaders (13 per cent and 32 per cent respectively). Empathy is a skill, which can be learned, and is a business imperative for success in the future of work.
Women want access to remote work more than men
As far back as 2013, our research showed that both women and men want flexible work arrangements. However, then as now, when women do not have access to flexible work arrangements, they are more likely to dial down their career aspirations.
A more recent Catalyst study looked at differences between men and women and remote work options, globally, and found only one group difference, the intent to leave their jobs. Access to remote work was important for all employees in reducing their intent to leave their jobs over the next year. The study did find one group difference: women with childcare responsibilities are 32 per cent less likely to intend to leave their jobs when they have access to remote work options. All of the other findings showed no differences across groups, supporting the fact that workplaces that work for women work for everyone.
Of course, it’s well documented that women have suffered disproportionately in the pandemic, losing more than 64 million jobs globally in 2020, as well as bearing the brunt of care-giving responsibilities. Remote-work options and manager empathy for an individual’s circumstances provide critical support for women, especially mothers, through the continuing pandemic and into the future.
Catalyst has encouraged flexible and remote work for many years, not least because we know a lack of flexible work options has been a barrier to women’s advancement in the workplace.
People feel less included
This is simply not true. Our global research shows that employees with access to remote work options are 93 per cent more likely to report they are often or always being included.
The study also shows that when employees have access to remote work, they report feeling more productive, more engaged, more innovative, more committed to their job and less burned out.
An inclusive work environment has many benefits and is a key competitive advantage for organisations. It is linked to increased innovation and productivity, leads to better performance and problem solving, reduces groupthink, and enhances decision-making.
How to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace
The pandemic has given knowledge-based workers a moment to re-evaluate how to address life and work needs and, for many, things will never go back to how they were. A US study among those that are currently working remotely found that half of workers would leave their company if it does not continue to offer remote work options long term, while a BBC survey found that 70 per cent believe workers will "never return to offices at the same rate", with the majority wishing to continuing working from home either full or part-time.
We are at a tipping point to rethink how work gets done and how it is rewarded. The pandemic has demonstrated the need to build a workplace which acknowledges home life and caregiving responsibilities, but also the need for mental health and self-care. A hybrid workplace needs to be intentionally designed to ensure it is as inclusive for those working from home as those in the office. A ‘remote first’ culture is crucial to stop a two-tier system developing where presenteeism and face-time are seen to be more valued.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ hybrid model. Organisations must ask employees how they wish to structure their work, senior leaders need to role model new working arrangements and crucially, reward processes must be transparent and aligned to productivity, not face time.
It is understandable that there is apprehension among companies at the speed of change that the pandemic has wrought on the workplace, but forward-thinking companies should not shy away from creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace. Myths surrounding the effectiveness of flexible and work options need to be consigned to the office waste bin, where they belong.
Allyson Zimmermann is executive director for EMEA at Catalyst