Is remote working here to stay?

Joe Nicholls explores whether the coronavirus pandemic will lead to a long-term revolution in home working, and the implications for employers

There is much speculation over the damage that home working will do to the economy if it is sustained beyond the current pandemic. Representatives of government now proactively campaign for workers to ‘get back to work’, willing a swift economic bounce back. Those who are vocally opposed to remote working have, I would politely suggest, failed to appreciate that it is an essential part of our economy.

There are online shopping sceptics who criticise this revolution of convenience. This is perhaps because they place more value on the culture of the high street as they know it. They fear for its demise and don’t trust its evolution. 

As a species, we strive for convenience and efficiency, pushing the boundaries of creativity. Any casual observation of the development of mobile phones over the last 30 years will tell you so. This is progress. It is also why brands like Apple and Amazon have grown exponentially.

It is often easier, more convenient and cheaper to order an item online and have it delivered to your house, than it is to travel to a town or city centre, pay to park and buy the same item from a shop, which you then need to carry home. Remote working is much the same.

There is no finite number of jobs that can be created. When any economy evolves, some roles become redundant, but new roles are always created. There is nothing new with that concept. 

New jobs and ways of earning an income are created all of the time and boom when there is a platform to enable them. Playing video games or being paid to advertise brands on social media are jobs which did not exist a decade ago. Retailers selling goods through mobile phone applications did not exist 30 years ago. 

The internet revolutionised the sale of goods and services like nothing before it. We communicate and access information in ways we could not now live without. The same could be said of how we work.

This is not all encompassing. It’s no good asking a pilot to fly you to Hong Kong through his home Xbox. For many roles, however, the argument against providing more flexibility is becoming harder to make stick.

Long working days and long working weeks, middle management and beating people over the head with absence statistics – these things are the remains of a foregone era, a fossil from the industrial revolution.

The benefits of home working are clear, particularly to parents and commuters, but equally so to employers. 

Savings on premises costs, including leases, insurance, lighting, heating, cleaning, security, all have the potential to be redirected elsewhere. If the IT infrastructure and performance management tools are sufficiently sophisticated, fewer middle management layers are needed. One would expect to see fewer grievances, disciplinaries or allegations of bullying, of lateness. It follows that fewer days would be lost to sickness absence, or to commuter chaos.

The improvement and wide stream availability of high standard video based technology allows for customer and team meetings, supervisory support, interaction and training at arm’s length. 

And then there’s scale. A company is often limited by their physical premises and can only hire when there is space. Home working provides fewer restrictions.

There are legitimate concerns: how does a company motivate and effectively manage someone from a distance? An employer is responsible for the health and safety of their workers, even at home. The infrastructure can be challenging and more expensive and nothing replaces the human connection. 

For those employees who champion time spent working rather than commuting, there is a balance to be struck between being productive and knowing how and when to switch off. Employees who work from home may feel the need to do extra, as proof that it works. This may create a pattern of working longer days, compromising their mental and physical health. 

Many of these barriers are overcome through good communication, investment and trust.

Most employers want to embrace progress above the limitations of tradition. To attract talented workers, to motivate and retain parents, carers, commuters, they need to offer more than just stability. They need to offer an environment that fits the needs of the modern worker: a flexible lifestyle. 

The barriers that prevent parents from working, including astronomical childcare costs and inflexible options, often make returning to work impossible without flexibility. The value of enabling these groups to work provides an economic carrot too great to ignore.

Opportunities are created through evolution. Progress is embracing the benefits that 2020 has shown the world of work what can be achieved when you strip away the daily grind. While there are casualties in any revolution, the benefits to society are such that the world of work will never look back.

Joe Nicholls is head of employment at Wards Solicitors LLP