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    As pandemic lockdown comes into force here in the UK, we continue to grapple with our new reality in light of the Coronavirus outbreak. For tens millions of workers around the world the working day is already unrecognisable from the old ‘normal’ of even just a few weeks ago..

    As millions of newly remote workers attempt to create new habits and routines to ensure productivity it’s clear that an unlikely, and entirely unwelcome, experiment in remote working is currently underway. Every single organisation, from multinational commercial organisations through to Universities and even the local Junior School are being forced to plan productivity in this upside-down state for a currently unknown period. The extent to which Executives and Planners are relying on Cloud based technology to maintain productivity in our current circumstances poses the question how much more serious would a similar crisis have been just 10 years ago, before the widespread adoption of Cloud based applications and enterprise collaboration technologies.

    The extent of remote working flexibility differs greatly Internationally. A contrast of attitudes within the worlds’ largest two economies highlights this. As we entered the crisis in 2020, and even within both the USA and China, opinion is polarised from business to business and from industry to industry about the benefits and risks of a remote workforce. Will the outcomes of our current forced experiment bring those opposing viewpoints closer together? It’s equally possible, armed with anecdotal experience from our current enforced experiment, that the opinions of critics and advocates of remote working may become even more polarised.

    In the USA, seen as a forerunner of remote working, 2018 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that across the country in excess of 50% of IT and Information Workers can work from home. In particular the Digital and Tech sectors have effectively gone remote well in advance of the current pandemic with Apple, Amazon, Google and Twitter all promoting very high levels of home-working; with the part home/part office model rapidly building in popularity. Acceleration rates are noteworthy with the share of the US workforce that works from home tripling in the past 15 years, according to the US Federal Reserve.

    The business case for remote working almost always looks like a win win. Massive savings on office space (November 2019 statistics reveal that in the US it costs an average of $500 per month to provide an office desk, versus $59 per month to support a virtual office at home) will always garner support in company Board rooms worldwide. Similarly the business benefit of widening talent pools and employee diversity to beyond head office population catchment areas and timezones is equally compelling.

    However, even amongst the enlightened US Technology and Media sectors opinion is still mixed. In a recent interview with CEO of RankSense, Hamlet Batista, he explained how they struggled to hire technical roles from company HQ in the Dominican Republic as they couldn’t attract professionals with the relevant technical qualifications and expertise. Little improvement occurred when they moved to New York, and their gamechanger came when they started to hire remotely, and now they can hire the best professionals from anywhere in the world. Read more here.

    Batista’s views can be contrasted with Kevin Roose, writing in the New York Times. Roose is very clear in his thoughts that remote work, in his case his dining room table, impedes the creative sparks that fly when we are interacting in person with colleagues rather than on-line. Read more here.

    Research conducted by Google reinforces Roose’s opinion that some of the benefits of physically working amongst colleagues are by nature difficult to track even with the most sophisticated collaboration and management technologies. Google conducted a research piece on its most productive workforce groups. It revealed that the most important quality in underpinning team productivity was “psychological safety”—a confidence that team members wouldn’t embarrass or punish individuals for speaking up. Office chat, bad jokes, and watercooler moments are often dismissed as unimportant, even wasteful, but the lead research analyst calls these things “the carrier wave for psychological safety.” Almost everything that doesn’t feel like work at the office is what makes the most creative, most productive work at the office possible.

    As lockdown takes hold and many of us in the West start to form our own opinions on the challenges of remote working for the first time, we are starting to see Chinese and Asian workers drift back to the physical workplace following a period of enforced remote working.

    From January onwards the use of Chinese enterprise collaboration apps, such as WeChat Work, Alibaba’s DingTalk and Tencent Meeting, overnight became established as some of the top 10 most downloaded applications globally on both Apple and Android App Stores. The rising stock prices of these collaboration tools signalled both the alarming spread of the COVID-19 virus and the increasing extent of remote working practices in China – a country where home working is significantly less widespread than in the USA and Europe.

    Surprisingly 51% of businesses in China claim to have some kind of flexible working policy, according to a 2019 IWG Global Workspace survey, this compares to 69% in the USA. Cultural attitudes towards remote working are a factor and it’s widely seen that even where a flexible working policy exists Chinese workers are less willing (or feel less able) to claim their flexible working rights. Top down management culture within Chinese industry is still widely in evidence; even during the current enforced Work From Home phenomenon the ubiquitous clocking-in and clocking-out which exists even within the white collar sector has been replaced with a requirement to send a ‘check in’ photo to their company’s DingTalk group at the start of the working day.

    The outcome of the work from home experiment in China is yet to become clear. The country has an outstanding technical infrastructure for a step change to take place and many organisations have invested heavily in training during the crisis to ensure productivity stays high, but whether this is enough to force change in a country where leadership in all works of life tends to be autocratic has yet to be seen.
    A clear response to reconciling these competing tensions, both practical and psychological, can be seen in the rise of hybrid environments. Instead of switching completely to a remote based environment, employers ask their employees to work a few days per week each at home and in the office. They hope this will progressively tackle the remote work isolation and communication challenges, as well as potential concerns with productivity, while they start to profit from many of the advantages – especially with more motivated and loyal team members. This model will appeal to the wave of Gen- Z employees expected into the market, who naturally come equipped with digital skills that are in high demand for remote workers.

    Before we get close to optimally balancing the pros and cons, and unlocking the impact of remote working, companies will have to learn to embrace that remote work is different work. Managers will have to get better at evaluating contribution and productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals rather than using the proxy of office presenteeism, and hours clocked up. Employees will have to adopt self-discipline when it comes to dividing their day into deep work, office communications, personal time, and civic or family life. Employees will have to develop new habits, such as intricate record keeping and seamless sharing of every meaningful work snippet, so that geographically disparate teams are always up to speed on what’s happening “down the hall.”

    Without doubt, the remote working debate will have an unprecedented case study to analyse and evaluate with this global pandemic. Current events are effectively an experiment, with all the perils of an unplanned endeavour, in the scaling of the remote working philosophy and only time will tell whether any gains made during these difficult times will be consolidated when things (hopefully) get back to normal.

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    Lockdown in London as Asian workers drift back to work. What will be the legacy of COVID-19 on remote working?

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