As the Covid-19 lockdown measures have forced many of us to work from home, remote working has been thrust into the limelight like never before. The pros and cons of remote working have been debated for many years, but until this year, it’s remained a marginal activity.
With between 80-90% of knowledge workers conducting their work from home during the pandemic, however, it’s given researchers and managers alike an opportunity to test and reassess assumptions on a scale never seen before.
For instance, in a recent article, I covered research from Oxford University and Citi, which found that a surprisingly large proportion of our jobs can be done remotely.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that remote work is possible. We examined 483 occupations and found that 113 of them can be performed remotely,” says Carl Benedikt Frey, Oxford Martin Citi Fellow, and Director of the Future of Work Programme at the Oxford Martin School. “Importantly though, those 113 occupations employ 52% of the U.S. workforce.”
The new normal
That so many of our roles can be performed remotely is a factor in a second project, from the Universities of Kent and Birmingham, which suggests that the widespread transition to remote working foist upon us by the pandemic may be here to stay.
The catchily titled The Working from Home during COVID-19 Lockdown Project highlights how homeworking has been adopted at least some of the time by 89% of the workers they surveyed. As with previous work on remote working, and indeed on remote working during lockdown, they’ve found that there is a considerable gender divide, with working mothers tending to do more of both the home schooling of children and domestic chores than their partner.
Despite this, the allure of home working was strong, with 52% of parents and 66% of non-parents saying they would be keen to continue working flexibly after the pandemic. This was primarily due to increases in productivity, higher levels of wellbeing, and even a better work-life balance.
A more supportive environment
Traditionally there have been a number of barriers to prevent remote working from taking off on a large scale. Central to this has been the reluctance of managers to really embrace it, with many struggling to truly capture the output of their team without seeing them working a set number of hours each day. There have also been well founded fears that employees who are physically out of sight fail to secure the best projects, pay rises and promotions.
There might be signs of this changing, however, with 90% of the managers surveyed for the project saying they supported their remote working colleagues, with 72% of employees saying their boss was genuinely interested in their work-life balance during the pandemic.
“Managers and employers are increasingly sensitive to the personal lives of their workers and how remote work fits into their wider lives,” Sridhar Iyengar, Managing Director, Europe at workplace software company Zoho told me. “Company culture really takes the human approach to how people are working and trying to fit work into their daily schedule, and at Zoho we have setup a helpline for employees to call, and a lot of problems people have come to us with have been common across the workforce. This is a very human side to things that goes beyond simply providing people with the latest tools and technologies.”
What’s more, the technology is now in place to support remote working, with the proportion of employers saying they had the right tools to support remote working rising from 41% before the lockdown to 62% during it.
“Many employees and employers have had their first taste of home working and our research shows that both groups have seen the advantages of more flexible working,” the researchers say. “Our research also shows that employers have improved their systems and support for flexible working during lockdown and following this home working experience the majority of employees see flexible working as a way to improve their work-life balance in the future.”
Issues to be overcome
Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t issues to be overcome. For instance, many of the negative externalities of working remotely came from being a relative minority, with most colleagues remaining in close physical proximity to each other, and to the boss. That has obviously changed during lockdown as everyone has worked remotely, but as people return to the office, it remains to be seen quite what the distribution of people will look like.
Then, of course, there is the impact of remote working on parents, and women in particular. Recent data from the U.K. suggests that women are still spending up to three times as much time on household activities as men, even when both parents are working full-time.
From schools to afterschool clubs, a range of institutions that might ordinarily have provided some respite are also shut, thus imposing a raft of other responsibilities onto parents, and women primarily. The fact that it’s highly likely that both parents are working from home during the pandemic offers little in the way of either respite or more equal distribution of domestic responsibilities.
Data from Germany suggests that women who work remotely often end up doing even more, with remote workers contributing around three hours more childcare than women working from an office. This should perhaps come as no surprise, as research shows that under remote working scenarios, the gender divide tends to be far more traditional.
Despite these challenges, the team from the Working at Home during Covid project believe that the changes to our working patterns over the last few months might endure once the lockdown measures ease and people are able to return to the office.
“Many employees would have found themselves working from home for the first time during the COVID-19 lockdown, or at least in very different circumstances to what they are used to,” they say. “Our research has brought to light the variety of experiences had, both positive and negative. We have seen a reduction in negative perception towards those working flexibly, and this is certainly a step in the right direction.”