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How employers can make the most of remote working in the future

Young modern woman having Video Conference at home
Chatting by video is one of the most effective ways to maintain communication with staff working remotely. Photo: Getty

After months of working from home, many of us are getting used to a different pace of life. Instead of commuting, office chatter and post-work drinks, we’ve had to adjust to Zoom meetings, Google Hangouts and virtual social events.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced us to work from our homes remote work was becoming more popular. Around 8.7 million people said they had worked from home in 2019, which is almost 30% of the workforce, according to ONS data.

While some people will return to the office over the next few weeks, the number of people who will continue working from home is expected to rise. Of a survey of 1,046 employers by the CIPD, around two in five (37%) employees will be working from home on a regular basis once the crisis is over.

“After six months in lockdown, the change in mindset has been astounding,” says Stuart Duff, head of development at the business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola.

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“Productivity has, for the most part, gone untouched — even improving in some cases — and the vast majority of leaders that I’ve spoken with feel positive about the prospect of allowing some form of remote working to remain in place as lockdown begins to ease.

We’re on the cusp of one of the most radical shifts that the modern workplace has ever seen, Duff adds. But significant issues remain, including how to implement this change and the best way to enjoy the benefits of remote working, while avoiding the pitfalls.

Make sure you offer employees a clear choice

With lockdown restrictions being lifted, employers across the UK are planning their return to normality. “Some seem to be offering assigned days on which staff who wish to can continue working from home. Others seem to be downsizing their office space, setting up smaller ‘hubs’ to be used only for meetings or creative sessions. A small minority have even spoken about closing their offices entirely,” Duff says.

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Whatever a business decides to do, it’s essential to be clear with employees. Offering workers a choice to work remotely is a great idea, but it needs to be a genuine offer — and not an opportunity only afforded to a lucky few.

“Likewise, leaders need to be aware of the example that they set. If you offer the opportunity to work from home but continue to spend every day in the office, it’s inevitable that team members will worry about how it will be perceived if they don’t follow suit,” Duff says. “Be clear about the boundaries that you’re setting and the freedoms that your staff are genuinely allowed.”

Be wary of excluding remote workers

When a team is split between office workers and remote workers, those that aren’t physically present can be quickly forgotten. It’s not just the big decisions that they may be left out of, but little ones too.

“Consider a team meeting, in which your colleagues have gathered in the office but you’re dialling in by phone. You’ll have to work considerably harder to make your voice heard than if you were there too,” Duff explains. “You can’t read their facial expressions or body language. Even if you’re attending via teleconference, it’ll be harder to engage with the group than if you were there in person.”

This same logic has potential to cause long-term trouble too. When managers can’t see their whole teams, they’ll often give preferential treatment to those that they trust most — even if they don’t do it intentionally. “They’ll be more likely to give stretch opportunities or even to assign promotions to those who have already made it into their inner circle,” Duff adds.

Communicate well

One of the greatest barriers to effective remote working is a mainstream tendency to over rely on email. During lockdown though, many of us have been getting to grips instead with much more effective communication tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

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“Chatting by video might have been novel during the first few weeks of lockdown, but if remote working is to remain the norm, we mustn’t let that novelty wear off,” Duff says. “Email is a great tool for communicating facts and figures but hearing someone say something is very different to reading it.”

In fact, a 2017 study by the University of Waterloo, Canada and Cornell University suggests that while ditching meetings in favour of email chains and Slack channels may free up our schedules, we may be underestimating the usefulness of direct communication.

“The strongest communication requires you to hear the tone of someone’s voice and to see their facial expressions,” Duff says. “When there isn’t the option to simply catch up over the desk, our productivity and our team morale depend on us picking up the phone — or, perhaps, turning on the webcam — and actually speaking to each other.”