The dramatic and unexpected increase in remote work is one of the biggest impacts Covid has had on the business world. According to Gartner, the percentage of remote workers worldwide will reach 32% by the end of 2021, up from 19% in 2019.
Remote work in 2020: an unexpected large-scale organisational experiment
I remember conversations with several colleagues in early 2020 in which they asked me for advice on trying remote work at their organisations. More than size or industry, they were concerned about whether they were culturally prepared and wanted to do a pilot test.
When the ‘black swan’ of Covid hit, they were left with no choice but to implement remote work arrangements within a matter of weeks, quickly, suddenly and on a massive scale. Today, a year and a half into the pandemic, it is worth reflecting on the future of remote work after the shock of 2020.
Keys to successful remote work… before and after the pandemic
Studies have shown that effective remote work is not about the number of days spent working from home but other more important factors: inspiring leadership, a culture of delegation and personal responsibility, maturity and mutual trust between management and employees, implementation and good use of technology, appropriate work-life balance, etc.
These are the solid pillars needed for remote work to generate its potential benefits: high productivity, a good level of employee commitment, a high degree of flexibility, etc.
Covid has encouraged hybrid work with variable percentages of 30-60%, although in other (today rare) cases, it has led to fully remote working arrangements with total flexibility regarding place of residence within the tax jurisdiction.
Although this 100% virtual model is no doubt valid in some contexts and cultures, I believe a hybrid approach would be better for our new normal with regard to work. An approach that retains some recurring personal contact and thus strengthens emotional ties and encourages interactions that add value and the generation of ideas in formal and informal conversations and meetings.
Conclusions regarding remote work in 2020: a model that works even when adopted ‘by force’
- An overwhelming majority of workers responded very favourably to working from home, despite the fact that they had no choice and, in many cases, faced the additional challenge of working with other family members in the house. This demonstration of commitment and responsibility indicates that ‘traditional remote work’ will be well received and a win-win in the long term for both companies and employees.
- This disruption has exposed a latent need and opportunity to increase flexibility, hybrid work and new technologies to optimise time and omni-channel communication.
In short, remote working works and it is here to stay. It has proved to be a solid, constantly evolving model, at both veteran organisations (some with more than 10 years of experience) and newer ones.
Flexible living: the opportunity to go beyond traditional remote work
At pioneering companies, the focus is no longer on the percentage of time spent working from home, whether it should be done on fixed days each week or how best to regulate it. The debate is over how to make even better use of the benefits of remote work.
The drive for continuous improvement is leading these companies to embrace greater flexibility, in the belief that it will mean additional progress in terms of competitiveness and employee commitment. They are taking a step forward in flexibility and efficiency, beyond traditional remote work.
Today, they are preparing to push for something more powerful: ‘flexible living’. A trend also supported by many employees, who see it as a natural and very positive evolution in how they work.
What are the differentiating premises of flexible living?
- A new way of working to boost four key aspects of efficiency: collaborating, communicating, creating and focus. Different channels and locations with a common goal: finding the optimal way to deliver results and generate interpersonal connections with internal and external clients.
- Employees take the lead in organising their schedules and dynamically choose the best place to work depending on the type of work to be done that day and their needs.
- Work spaces and hours are fluid. Employees can work anywhere suited to the purpose, since people matter more than offices. Schedules are very flexible and based on personal responsibility and autonomy to enhance productivity and work-life balance.
- The organisational culture is one of trust, innovation and sustainability. Trust: places the focus on evidence or data rather than surveillance, assumptions or biases. Innovation: promotes diversity and encourages new ideas to emerge through flatter, more agile organisations. Sustainability: significantly reduces emissions by minimising travel.
The flexible living model reinforces what we learned during the pandemic. In those months, we realised that the key was not remote work but trust, as Xavier Marcet so aptly reflected.
Let us take advantage of this ‘trust capital’ to assess whether our organisations are ready and whether it makes sense to move towards flexible living today or in the medium term. It is an important decision and one for which we can learn from pioneering companies that have already embarked on this journey.
This article has also been published in Do Better by ESADE, 25 October 2021