Remote work is used to describe any work that doesn’t require you to travel to an office.
The term covers people who work from home, whether that’s a couple of days a week or full-time. According to the Global Workplace Survey 2019, flexible working covers this too, but includes a third feature:
- Working from a different city or country
- Working from home
- Working with no fixed hours
You’ll often find the terms flexible and remote working used interchangeably, and companies will vary hugely in what they offer their employees. Some might allow you to work from home once a week; others might have all staff working in different cities. However you work, it’s impossible to ignore how much workplace flexibility has improved.
This guide focuses on remote workers who are based in their own home, and the unique challenges this presents. It’s become a more popular way of working as there are plenty of benefits for both employers and employees.
- You don’t waste time or money travelling to an office.
- You can schedule your work around family life.
- It can have a significant impact on your quality of life.
But it’s not always easy, especially if you have to adjust from the traditional 9-5 in an office environment.
How coronavirus has affected our working routines
When the government announced we’d be going into lockdown on the 23rd March 2020, workplaces had to adjust quickly. The British public could only go out if necessary, for food, medication or exercise. Unless your job was critical to the coronavirus response or you were a critical worker, you’d be working from home for the foreseeable future.
Amidst a lot of confusion, businesses and employees needed to adapt quickly to carry on working and provide the same services as before. For many, working from home was completely new. But it was to be the norm for a while as lockdown required us to stay home.
It wasn’t until 10th May that some measures would begin to be lifted in England, allowing those who couldn’t work from home to go back to work. This included people in construction or manufacturing roles. Employees were encouraged to travel to work by driving, walking or cycling and avoid public transport where possible.
And employers were working with government advice to create safe workplaces. For example, many were urged to implement staggered working hours to reduce any risks.
As more measures were lifted, including non-essential shops opening from 15th June, more people returned to work. Many workers were still based in their homes. Many office or desk jobs just don’t require people to work from an office, so it’s been safer for them to stay at home for as long as possible.
Throughout the pandemic, it’s been clear a return to normal will be slow. Many people are hoping there could be permanent changes in the way we work.
In one poll of 1,000 UK employees working from home because of the pandemic (but who aren’t typically allowed to or do so no more than once per week on average):
There’s a lot to be positive about with how companies who are new to remote working have handled the change. Considering how quick the transformation had to be, and the technological and cultural challenges, many businesses deserve credit for their adaptability under the pressure. But all of this makes the following stats more surprising:
Of course, it’s great to be optimistic about remote working being here to stay. The pandemic will have impacted the way we think about work in the years to come. But there’s a real possibility companies will fall back into old habits, reinforced by many respondents predicting their employers will move away from the changes created.
There are some legacy industries that might struggle with the infrastructure and logistical changes needed to handle a significant change to remote working – for example, accountancy. But there are plenty of companies, including any at the forefront of digitalisation, which can build flexibility into the way they work.
The general message is that while it’s tempting to claim flexible working will be the new normal after COVID-19, it’s not that simple. Providing all remote employees with a productive workplace is a complicated task for organisations.
After all, working from home during the coronavirus pandemic has been an experience which many employees have found stressful too.
So why do many of us find it hard?
Well, it has been a challenging time in general. Trying to work through a global pandemic brings its own stresses, but there are aspects of working from home which would be a challenge post-COVID. For example, interruptions from those you live with or getting the right work set-up. It’s an adjustment that has to be considered by both employer and employee.
A history of remote working
The idea of remote working has been around for some time. Back in the early 1970s, technological innovation meant that, for the first time, networked computers could be installed in an employee’s home.
Many claimed it would revolutionise modern businesses. It became known as teleworking and promised to:
There was a lot to be excited about.
Less commuting would mean less dependence on fossil fuels. It offered new opportunities to families with young children, who could work flexibly. And some people even thought communities of home workers would breathe new life into local neighbourhoods.
But it wasn’t all positive.
There was a lot of skepticism about whether employers would just use teleworking as an excuse to cut wages and change workers’ rights. For example, teleworkers were often hired as self-employed contractors, which meant employers didn’t have to pay for pensions, sick pay or maternity leave.
Some companies tried to avoid these practices being called into question with tactics such as offering loans to teleworkers for the purchase of computers. It’s little surprise that some claim these early forms of non-standard employment played a part in fostering the problems with our present-day gig economy.
There was also the problem with many managers that still exists today. There were many who adopted teleworking reluctantly, and it showed in how they treated teleworkers. As managers couldn’t directly supervise employees, they tended to focus on ‘deliverables’. Workers got paid based on their results and the privilege of teleworking was only given to people who were the right fit. The criteria for judging that was pretty obscure.
It was something of a rocky start for remote working. Decades later, it’s still a mixed bag. As technology and understanding improved, some companies continued to explore the potential of having staff at home. Many workers took it upon themselves to create a schedule that worked for them, going freelance or setting up as self-employed to be in control of their working routine.
While you do hear about companies with loads of flexibility and employee perks such as unlimited holiday, it’s not the norm for everyone. But times are changing. Whether you agree that COVID-19 has been a driving force or not, there’s a lot to be excited about.
The benefits of working remotely
It’s little surprise that for most people, it’s control over their own schedule, potentially giving them more free time to do what they want – including spending time with family.
The perks of remote or flexible working might be different for everyone. For example, someone with a family may choose to start work earlier and finish in time to do the school run. Someone else may use the time to hit the gym when it’s quieter. But there are some common themes for everyone – remote working can save you time and money, which opens up other opportunities.
Overcoming common misconceptions
Some people still remain sceptical of remote working.
You can say all you like about money saved, or increased staff motivation, but it’s hard to shift some people’s preference for a traditional working style. There seems to be some insistence on presenteeism, where someone should be at their place of work to confirm they’re doing their job. It all seems to stem from insecurities from suspicious managers.
We’re so used to judging what people are doing by simply counting bums in seats, rather than output, that remote working can seem a bit daunting – for both employees and employers. After all, who wants their boss checking in on them all the time? It’s not a nice feeling.
Indeed, trust is one of the biggest things holding the wider adoption of remote work back. But just because someone is in an office and their manager can see them, it doesn’t mean they’re working effectively. Micromanaging has never worked. You’re much better judging what someone has been up to by their results, not their presence, and that can be seen from wherever they are.
But it also manifests in employees, who even put aside their mental and physical health to attend work, one study showed.
Empowering employees to deliver, rather than controlling them with location and hours, can actually improve productivity.
Numerous studies and surveys have proved this. For example:
Other people do go to the office, but not many out of choice:
No stress from a commute, no distracting office politics or interruptions from colleagues. There are plenty of reasons managers should believe remote workers can be productive workers. That said, employers are responsible for creating an environment where employees can thrive. This includes clear direction and potentially performance indicators or results that are in place to show how they’re achieving.
There’s also the reality that not all industries can embrace remote working. Many industries require people to be in a working environment for the job to get done – for example, hospitality or healthcare.
This guide was provided by Cotswold Co.
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