At the end of 2020, what have we learned about remote work so far?


Reactive Remote Work

Covid19 hit the economy at the beginning of the year, disrupting many strategies and plans. The world responded by working flexible and remotely to limit the loss of productivity and guarantee the safety of the employees.


Yet there are severe local differences in the Benelux. In Belgium for instance, 11% of employees was working remotely during Covid19, says SERV research during the first wave. According to the numbers of our member Attentia, 25% of “white collar” employees was working remote during the first wave. I also found a TechPulse inquiry for their Belgian audience that had a generous 75% outcome which proves numbers can be relative.


Before Covid19 this general number of remote workers was about 7-8%, so it will probably depend on various factors. SERV concludes that for 60% of all jobs in Belgium it would be impossible to work remotely. Yet that still leaves a theoretical 40% of jobs where it could be possible to work remote – and a 29% potential productivity to be gained. So, the question for Belgian organizations and companies is not whether to roll out remote work or not, it is where to roll out remote work. They better make it fast too, because The Netherlands already are much more adopted to remote work and can show better numbers for it too (from 20 to an actual 40%), depending on the job level and expertise.


Unless there is still belief that things will get back to Normal, the learnings we had by suddenly implementing remote work in 2020 can only improve the further experience and productivity in 2021 (and beyond). Covid19 was an eye opener for those who did not believe in change, for those who held on to ancient ways of working or for those who never experienced the need of organizational agility and flexibility.


Not only did local retail shops face the 20-year lag they had against e-commerce stores like Bol.com or Zalando when they (finally) decided to add a web shop to their website. Other companies and organizations experienced the same kind of lag on another level, with a customer or employee focus, or in worst case both.

Therefor Covid19 has put HR Tech in pole position to offer solutions in remote hiring or managing the workforce. Moreover, technologies that offered support in engagement or productivity were exactly where they wanted to be: in the spotlight. Actually, the entire HR Tech Market gained a lot of attention in 2020.


The world has taken a turn towards digital and there is no way back now that the majority has tasted its benefits. Let us face it, vaccine or no vaccine, going back to Normal is not going to happen anymore. Call it a Hybrid Normal or a New Normal, fact is that constant change and flexibility will always be part of the program and so does the digital evolution.


Benefits of Remote Work


Lowered business expenses

According to the Global Workplace Analytics Telework Savings Calculator, a single company can annually save $11,000 per remote worker who telecommutes 50% of the time. Remote-enabled companies can save money on the costs associated with onsite business operations like office space, equipment, and travel reimbursement. Depending on the size of your business, this could equal significant savings without radically changing your company structure. As a bonus, the entire carbon footprint of the organization will improve.


Access to more diverse candidates

Remote work removes geographic obstacles separating employers from the best applicants for their vacancies by eliminating hiring limits and crossing borders. Eventually it will lead to a more diverse workforce. Recruiting has become fully digital and remote selection is perfectly possible in a virtual environment. This new approach prioritizes aptitude, widens the hiring net, and allows employers to mitigate skills gaps that may be present in their immediate area.



Increased Productivity & Retention

Remote workers are not lazy pseudo-professionals without real jobs. In fact, people who work remote have shown to be more productive than employees who work in an office all day. The increased efficiency of working remote is linked to have the autonomy to work during more productive hours with reduced workplace distractions. The 2020 Airtasker survey report of 1,004 workers’ daily habits proves this increase in efficiency and stated that while remote employees spent more time taking breaks throughout the workday, they also devoted more time on work tasks.

According to Mom corp research, remote work is one of the most desired offerings employers can extend to job seekers, so much so that employees would even take a salary cut to have more flexible work options from their employers. On top of that, Owl research tells us that remote workers are 13% more likely to stay at their job over an extended period.


Challenges


Wellbeing & engagement

Working remote during Covid19 is not the same as working at the office. The wellbeing of employees becomes a concern for organizations as the work-life balance suddenly becomes a work-life blend. Where one combats the loneliness of working without the presence of coworkers, the other fights with the kids to be quiet during a videoconference. Nevertheless, staying connected, engaged, and productive got a whole new dimension.

As this was and still is a though period to continue productivity, new ailments pop up like Zoom-fatigue where it seems to be very tiring to have full days of video-meetings. Even a couple of video-meetings and/or webinars a day could cause “Zoom fatigue”, isolating employees even more in their struggle for an effective work-life blend.

In this change process, Employee (and company) wellbeing surely is a justified priority on the short term that will exceed the “feel good” factor and dives into deeper drivers to keep people engaged.


Knowledge & skills

Organizations who are facing a disruptive change towards whatever a New Normal could look like often do not have all the necessary skills or knowledge to do so. The solution is not merely implementing Employee Experience Platforms, Collaboration Tools, Mobile Learning applications and/or Wellbeing solutions.

Even with the perfect digital support, the lack of skills or knowledge can put people behind in the change process, making them less productive, motivated, or informed. A decent short-term strategy is needed before considering digital solutions for any challenge.

Yet with the speed remote work was rolled out there is not always enough time to consider things well, so we need to learn along the way.

For instance: knowledge transfers not only happen inside classrooms, at webinars, by an app or by reading an e-book. Most company knowledge (and sense of culture) is required during “small talk”, i.e., at the so called “coffee corner”. It might be a bit exaggerated to call the coffee machine a cornerstone of any organization. Yet working remote mostly exists in having isolated and formal conversations, with little room for small talk.

“There is far little interaction between peers than before COVID-19. Because of this decrease in interaction “connectors” receive less information and motivation to interact with other silo’s inside the organization. Eventually we see a decrease in company knowledge and/or sense of its culture, if nothing is done about it.” - Michael Arena (VP Talent & Development at Amazon Web Services)

Performance Management & Leadership

Microsoft launched it is 365 admin analytics dashboard, any authority can observe the personal performance of an employee. Ethically this would never be considered wrong when this wase done with only one goal in mind: enabling the wellbeing of the employee. Yet in this case, it depends on the admin whether the goal is to enable wellbeing or… control the staff by spying on them. Three days after the launch Microsoft adjusted its settings because of the comments about ethics.

Why control and register productivity when one has the authority to support the process and valuate the outcome? That is something to consider now “Trust” – data privacy and data ownership will become a keyword in employee relationships.


Eventually, the way leaders deal with remote staff will become a part of the company culture and the employer brand. Research has thought us that most Employees feel like using company software is like registering performance and thereby they feel controlled.

That same staff does not complain when Google Maps or Waze knows where they went, what way they took, what transportation they used, what they visited. Online and offline! Why? Because they pretend to help the user by offering an easy way to get from A to B. The difference is that employees do not feel like registering something when they use a route planner, it helps them and by doing so it gathers all the data it needs.


Maybe that same approach is something to think about when strategizing about digital solutions. The end-user experience is important, and this end user needs to be educated, informed, and engaged to be productive. Why not break down productivity and measure KPI’s that matter instead of time spent?


Conclusion

To evolve further towards a hybrid remote workforce that is informed, connected, engaged and productive, we need leaders who enable the potential of their staff and not solely control its performance. The return on investment of evolving further towards that hybrid and semi-autonomous workforce is much bigger than the status quo.

Considering the wellbeing, the skills and knowledge and the overall performance of the employee, the digital solutions and how they are being used will not only serve business outcomes. They will also become an extension of the organization’s leadership and Employer Brand.


The question for 2021 will be if organizations are ready to engage themselves to enable their employee’s productivity and teach their staff the minimum number of skills to keep on target. Will they at least make a decent effort to develop an informed, connected, and productive staff for the future - now they need it more than ever?


Written by Hans Mangelschots - Business Manager and HR Tech Market Analyst at HR Tech Valley

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