Remote working as a new normal

Published 2020-08-25 10:53:15
Designed by master1305 / Freepik

Working from home has widely spread across the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Most experts consider that even when companies were reluctant in the past to allow remote working, they will quickly recognise the advantage of this flexibility, both in term of productivity, but also saving costs.

Paul, who works for an asset management firm in London, explains: "For us 3 days in the office will be the new norm, with one day where everyone should be there at the same time and 2 days working from home each week, even when the pandemic ends". In Paris, an employee at the media company SFR said: "Before the pandemic, it was already one day remotely each week. During the lockdown, everyone in our department was working from home and for now on, our team has been divided with 1 week working completly remotely and 4 days in the office the second week in rota".

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the work habit of many companies. In the current period, nobody would hear the senior manager telling a staff member: "You cannot work from home that day as it is not in the culture of the company" (true statement heard in 2007, from the IT director of a large French bank). The new norm is more likely to be: sorry, you cannot go to the office due to the covid-19 restrictions!

DIY installation during the lockdown

First of all, working from home is only a possibility for part of the workforce. Many jobs still required to go to a workplace, even during the lockdown period: think about doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, bus and train drivers, cleaners, etc... In the case of those who had to switch nearly instantly in remote working, many companies discovered that what they thought being completely unfeasible, was working pretty well actually. Julie, who has been working for a weekly magazine in Paris for more than a decade said: "Before March, we always thought that making the magazine remotely was impossible. And now we have been doing that every week for 4 months!".

While northern European countries (and Scandinavian countries first) have been used for a very long time to allow workers to connect remotely, with a flexible approach to work, rigidity has caracterised southern Europe until very recently. In countries such as Sweden (33%), Iceland or the United Kingdom, around 25% of employees often worked from home before the crisis whilst the figure stands below 3% in Spain (and only 7% have tried in total) or 1.2% in Italy according to Eurostat data.

El Confidencial, an online Spanish newspaper founded in 2001, writes:

"The culture of ‘presenteeism’, sitting in the same seat for the same number of hours each week, being there when your boss arrives and when they go home, is the main reason for telework’s lack of success in Spain."

In their article, they quote an employee working in online marketing in Spain saying:

"I asked if we could do it recently, but the boss sees telework as a holiday. The mentality of the last century, of having us all under control in the same place, still persists."

Most of the companies were still banishing completely working from home before 2020 while a minority put some timid scheme in place with one or 2 days a months for those who volunteered, for example. BNP London had a flexi space, but no flexi work, meaning that the adjective was only appplicable to the fact that no-one had their definite desk (first come first served in the morning). Flexible working was still not in the company "culture" in 2019.

Therefore one can easily imagine the tremendous effort that was required to get everyone able to work from home in a matter of days from mid-march. The vast majority of the employees were not equiped, even without talking about the fact that most of them did not have a dedicated space in their home to be able to work: during the first few weeks, many kitchen or dinning table were commandeered !

Management was also disturbed as some of them found themselves lacking purpose. Howard, head manager in an software company in London, explains:

"When people work remotely, you need to change the usual office workflow: you cannot go around the desks, see what your staff is doing, interrupt them every so often to ask something...etc. Instead you need to define precise tasks, monitor progress regularly (but not to much as it could be counter-productive) and review achievements and predicaments".

Less than half of employees eager to return to office

Aviva, an insurance company, published a study on British employees returning to work. In their survey more than 2,000 employed UK adults were asked about their attitude towards returning to work. Of these, 42% spent lockdown working from home, 26% continued to work in their usual place of business, 21% were furloughed and 6% continued to work in different locations in a key trade (e.g., plumber, electrician, etc.). A further 5% were not working and not on furlough.

Aviva claims that, while coronavirus has affected everyone in different ways depending on a number of factors including age, industry, and geography (for example, only 29% of 16 – 24 year olds said they were concerned about the risk of being infected by colleagues, compared to 44% across all age groups and with those over 55 most concerned – 49%):

"the biggest concern facing young people returning to work is confusion and a lack of communication over social distancing (39%). Underscoring the importance of communication, young people were also the most critical of communication from their employer, with just 14% rating communication with their employer as ‘excellent’ – well below the average response of 25% who rated employer communication as ‘excellent’."

It is noticeable that less than half (49%) workers feel positive about a return to work. While the lockdown period might have affected the motivation of some employees (21% of young employed people said the changes under lockdown affected their happiness, while only 7% of employees over 55 were said that the lockdown had impact on their mental health), others enjoyed the flexibility and the time gained by avoiding long commutes.

The survey found also that 61% of those returning to work believe their employer will make the work environment safe to return to, but it also shows that many businesses still have a long way to go to fully comply with the UK government’s five point plan for safely returning to work and being Covid-Secure, including Covid-19 risk assessment, social distancing and cleaning.

Preparing the workplace for returning employees

Before the pandemic crisis, Aviva published a study claiming that 4 million UK workers were already working from home (without preventing itself with the comment of "working in their pyjamas"!). Graham Major, who owns and runs GJM Talent, a recruitment consulting, told them:

"As an employer, if you offer flexibility, your talent pool will be bigger – you can attract more people. You’re also keeping your costs down slightly. For example, how many desks do you need? Workers are happier, slightly more rested, pay less for travel and more productive. And employees tend to be more motivated and feel more loyalty towards their employer."

A recent survey from the chartered institute of personnel and development (CIPD) shows that, while many organisations will shift their focus on enabling employees to return to the workplace in the coming weeks and months, many workers are concerned:

  • 44% are anxious about returning to work, rising to 62% for those with an underlying health condition.
  • 53% with increased caring responsibilities are anxious about returning.
  • 31% of respondents felt anxious about their commute, rising to 52% for those in London.

The survey claims that "flexibility, wellbeing, health and safety are priorities for organisations as they reopen their workplaces. [Their] findings highlight that it’s imperative to take into account individual circumstances, such as existing health conditions, how people get to work, and care responsibilities."

A long term incorporation into new company work habits

CIPD plans itself to have 37% of their staff working from home after the pandemic crisis, against 18% before. As we said at the beginning of this article, some other companies in the UK are already thinking about a mix of 3 days in the office and 2 days from home, or vice and versa.

In Germany, according to Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, a research organization, 42% of German companies which took part of their survey published in July have decided to extend the possibility of remote working. Allianz, the insurance company based in Munich published a statement that will now have permanent consequences for the entire group with its around 150,000 employees worldwide: they expects that in the long term up to “40% of employees will work from home”. “But a higher number is also possible”, said Allianz board member Christof Mascher the Handelsblatt. At Siemens, employees will be able to work from home three days a week in future.

Same trend in the high-tech sector in the US, as Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg said in May that the pandemic has triggered a profound shift towards remote working and he expects that in ten years around every second employee of the online network will work outside the office.

Still resistance in some countries

In Italy, a survey conducted in May 2020 investigated the reasons why people were not working from home before the lockdown. It was found that companies' policies were the main reason, with almost 65% of the respondents indicating a ban on remote working as the cause for not working from home. However habits are still difficult to loose: Milan's town hall has asked most of its employees to come back to work in their offices since the end of the lockdown in May.

The future of working

Companies are already thinking about the future of working, post covid-19 crisis. And a many questions arise: What equipement will be required? How to know colleagues we will be working with and get the "team-spirit" that was praised before? Do they still need the same amount of office-space if staff is partly working from home? Is everyone able/willing to work from home or should they offer some flexible alternative such as shared space and satellite offices (some companies offer already coworking space such as Regus, WeWork or Spaces)? And more importantly, what should be changed or reinforced in the employement law to regulate the new ways of working?

According to an evaluation by the Center for European Economic Research (ZEW), many companies in Germany (including in industry) want to stick to the home office after the corona crisis. The German head of the management consultancy Bain & Company, Walter Sinn, assumes that in the future 20 to 30 percent of office workplaces in Germany will be superfluous. At Allianz, they said that around 30 percent of office space will probably no longer be needed in the long term. According to the management, even 50 percent of the travel costs could be saved. However, while locations have to be checked, the main thing is the equipment, said a board member of the insurance company.

In France, employment law has provided a regulatory framework for remote working since 2017, preconising an agreement with the employees' unions, or, in its absence, with an addition to the work contract. The employee has a choice and remote working cannot be imposed (except for exceptional circumstances such as the current pandemic). A time frame must also be defined and appropriate equipment must be provided.

Most importantly, in order for remote working to be successful, employers need to view work as a series of projects rather than a series of hours. As a manager used to remote working in the marketing industry put it: “Realistically, I don’t care if it takes you six hours or eight. In the end, it’s the finished product that matters”. 

Share your experience, participate in the discussion and leave comments in our forum HERE.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Pinterest WhatsApp Addthis

Work & Business

Author: Cyrilexpat
French & British national
CEO Habilis Digital Ltd

For other discussions, advice, question, point of view, get together, etc...: please use the forum.

More articles

- My Life Abroad -
A selection of expat stories

"A fun compulsive read!"
J. Matcham, Amazon

"I strongly advise people ready to live abroad to read this book!"
Patrice, Amazon