Leadership and the Impact of Long-Term Remote Working
Many businesses are extending their work from home schemes, and some may switch at least part of their workforce to permanent remote working. While this has many potential benefits for employees and businesses, it also has some downsides. Not all employees enjoy home working; for some, it can be a lonely and distressing experience. Managing remote teams can also be a daunting challenge for businesses. Lack of face-to-face supervision and ensuring the wellbeing of the workforce are amongst the many challenges that managers of newly remote teams face. Effective leadership is essential if businesses are to survive and grow through the economic difficulties that we will all face post-lockdown.
Enterprises extend remote working
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, for many companies worldwide, the trend to remote working had been gathering pace. However, for many, there had been little time to prepare for home working before lockdown. For such businesses, the learning curve has been steep. While the initial focus was on crisis management and business continuity, new challenges such as employee wellbeing have emerged, and these must be addressed appropriately. On the other hand, employers and employees have discovered numerous advantages of remote working, including reduced costs and improved work-life balance. Many enterprises are extending remote working beyond the lockdown period, and some are doing so into the foreseeable future. Of the latter, the Japanese technology multinational Fujitsu is one of the leaders.
Fujitsu is launching a remote working programme it calls “Work-Life Shift” which, it says, will be a new way of working where employees will enjoy a “more empowering, productive, and creative experience”. Commuting to and from the office will become a thing of the past. The company plans to halve its office space by 2022 and will instead use a hot desk system. The new work paradigm encompasses three core principles:
- Smart working – 80,000 Fujitsu employees will work remotely adopting a working style that allows them to use their time flexibly depending on their work content, business role and lifestyle.
- Borderless office – employees can choose to work from home or a hub or satellite office.
- Culture change – the company will develop a new management style based on trust and employee autonomy that maximises productivity, team performance, and employee wellbeing.
Many other companies are adopting similar models. Google and Facebook announced that most employees can work from home until 2021, and there is a consensus that remote working could become a permanent feature of corporate life. In the UK, 82 per cent of businesses are considering extending their work-from-home schemes after lockdown has ended, with 65 per cent planning to reduce their office space. Some SMEs have abandoned their office space permanently, and all their staff will work from home.
Impact on recruitment
Remote working has a significant impact on recruitment. It means that enterprises are no longer limited to recruiting talent from any specific geographical region. They can recruit from almost anywhere in the world. It also makes it easier to upscale and downscale a business by hiring freelancers and on-demand specialists.
The ability to work from home allows enterprises to attract top-quality candidates whose family and other commitments would have previously precluded them from working at your location. By choosing candidates from different time zones, companies can make better use of valuable assets, improve response times, and maintain round-the-clock working on essential projects.
The risks of remote working
A significant challenge for remote teams is maintaining team cohesion. While most of us now have extensive experience with video conferencing programs such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, remote meetings do not compensate fully for human-to-human contact. Some people are much better than others at speaking up at virtual meetings; the more reticent people can find it challenging to get a word in. Differences that tend to be smoothed out in real meetings are amplified in a virtual setting. In such circumstances, collaboration is difficult, conflicts arise, and teams begin to fall apart.
Remote working, mental health, and wellbeing
Working from home can have a detrimental impact on mental health, even in less stressful times. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions reported that 41 per cent of employees who work from home experience stress, almost twice as many as those who work in the office. COVID-19 adds an extra dimension to this. We are all are affected by the pandemic; we think and feel differently about both the world and us. It is a lot to take in, and not everybody can cope readily with such changes.
Effective leadership has never been as important. Leaders have a special responsibility for the wellbeing of their workforce. They must recognise that some people are more vulnerable than others. These include people with protected characteristics and others facing possible discrimination. Anyone with pre-existing or historical problems with mental health faces additional challenges; staying at home may exacerbate conditions such as depression.
Senior managers are also vulnerable. Expected to demonstrate extraordinary leadership in such difficult circumstances, many are feeling the strain to such an extent that it is affecting their mental health. Overwork and burnout are significant problems. Everyone needs support. Simple steps include maintaining daily contact with line managers, supervisors, and the general workforce. People need to know who to contact should they have wellbeing or mental health problems. Businesses should provide access to appropriate mental health resources. If you do not have a wellbeing champion, there is a strong case for appointing one.
It seems unlikely that the world will return to traditional working patterns where employees commute each day to and from their workplace. For much of the population, the workplace will be their home. The advantages are enormous. Costs are lower, employees have more time to call their own, and flexible working potentially offers a better work-life balance along with higher productivity and greater satisfaction. There are also advantages to recruitment, with businesses having access to an almost global talent pool.
But there are challenges. Not everyone can adapt readily to the lack of face-to-face contact; some employees require extensive support through these difficult times. Mental health and wellbeing are significant issues we must address. Effective leadership is essential if we are to survive unscathed as we reach the promised land of permanently working from home.