The human costs of working from anywhere
How organisations and people can manage key challenges of remote working
Co-authored with Dr Chris Merritt
In February, Swedish tech giant Spotify unveiled a new, hyper-remote working model, which they dubbed ‘Work from anywhere’. Other big companies — many also in the technology sector, like Facebook, Microsoft and Fujitsu — have announced similar plans to make remote working arrangements permanent once covid lockdowns end. Most organisational experts believe that the hybrid workplace (a split between office-based and remote working) is the future, especially in the knowledge economy.
On the face of it, remote working seems like a win-win, both for organisations and for their employees. Companies can reduce office costs, expand their pool of talent, and bolster their appeal among potential applicants. Workers continue to enjoy the flexibility around when, where and how they work, eliminating stressful commutes and enabling them to relocate away from crowded, polluted, expensive cities.
Amid all this excitement, though, one question is not being asked enough: what is remote working costing us?
At the business end of things
Firms are already experiencing the following organisational challenges with the model:
- Employee entitlement: Remote working is producing a generation of employees who now demand total flexibility in their working lives — creating a sense of entitlement and expectations which organisations will need to manage. If the best candidate for the job you’re advertising will only work from a beach hut on a Pacific island, five time zones away from your New York office, but demand a US salary, do you hire them? If they receive a US salary, should they pay US or local taxes, and whose labour laws protect them? Remote-working status fosters a perception of independence, and staff can begin to behave like consultants, picking and choosing what they do and when they do it.
- Weakened organisational culture: The ‘culture’ of a firm comprises many aspects that cannot be observed or measured directly; what former MIT Professor Edgar Schein calls ‘intangible assets’. Typically, culture is learned by social interaction between employees in shared spaces. And it’s extremely valuable to an organisation — culture is the essence of what it means to work somewhere, and how things are done there. Today, it’s not uncommon for new employees never to have met any of their co-workers face to face, or even to have been to the office. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has spoken of the ‘alienation’ of a cadre of younger staff, while Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon described the loss of the bank’s apprenticeship culture. The serendipity, spontaneity and wellbeing benefits of human contact are lost, along with all the creativity and buzz of the crowd that accompanies shared activity with others, offline.
- Questionable productivity: Being under the same roof fosters levels of accountability and transparency that remote working struggles to match. Pre-covid, several studies showed more counterproductive work behaviours — like cyberslacking — occur when employees worked from home. Since the pandemic started, many organisations have seen falls in productivity, mainly due to lower-quality IT infrastructure and limited technical support for staff at home. A much-cited 2013 study, indicating that remote working boosted productivity, was based on data from a Chinese call-centre, with workers who had no children and high-speed broadband. And a major reason for their higher number of calls? Shorter lunch breaks. Overall, the research on productivity and remote working is mixed, and dependent on activity, technology and personality. One size doesn’t fit all — and a recent report by McKinsey suggested a task-dependent split of home and on-site work was optimal for productivity.
- Poorer security: remote working poses all manner of challenges with the secure transmission of data, including personally and commercially sensitive information. It also raises legal issues around who can access what, and where they can access it — with potentially huge fines and reputational damage for organisations who get it wrong. The same goes for companies’ controversial attempts to monitor their remote staff through software and activity metrics. Weak, remote IT systems are a cyber-attacker’s dream, and phishing scams have multiplied in the last year as hackers seek to exploit firms’ reliance on electronic communications in the absence of face-to-face business.
All work and no play
And it’s not all good news for workers, either. Data show employees can also find remote working problematic:
- Blurred work-life boundaries: While remote working advocates hail it as the new ‘integration of work and life’, blurred boundaries between the two can do more harm than good. When do you start and stop work? If you chose to begin at 8am, should you still be available at 8pm for that colleague who structures their daily work schedule around doing daytime childcare, or the busy manager who emails at night when they’re no longer in meetings? Work starts to intrude into our home life, and our home life intrudes into work, creating a more intense conflict between them than exists with geographical separation — where work is work, then you leave and go home. Surveys by IES, Aviva, Airtasker and Blind, among others, have found a significant proportion of workers believe their work-life balance has deteriorated after going remote, mainly due to longer working hours and gender inequity in home management and childcare. And poor work-life balance is associated with worse mental health.
- Commuting time spent working: The most frequently cited benefit of remote working is not having to commute. However, data from a Financial Times survey suggests that people are spending one third of their commuting time, on average, working extra hours for no additional pay. Much of the remaining ‘saved’ time is spend on admin, chores and childcare — where responsibilities fall disproportionately on women. Meanwhile, for some, not commuting reduces their level of exercise (even a walk to the bus stop or train station), valuable thinking time, and space to decompress from work before getting home. The change of scenery and activity provided by travelling to work can also be a source of wellbeing — though we may not realise that until it’s gone.
- Death by video call: Few of us have escaped that essential tool of remote work, the video call. However, the apparent convenience of the virtual meeting hides a multitude of problems. We’ve all been on that awkward call with the colleague who’s lying on his bed, in his pyjamas. But that erosion of professionalism is the tip of the iceberg. Video calls fundamentally change the way we communicate. We lose the richness of face-to-face interaction, the spontaneity and intuitive responses. We’re constantly distracted by our own video feed on screen, and can be hyper-self-aware, which is mentally exhausting. More worryingly for workplace equality, a recent survey by Catalyst discovered that many women find it even harder to make contributions when meetings are virtual rather than in-person.
A blueprint for success?
Perhaps understandably, given all of these downsides, some are explicitly rejecting the work-from-anywhere model. The CEOs of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have both strongly advocated a return to office work, citing the benefits of in-person interaction, as well as concerns about staff health and isolation if remote working becomes the primary mode of operating. A WEF survey found that nearly four in five business leaders expect future remote working to harm productivity, due to communication problems and loss of community in the workplace.
Despite these downsides, most employers and employees are gearing up for some level of remote working to become permanent in 2021 and beyond. So, how can these challenges be managed to get the best out of the hybrid workplace? Here are a few ideas for leaders:
- Create clearer boundaries between work and home life by instituting stricter working hours, specifying when people should be available, and when they should expect to log off and not be contacted or check emails.
- Set a dress code for video calls to foster a culture of professionalism and support the organisation’s culture. This is particularly important for externally facing calls with clients.
- Be clear how you measure productivity, and determine which tasks and roles are best suited to remote work. Use 360-degree feedback within teams as a way of optimising working patterns.
- Set clear guidelines on geographical limits to remote working and how permissible location overseas and/or in different time zones will affect salary, working hours, and other legal issues.
- Ideally, set a minimum level of on-site working for all staff (e.g. three days per week), to ensure that the benefits of human contact and connection are maintained, and alienation is avoided.
Remote working will be a part of the future for many of us. But this ‘disruptive’ model has numerous downsides, which we need to discuss and mitigate now, before the costs — both human and financial — become too high.