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In normal circumstances over 4 million people in the UK operate on a remote working basis, constituting nearly 14% of the total workforce. This figure represents a growth of over 1 million people in just 10 years. We are currently undergoing the largest ever imaginable exercise in mass home working, and life for many organisations and employees may never be the same again when we finally emerge from this global pandemic crisis.

When this is all over, one notable outcome could be increasing demand for a major change in physical working practises from large sections of the global workforce, and UK employers may already be facing a larger mountain to climb with evidence suggesting we’re already behind the curve in facing up to trends related to work-life balance. In 2019, the CIPD cited the UK as being one of the lower placed nations in achieving a healthy work-life balance, placed 15h out of 25 comparator economies. Wider surveys suggested that 2 out of 3 workers would like to work flexibly in a way not currently offered to them. Other figures suggest over 50% of the UK’s workforce feel they would be more productive if they could work outside of the office more regularly. This suggests two things; the attraction to higher levels of remote working to many of today’s workforce, and a significant resistance from large numbers of employers to embrace, or even countenance this proposition.

Often the greatest barrier to change is the comfort the status quo automatically provides – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For some employers though, the cat may now be out of the bag, and those who fervently espouse the positive impact of home working could now get their proverbial day in court. It could be a reckoning!

Naturally many roles require the element of presenteeism, and indeed plenty may also point to evidence of the negative aspects of home working after this crisis. Much of the argument rests on presumed increased ‘productivity’, but there are also very real, practical advantages too, which are now up front and centre for all to see.

Workplace travel and commuting wastes time and money

Projections estimate traffic congestion in the UK could lose £300 billion worth of productive workforce time by 2030. As someone who’s previously been used to experiencing at least 2 hours of fairly ‘dead time’ (whether on packed public transport or driving) commuting each day, I can vouch for the virtues of a 30 second journey to my home office. Necessity has also required much wider use of video conferencing facilities for inter-office meetings, over which many a Finance Director may now be casting a more scrupulous eye in the in the future, particularly encouraging restraint on expensive overseas travel. Hitherto mainstream, run of the mill expenses claims (flights, accommodation, taxis, subsistence etc) may require employees to operate with a little more prudence when deciding what constitutes necessary expenditure. In the cold light of day, post Coronavirus, these practices could increasingly appear a poor return on investment, and even be considered frivolous.

Reducing your staff absence levels

Absence costs business and employees more than the average person would realise. The ONS last reported an average 4.4 sick days per employee per year in the UK. There are varying reports on the financial impact of this, ranging from c. £30 to 80 billion in lost workdays of productivity, but HR Director magazine equated this to £570 per sick day per employee in 2017. To a business of 100 employees, that £250k per annum. Surely a means to reduce that kind of figure warrants more than a just cursory glance!!

Remote workers are believed to display lower levels of absence through sickness, avoiding catching illnesses through lower levels of interaction with colleagues and co-commuters. There is also an argument that individuals working from home are less likely to ‘write-off’ the whole day when sick, perhaps starting a little later once the early grotty feeling has worn off – how often have you decided to take the day off only to find you’re not actually feeling too bad a little later.

The impact on well-being is one that can be argued for and against home working, but one important contributor to this is work related stress, a key culprit of long-term absence cases in the UK. Many believe being confined to an office and exposed to unpleasant commutes can adversely impact stress levels in office workers in a way the home worker does not encounter. One survey on stress levels showed a whopping 82% of polled remote workers said that they experience less stress.

Finally there is also the theory that in buying yourself extra time in the day by avoiding the commute, you may just find that precious commodity of ‘spare time’ (yes they say it actually exists!), in which you can partake in positive well-being activities such as exercise, or meditation without the burden of guilt.

Every little helps to protect the environment

As well as the financial cost, the environmental cost of unnecessary travel, particularly overseas travel, continues to grow in prominence in today’s society. The importance of physical interaction with dispersed teams has always been the prevailing argument, but within this crisis teams are now forced to explore alternative ways and means to build these relationships, including heightened levels of social interaction. Naturally, the preference and need to continue ‘in person’ meetings will endure, but it may become less the default position, and again open the door to greater flexibility in workplace location.

Add to this reports that many cities are celebrating clearer and healthier skies as a positive side-benefit from the ‘lock down’ conditions. A reduction in the average numbers of people taking a daily commute could see companies embracing greater home working in time. The climate crisis does still seem to be treated as ‘tomorrows’ problem when confronting people, governments, companies with real and uncomfortable shifts in behaviour, so this could be a bit of an open goal in the grand scheme of things.

The Big Ticket Items

Of course, in the commercial world, the most compelling argument will still centre on productivity – and this is one where the evidence has yet to prove compelling. A YouGov survey showed roughly half of HR professionals and employees alike didn’t believe home working altered the quality of output compared to office working one way or another.  HR professionals believing home working leads to higher quality of output only slightly outweighed those believing the opposite was true (27% to 20%). An HBR article quoted research to suggest a 13% increase in productivity amongst employees working remotely. A study by Flexjobs found that fewer distractions (75%), fewer interruptions from colleagues (74%), reduced stress from commuting (71%), and minimal office politics (65%) were among the top reasons employees named for why they believed working from home is more productive.

This crisis, and the enforced home working will no doubt throw up plenty of evidence which may shift the dial on this one way or the other, but organisations and employees will at least have first-hand anecdotal experiences to consider. The latter of those, employees, may therefore be critical in how this shakes out, and it may be through the need for businesses to retain and attract their star performers that organisations will embrace remote working more enthusiastically. In one survey, work life balance eclipsed salary as the largest driving factor to job seekers when looking for a new role, with 28% suggesting they’d even take a pay cut in trade off for remote working. 76% of employees stated a company offering better flexibility in working practises would make them more loyal to that company. Younger age groups place higher importance on this too, with one study suggesting 68% of millennial job seekers would have more interest in companies offering the ability to work remotely. The trend from a Robert Half analysis in the US showed an increasing propensity for younger generational groups to prioritise remote working as a key reason take a new job.

In summary there is a direction of travel here. Many have opted to grab the bull by the horns on this and no doubt many more will. Some employers may believe this is firmly their gift to offer though, and elect to take the more conservative wait and see approach. Where will the balance of power be at the end of 2020 though?

To quote Tooting’s great urban guerrilla, Wolfie Smith, maybe now it’ll be ‘Power to the People’!