Complex Made Simple

Covid-19 has launched the World’s Largest Remote Working Experiment

Amidst the tragedy and despair of the Coronavirus pandemic, one positive development has emerged: the rise of remote working.

Countries with an unforgiving corporate culture like China and Japan are being forced to consider new modes of work The reasons why they should are plently: 85% of companies in the world confirm that productivity increased in their business as a result of flexible working Covid-19 and the surge in remote working has also brought light to one segment of the population whose needs were often sidelined by employers

Today, we’d be lying if we didn’t admit our hesitation when switching on the news. But it’s not only the TV. The internet, social media and even the radio (yes we went there) are all transmitting a barrage of depressing stories. Minute by minute updates on infection cases and deaths, images of desolate city centres and highways straight out of The Walking Dead, and stressed out masked medical personnel dealing with the sick. These are tough times for humanity, indeed. 

But amidst all the negativity and tragedy, there have been a few success stories, and no other is greater than that of the millions of employees working from home (WFH – yes an acronym has been created for it). Many have even come to dub it the World’s Largest Remote Working Experiment.

So why is this a success story? 

“Mixed reactions” and hesitation

Remote working has existed for a long time, with some countries and companies having been more accepting of it than others. The UAE, for example, has been seeing more instances of WFH in recent years. 

On the other hand, China, where the virus originated, has an unforgiving work culture dubbed “996.” The number refers to working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week, in a country where employees are expected to put their jobs above all else. So, when the virus hit, forcing millions to stay home and work remotely, China’s corporate perception of what worklife should be like was thoroughly rattled, and employees themselves are not always sure what to think of the whole situation.

“Chinese workers have had mixed reactions to the experiment,” the BBC reports. “Some complain of intrusive bosses who cannot believe their employees can be trusted to work from home; some are distracted by family members or find it difficult to focus, while others are embracing the experience, enjoying improved productivity; some even report improved love lives.”

Regardless, even companies that are against the practice won’t be able to deny the facts: 85% of companies in the world confirm that productivity increased in their business as a result of flexible working, as per 2019 data by the International Workplace Group (IWG). Meanwhile, 65% of businesses say flexible workspaces reduced their CapEx/OpEx, as well as helped manage risk and consolidate their portfolio. Furthermore, to retain the best talent, companies need to remember that 80% of job seekers would pick the job that offers flexible working as opposed to the one that doesn’t, when given the choice between the two. 

However, keep in mind that “flexibility is defined differently by different organisations: to some it can mean simply the ability to control your hours or manage your own workload,” the BBC reminds. As such, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt when attributed to remote working specifically. 

A recurrent notion coming out of China and many other countries is that some bosses are struggling with putting faith in their employees and their commitment to their jobs, leading to some paranoid practices. These include sending a “check-in” photo to managers and filling in daily work reports, as per a reported instance by BBC. 

Previous to the onset of the outbreak, many companies had offered remote working as a privilege to select employees, often those with good track records in the company. 

“In the Netherlands, employees with at least one year of service with an employer with at least 10 employees are entitled to ask for a change, increase or decrease in their working hours as well as the ability to work from another location,” IWG notes. 

Now that entire workforces are having to make the shift, it makes sense that some paranoia would exist amongst managers, though this could lead to decreased productivity and morale among employees. 

A success story that will reshape how we work forever

So, back to our question: What makes this forced remote working migration a success story? 

The answers are plenty. If anything, businesses are often the greatest winners in the scenario. 

Less employees in the office means less utility bills and other expenses to pay, less office space to rent and little to no late arrivals. 

For employees, time away from the office is time gained with the family, and particularly younger children. For many parents, that also means less expenses spent on hiring home servants to watch their kids while they’re away from home. Remote working also supports pregnant women or mothers who’ve recently given birth to stay by their children while maintaining a digital presence at work. The emotional benefits from this optimized work/life balance will no doubt be reflected in improved morale and productivity. 

Additionally, commuting is often a source of stress and financial burden, with some people in the UK, France, Japan and other big countries often languishing for hours in cars, buses and trains on the way to work and back, leaving employees burned out. In smaller countries like the UAE or Lebanon, a packed population leads to traffic jams that can hold up commuters for hours. 

With more people working from home and less cars on the road, humanity’s carbon footprint will be significantly reduced, and we are seeing proof of this already.  

But remote working is also a success story for another group of people, a demographic often neglected by businesses.

You see, for many decades, many professionals with disabilities have struggled to find jobs that would allow them to work from home, or to come to an agreement with current employers to allow them to work more days from home. It took an international pandemic for bosses to empathize with them. 

“When disabled people have asked for the opportunity to work (or study) from home in the past, we’ve often been denied,” Zipporah Arielle, a freelance writer in the US, noted, as reported by The Washington Post (WP). “Now that this is something that impacts nondisabled people, these accommodations are suddenly available.”

WP also quoted Imani Barbarin, a Pennsylvania-based communications director for a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities, who hopes new policies instituted during the pandemic will “remodel how people work.” She pointed to tools like Trello, Slack and Zoom, which allow for task management, direct messaging and video meetings. 

“These tools could’ve always been available,” she said. 

In fact, most of the tools used by home-ridden employees today have existed for many years. The problem is that many companies have been stuck in their ways, glued to existing corporate cultures and practices that they’ve not been flexible enough to consider other modes of working.

Once this Coronavirus business dies down, one positive takeway from this whole tragedy will be the changed perception towards remote working, one that disabled and non-disabled employees will both be grateful for.