For four weeks now, the majority of our firm has worked from home. Thanks to a fantastic head of IT, and significant investment in video conferencing last year, our work has continued without a blip. Each in our own homes we’re able to use our systems, securely locate files from our drives and speak to each other face to video-face whenever we need to.
We’re all well aware of the relatively new game-changing technology and innovation that make this possible. Investments in fibre optic broadband, 4G and new 5G mobile networks and software innovation mean that you can not only stream films from anywhere you want, but you can also have a high-quality video conference with multiple people in different locations around the world. Applications such as Fuze, Asana and Slack allow you to work seamlessly with teams that aren’t in the same office as you.
While these technologies were already available for us to use before, the coronavirus pandemic, and the social distancing required as a result for most countries worldwide, is a whole new experience for many people who understand work as something that must be tied to an office, Monday to Friday, from 9 am to 6 pm. Globally employees and managers are being forced to experience both the positives and negatives of this alternative working environment.
We have all probably experienced some of the negatives, such as fewer interesting interactions with colleagues, a less diverse working week, and potential issues such as a poor internet connection. But what are the benefits? There are quite a few.
Socially, this is important in the effort towards gender equality. Balancing the work and home lives for all parents is difficult, but especially so for those where both parents work. Working from home means a reduction of time spent commuting, as well as the opportunity to reduce distractions and be more productive. Flexible working policies can make a big difference to gender equality if both men and women are able to use them.
Environmentally more companies offering flexible work arrangements could make a difference to urban pollution levels. If everyone able to work from home did so for one day a week, there would be a 20% reduction in commuting trips. As cities get larger, and house price inflation forces more people to live further away from the centre, this reduction could be significant. In London, for example, the average time spent commuting each day is 60 minutes, and the number of people making daily commutes of more than two hours has increased by 1m over the last 10 years. More people working from home would help alleviate the gridlock of city centres and reduce air pollution levels (as satellite images are showing us now).
Finally and very importantly, is the impact on productivity. We may be able to finally put to bed the idea that people who ‘work from home’ (with pointed quotation marks) were probably putting their feet up or doing chores. We’ve heard many anecdotes already from people discovering how much work they can get done without the normal distractions in an office. Professor Bloom from the Department of Economics at Stanford University had the opportunity to do a study on this topic. The co-founder of Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency with 16,000 employees, was interested in giving employees an option to work from home, as office space in Shanghai was increasingly expensive and a long average employee commute was causing high attrition levels. Bloom helped design a study where 500 employees from the call centre were divided into a control group who remained at the office, and a group who moved to work exclusively from home. The results of the nine-month study demonstrated that those working from home were 13% more productive – they worked more hours, they concentrated better and they took fewer sick days. Employee attrition decreased by 50%, while costs reduced.
An interesting final finding from this study was that many of those in this experiment decided to return to work from the office, as working from home had been a lonely experience. For many of us in the fourth week of social distancing, it’s something we can relate to. But of course, flexible working policies should be as the name suggests, flexible. It may come as a surprise for some to know that studies suggest that many people already work remotely. A 2017 Gallup poll reported that 43% of employed Americans had spent at least some time working remotely. And surveys suggest in countries where uptake is lower, such as in Switzerland, interest has increased significantly in recent weeks.
So while we look forward to returning to some level of normalcy, and with that heading back to the office, we hope that for many companies it has opened their eyes to the opportunity and benefit of more flexible working arrangements. When managed carefully, they can have a positive impact on the many faces of sustainable growth
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