What is remote working?


Remote working is a work arrangement that allows employees to work outside the conventional office setting, which can include working from home, co-working spaces, coffee shops or even outdoors.  

This work model relies on a stable internet or Wi-Fi connection to facilitate online communication with colleagues and supervisors, manage tasks, send emails and conduct phone calls. It is important to note that certain roles involving direct customer interactions, such as supermarket cashiers and factory workers, cannot be performed remotely. Additionally, many frontline and essential workers are unable to work remotely.

There are varying degrees of remote work. Hybrid working, for example, involves a mix of in-office and remote days, while a remote-first approach prioritises remote work but maintains an office for occasional meetings. In contrast, fully remote setups entail no central office presence at all.

Remote work can be performed on a part-time, full-time or temporary basis. Some organisations permit remote work on an as-needed basis for unexpected situations, such as a family member’s illness, or designate certain days for remote work as a company benefit. Some even offer workations, where employees can work certain days while they are out of town on holiday.

History of remote working

In the 1970s, the oil crisis prompted efforts to reduce commuting and conserve energy, leading some companies and government agencies to experiment with telecommuting. A University of Southern California research group, led by Jack Nilles, carried out a ‘telecommuting’ study looking at how employees working remotely, but with access to a telephone, could both save company costs and get cars off the road. Computer giant IBM launched its own test in 1979 with an initial five employees working remotely; this number had grown to 2,000 by 1983.

In the 1990s and early 2000s remote work was adopted more broadly, driven by advancements in computer technology and the internet. During this period, remote work was often associated with self-employed individuals or freelancers who could work from home.

With the widespread availability of high-speed internet, laptops and collaboration tools, larger organisations began embracing remote work as a viable option for their employees. This shift was further accelerated by the global financial crisis of 2008, which prompted companies to explore cost-cutting measures, including closing or downsizing offices and promoting remote work arrangements.

In recent years, the concept of remote work has evolved beyond occasional telecommuting days to encompass more comprehensive arrangements, such as fully remote teams and remote-first companies. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic, attendant lockdowns and online video conferencing platforms forced a sudden and widespread adoption of remote work. This experience demonstrated the feasibility of remote work for a wide range of roles and industries, leading to discussions about the future of work and the potential for a more permanent shift toward remote and hybrid work models.

Recent trends in remote working

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, only one in eight adults worked from home prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. During the UK’s two major national lockdowns – when most offices, shops and hospitality venues were closed – this number jumped to around 49%. Once lockdowns were lifted and the pandemic eased, the number of people working from home (both fully remote and hybrid) fell to 40%.

In the UK, the percentage of people working fully remote currently stands at 16%. While this figure may seem low, it represents a notable rise from pre-pandemic levels, underlining the enduring popularity of remote working even when office-based options are available. In fact, Forbes reports that a substantial 65% of employees express a preference for permanent remote work, with 57% indicating that they would actively seek new employment if their current employer did not offer remote work opportunities.

Remote work has become a particularly valued choice for women, especially those raising families. Given the gender disparity prevalent in the STEM sector, characterised by underrepresentation of women, many STEM enterprises have taken proactive measures by providing remote work opportunities and flexible schedules. This strategic approach aims to attract and retain female talent within the sector, addressing the diversity gap.

Be that as it may, not every company plans to increase its remote work. High profile STEM companies such as tech giants X (formerly Twitter), Dell, Amazon and Google have significantly altered or reversed their remote working policies. Google declared that they will now only consider remote work requests under exceptional circumstances. Meta has also stopped advertising ‘remote’ or ‘out of the office’ options on its job adverts, opting for a more hybrid approach.

These companies have cited hinderances to staff connectivity, collaboration, culture and productivity and cyber security risks as the reasons behind these changes. And while this may seem out of touch with employee preferences, some remote working employees have also raised concerns about social connectivity and mental fatigue as they work with the ‘always on’ technology of today.

Advantages of remote working

  • Remote work offers flexibility in terms of when and where work can be done, accommodating various schedules and lifestyles.
  • Employees often save money on commuting, work attire and dining out.
  • Some individuals find they are more productive in a comfortable and customisable environment.
  • Employers can tap into a global talent pool, finding the best candidates regardless of location.
  • Remote teams often encompass diverse backgrounds and perspectives.
  • Remote work's flexibility and adaptability can significantly enhance the professional lives of individuals with disabilities, making it an essential component of creating a more inclusive workforce.
  • Employees can better balance work and personal life, leading to higher job satisfaction.

Disadvantages of remote working

  • Remote workers may feel isolated or lonely due to reduced in-person social interactions.
  • Home environments may be less conducive to focused work, with distractions like household chores, family members or pets.
  • Some remote workers struggle to disconnect from work, leading to burnout.
  • Technical problems such as poor internet connectivity can disrupt work and cause frustration.

Use case

Entain, the global sports betting, gaming and interactive entertainment group, and the McLaren F1 Team announced a new venture in January 2023 aimed at encouraging mothers returning from maternity leave to pursue STEM careers.

The Returnship programme, as it was called, offered 10 places for ‘talented women re-entering the workforce’ to take up roles such as software engineers back-end developer data scientists and design engineer, at Entain or McLaren over a six-month period.

Crucially, the scheme provided participants with the flexibility to work part-time, staggered hours, hybrid or fully remote – with hybrid work being the default option.

The overarching objective of the program is to enhance the presence of women in STEM fields. In the UK, a substantial gender disparity persists; only 26% of STEM graduates and a mere 24% of the STEM workforce are women. In a statement announcing the new initiative, Entain explained, “There is an urgent need to change the perceptions of careers in STEM, open more opportunities for women to pursue careers in the field, and help both women and men thrive equally in STEM”.