Covid-19 accelerated the shift to remote and hybrid working and these have rapidly become benefits that employers need to offer in order to attract top talent. The speed with which this change has happened means that its effect on everything from the mental health of workers to productivity are unclear.
“‘The pandemic has really changed attitudes in the workforce. Having the possibility to work remotely is essential to recruit and retain people, otherwise they will quit,” says Sonia Levillain, a professor of human resources management at the IÉSEG School of Management in France.
Globally, 54% of candidates rank remote working options as one of the most important things they now look for in a job, according to our ‘How the STEM World Works’ research. But attitudes vary between Europeans, with 51% of Germans, 50% of Italians, 42% of British people and 36% of the Spanish working remotely at least once a week, according to French think tank Fondation Jean-Jaurès.
Some countries are resisting remote work altogether - notably Japan, where there is a strong culture of presenteeism. Even in the earlier stages of the pandemic, only 20% of Japanese were working remotely compared with 10% in normal times, according to the Japan Productivity Center.
There are some big benefits to remote work that have come from a study by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which include work-life balance, satisfaction and perceived increases in organisational productivity for 41% of the firms who implemented remote work.
69% of employees who have flexibility in their current role cited a better work-life balance, while 48% cited higher satisfaction levels
Echoing these findings, PwC’s 2021 US Remote Work Survey found that 83% of employers say the shift to remote work has been successful for their company. One poll of 12,500 global respondents found the ability to work fully remotely can boost employee happiness by up to 20%, with millennials, who are digital natives, the most happy.
The same study found that employees who were forced to return to the office were relatively unhappy at work. “If the time you spend at the office doesn’t bring advantages you don’t have when at home, people are more reluctant to come back to the office,” says Levillain.
Employers vs. employees preferences
Numerous surveys point to a potential mismatch between employee and employer preferences. PwC found that 75% of US executives wanted workers to spend at least half of their time in the office. In comparison, 61% of employees expect to spend half their time in the office. There is no consensus on the optimal balance, with 55% of staff preferring to be remote at least three days a week.
“To some extent there is a bit of tension between what is expected of people and what their employer provides,” Levillain says, noting that hybrid work requires a substantial investment in technological capabilities.
There are plenty of issues with remote work, with the CIPD reporting that 44% of employees cited an increase in stress or worsening of mental health, while 43% cited lack of work space or privacy, and 34% said there’s been a rise in employee conflict because of the difficulty of managing relationships and communicating virtually.
The pandemic has led to increased digital presenteeism
In addition, the UK’s Office for National Statistics reported that the sickness absence rate has fallen to 1.8% in 2020, the lowest level since records began in 1995. Often, one US survey finds, this is because people are afraid that taking time off will be viewed negatively by their employer, underscoring the inclusion risks of remote working. Ultimately, presentism of any kind can lower individual productivity by up to 30%, according to the Institute for Employment Studies.
Embedding company culture
For younger employees especially, research shows it can be difficult to work from home because many do not have a dedicated office setup and can struggle to connect with colleagues virtually. Of all age groups, it is those in their 20s and 30s that are most relishing the return to the workplace, according to the CIPD. This is partly because the career development of these younger workers often depends on informal networking and mentorship that is easier to come by in the office. Many employees, new hires of any age, have learnt by observing others through immersion at work. "This cultural transfer is much more complicated when you are remote,” says Levillain.
“Lots of young people are asking for physical contact because they want to create this network."
These challenges suggest that employers will need to take a strategic approach to implementing remote work policies in order for them to be successful. The CIPD recommends consulting with employees when designing new working practices, and assessing risks based on equality and inclusion. The group further recommends focusing on outcomes rather than staff being physically present in the office, and maintaining a strong focus on health and wellbeing.
Ultimately, the pandemic has changed working practices, perhaps permanently, and companies that can maximise the benefits while reducing the risks of remote work stand to benefit enormously.
See our How the STEM World Works research to find out more.
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