First published here by RPC in April 2021.
The report lands at a key moment, as leaders across all sectors look to define – and redefine – the future of work and the role of the workplace in the post-pandemic era. The findings are illuminating.
Homeworkers work a higher number of hours than those who never work from home
Those who do any work from home have a lower sickness absence rate than office-based workers
The data backs up the anecdotal experience of many organisations and individuals - the potential productivity gains and financial advantages for businesses that embrace remote working are clear and well documented. According to research by Flex Appeal, the vast majority of UK businesses intend to capitalise on these benefits. This is supported by the CIPD findings that 63% of employers plan to introduce or expand the use of hybrid working and 45% plan to introduce or expand the use of total, five-days a week, homeworking.
Although much recent commentary centres on the “home vs. office” debate, when designing the new working world, forward-thinking leaders are looking more broadly than just the logistics to a more fundamental question. Their focus is on how to secure a model that gets the most out of the most people. For these leaders, and their businesses, the goal is to create a work environment which supports sustainable productivity, ensures effective collaboration and fosters a culture of innovation for all their people. But to do this, those leaders will also need to tackle an uncomfortable truth about the unintended impacts of remote working. The uncomfortable truth is that there is, right now, a remote working penalty. Indeed, the ONS found that:
“Workers who consistently worked mainly at home were less than half as likely to have received a promotion compared with workers who consistently worked mainly away from home… even after controlling for a range of other factors, such as age, industry and occupation.”
“… the rewards for homeworking were typically less for those who exclusively worked from home - being on average paid less, less likely to get a bonus, less likely to get promoted, and less likely to receive training, even after controlling for a range of other factors."
This doesn’t only face new joiners to an organisation because:
“… if a worker changed to mainly working from home, where previously they were mainly based away from home, they saw their chance of being promoted fall by nearly half.”
And accompanying the financial impacts and career risks there is, despite the wellbeing boosts of remote working, also a very real risk to individuals’ mental health. In fact, concerns about the health impacts of the blurring between work and home have led for recent calls for a legal “right to disconnect” to be introduced for remote workers in the UK.
So, the recipe for success in the new working world is most definitely not a simple one. There are many ingredients, each of which needs to be carefully balanced with the others. The impact of each new ingredient must to be tested alongside all the others to establish, understand and correct any unintended consequences. It is a delicate mix and, when the baking process begins, the outcome is uncertain.
And therein lies the rub. Businesses are collections of humans and humans do not like uncertainty or change. As this article points out, it is in our nature to feel that change isn’t simply about embracing something unknown - it’s about giving up something old (and therefore “good”) for something new (and therefore “not good”).
So, to navigate a sustainable route through these complexities, leaders need to:
- Start from the position that change is inevitable. Debating the merits of the before times quickly becomes a distraction which shifts focus from the future and risks losing the edge to your competitors. Your precious time and effort is better spent on embracing the opportunities currently presented and securing those in the most effective and appropriate way for your organisation and its people. It is important to recognise there is a cognitive barrier to change within each of us and across our businesses. Don’t deny that blocker – or look to rationalise it away - instead, talk about it and unpack the real-life, real-world concerns which underpin this resistance.
- Work through these real-life and real-world concerns to find the right solution for your organisation. The final dish will necessarily vary from one business to another. But the key for all leaders is to approach the discussion with an open mind. Challenge the status quo and the idea that the way we always did it is necessarily the best. If this last year has shown us anything it is that nothing is certain, and flexibility is key.
- Beware disproportionately focussing on one driver or concern in isolation from the fuller picture. Yes, it is crucial that your working model supports the mental health and wellbeing of your remote workers but that does not necessarily mean that the answer is to race everyone back to the office for all of their working time (not least given the wellbeing benefits of remote and hybrid working). Seek input from a diverse range of people and test all assumptions before baking them in as "facts".
- Establish what "good" and ""excellent" look like for your business and design your reward structure and working model to encourage, facilitate and recognise those contributions. Remove aspects which drive the wrong behaviours or approach. And, crucially, view and review your decisions through an equality and equity lens – look for the unintended impacts on individuals and groups and address these in the design and the implementation. Recognise that a policy is not enough if your employees’ lived experiences differ entirely.
- Establish and tackle the uncomfortable truths head on. Whether your model is remote, hybrid or other, remove any invisible penalties which are not justified. Where you identify a challenge, don’t be quick to change course before looking for solutions. If you are concerned that collaboration is challenging in a hybrid world, recognise and voice that concern, establish the specific, tangible day to day blockers, dig into the detail and look for solutions.
And, above all, tackle this crossroads like any other core business challenge and opportunity. Because, after all, that is precisely what it is.