Remote Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is an infectious illness that currently poses significant risk to public health and is rapidly changing the work landscape across the world. As a desperate measure to curb the spread of the virus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised good hand hygiene and social distancing, which has led to worldwide travel restrictions and many countries implementing lockdowns.
These lockdowns have forced businesses and companies all over the world to make sudden and swift decisions to move to mandatory remote work practices, in an effort to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Given that, the lockdown restrictions are about to be lifted, businesses need to make critical decisions regarding whether they will embrace working from home even beyond the lockdown. This article, thus, discusses working remotely in order to provide information for businesses considering this option.
What is Remote Work?
Remote work is a working style that allows professionals to work outside of a traditional office environment. It is based on the concept that work does not need to be done in a specific place to be executed successfully. With remote-work becoming a reality and gaining popularity because of the social distancing strategy, there is need for businesses to work on their remote work processes to ensure productivity doesn`t slow down. Studies reveal that remote working can accomplish many desirable goals. Most importantly, it can also be part of a contingency plan to increase productivity and restore orderly operations in disaster control scenarios.
Experts report that the demand for face to face services will drop while most customers will prefer digitalized services during the pandemic. This is a welcome initiative as it further allows employees to work from home, which in turn, safeguards worker’s health and contains the spread of the disease. In order for this to become a reality, however, businesses will need to become innovative in responding to customers’ digitalization demands. Businesses need to develop processes to offer their products and services online as well as offer digital and contactless payment methods. These services will further intensify the ability to work from home and guarantee availability of healthy protected employees to continue operations during the pandemic.
Benefits of Remote Work
Evidence from a study conducted in a call centre, employees in China revealed that remote working enhanced total factor productivity (TFP) of businesses. The positive effect on productivity are said to arise from both improvements in individual workers’ performance and from reductions in office space. A 2014 study from Oxford University further found that working from home increased employee performance by 13 percent. Remote work also enhances work life balance as employees spend more time at home with families, exercise regularly and enjoy their hobbies. This increases their happiness, helping employees to be better engaged and productive. It also reduces commuting time, therefore improving the livelihoods of workers as they will have increased flexibility in working hours and greater independence over the way they work, and reduced expenses, which translate to extra disposable income. Less commuting also contributes to less stress as less time is spent on traffic jams.
Remote work also allows businesses to stay productive and stay connected to customers while offices are closed, during the lockdown. Working from home also helps reduce office costs for businesses as employees don’t use business premises/ offices thus reducing operation costs. The savings here arise from less water, electricity, toilet paper, tea/coffee, etc. Remote work is also said to have positive environmental implications. Reports point out that, when the city of Wuhan (where Covid-19 was first discovered), was put on lockdown in January 2020, Nitrogen Oxide (NO2) levels across eastern and central China dropped between 10 and 30 percent lower than average. A similar phenomenon is said to have occurred in Jakarta, Indonesia, where the Air Quality Index (AQI) reached a relatively low figure of 72 on March 2020, after a number of companies instructed employees to work from home. Both drops in pollution came from the decrease in commuters. Above all, and as a response to curbing the spread of COVID-19, working from home ensures safety of employees as it reduces their chances of being infected with the virus.
Shortcomings of Remote Work
Although working from home has numerous benefits, it is not without its downsides. According to the Stanford economist, Nicholas Bloom, the global remote working movement, intended to maintain output and efficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic, could actually generate a worldwide productivity slump and threaten economic growth for many years if not well managed. Working from home for prolonged periods without socialization may harm the mental health of employees. A 2017 ILO report found that 41 percent of fully remote employees had high stress levels, compared to 25 percent of office workers. This was as a result of not only minimum social exposure but also from an obscure definition of working hours in which employees felt that they were working without time or space limitations.
Employees with families, working from home and having no in-office days implies that they will be working alongside their kids, and in unsuitable spaces, which can reduce their efficiency and productivity. According to Bloom, the most challenging aspect of remote working for parents with younger children is managing their kids. One assumption for a successful work-from-home program for any business is the requirement that children are in school or daycare. With the pandemic on-going, the closure of schools and transition to “distance/home learning” for students has therefore forced many working parents to take on the additional job of full-time teacher.
It is also noted that, under normal remote working conditions, one aspect taken into account before allowing an employee to work at home is the availability of a designated home office. It is required that this space should not be used for any other purpose and its access should be strictly restricted to the employee during workhours/days. The COVID-19 pandemic has however turned tables around as employees are forced to work from home despite having not met this requirement of a designated home office. Employees are now working in unsuitable spaces (bedrooms, shared common rooms) and therefore exposed to all sorts of disturbances from other occupants of the house.
Remote working might also not be the best option for all employees as they differ greatly in how well they can adapt to it. The productivity of those who prefer office based work might be reduced as they are forced to adapt to working from home. Some undisciplined employees may also abuse the opportunity to work remotely and hence they will need regular checks and monitoring. Without proper performance monitoring such employees may relax on their work, leading to a productivity fall-off. This, thus, calls for employers to put an extra effort to identify individuals who may need specific or more focused oversight and regular check-ups. Remote work could also have a negative impact on employees’ career development. Studies have found that those working from home are less likely to be promoted when compared to equally performing employees working in the office.
It should also be acknowledged that working remotely may also not be feasible for all businesses especially the informal sector. Their type of work requires continuous physical presence. Thus remote work for them would harm their businesses and lead to a drop in their daily incomes.
Remote Work Necessities
For employees to execute their duties and tasks successfully from home, they will require the right tools, equipment and support from their employers. Hence, businesses are requested to consider the following requirements as they institutionalize the working from home model after the lockdown.
Resources/Infrastructure: Employees working remotely should have dedicated workspace set up where they can store documents, hold conference calls or virtual meetings, and generally separate work responsibilities from home and/or caregiving responsibilities. They also need appropriate and necessary equipment such as a smartphone, laptop or a computer and a printer that will enable them to effectively perform their work. The specific requirements will differ in accordance with job requirements.
Effectiveness when working remotely requires that one must have the technology necessary to perform tasks. Considerations should be made on one’s work needs with respect to communication (e.g., access to office voicemail, headset and webcam for virtual calls), appropriate software on the laptop or other devices, access to any files that an employee may need to work, as well as sufficient internet connectivity to manage day-to-day business. Technology will enable teams to move employees’ meetings to conference calls, workspace to a project management board and their processes to digital workflows. These will bring benefits in efficiency, convenience and transparency that comes from bringing work online.
Dedicated work schedule: A well-defined work schedule should also be developed and adhered to when working remotely. Without the work schedule, employees may easily work more hours than normal, and therefore cut on their family and personal time. One may also feel pressured to prove that they are spending their time productively, which can lead to increased anxiety and stress. The work schedule is therefore meant to ensure that employees keep much of their non-work life as it was before the pandemic.
Communication and accountability plan: A relationship of trust, respect, open communication, transparency, and clearly defined expectations is imperative to the success of remote work. Communication between the employer and the employee should also be quicker and much more frequent so as to improve collaboration and build the necessary trust.
Wellbeing Promotion: Remote work can be lonely work even with endless video calls, leading to feelings of disconnection from coworkers and challenges to maintain culture. Employers have to keep on promoting well-being. They can help with resources for maintaining a work-life balance providing discussions about well-being, mental health, meditation, and even home-based exercise. Meanwhile, team members can help one another by proactively checking in, making time for casual conversation, and having friendly competitions to exercise and partake in other activities that promote well-being.
Working remotely is not a totally new concept, but the uptake has suddenly been blown up by the COVID-19 pandemic which has made it somewhat mandatory for employees to partake -in. The pandemic may permanently change the way people work. It is up to businesses to weigh the cost of working from home against its benefits and decide what works best for them. Remote working may be beneficial as it can improve job satisfaction, raise productivity, reduce emissions and even spread work to more remote regions. Contrary to the benefits, it may pose challenges, to the employees, due to unavailability of work space, constant disruptions from members of the family and increased anxiety and stress. Its success, however, is highly dependent on a proper setup for a home work environment, the right resources and technology that will enable efficient work from home. For those struggling with a particular aspect of working from home, it should be noted that, there are a lot of people who have used this model successfully for years. Given this, plenty of insights, tips and tricks exist. Businesses considering these options are urged to find further solutions in this regard.
Prepared By: Ms Motshabi Ludo Kgotlaesele (BNPC Consultant) and Reetsang Kenalemang (BNPC Consultant)