Remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic can test a company’s adaptability

COVID-19’s impact on remote working : How adaptable is your firm?

COVID-19’s impact on remote working : How adaptable is your firm?

Recently, tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft all circulated similar memos among their employees — memos recommending that people work from home if they can.

With the World Health Organisation declaring the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic1, working remotely is a great way to slow down the spread of the disease. Of course, it is not just large global firms that are taking these precautions — companies all around the world are doing what they can to help their employees minimise exposure. Client interactions are taking place over calls and video conferences. Non-essential business travel is being reprioritised, while conferences and summits are shifting to online models.
This is not the first time that an emergency has forced modern companies to rethink the way they work. In 2019, the air quality in Delhi reached critical levels, and thick smog enveloped the city. Given the severe health impacts this could have on employees, many corporate firms asked people to work from home. Situations like these are unforeseen and unavoidable — but they test a company’s ability to adapt to a futuristic way of working. Those that are over-reliant on singular work methods suffer a business setback while companies that have flexibility built into their strategy thrive.
In this light, let us look at the concept of an office-less workplace.

The rise and fall of remote working

Telecommuting, as it was initially called, was first introduced in the 80s, but it became progressively popular in the mid-00s with technological advancement. However, the last decade is when the concept truly experienced a boom, thanks to high-speed internet and smart personal devices. Companies were quick to spot some obvious advantages. They could cut down on operational costs associated with running extensive office spaces. Attrition rates were 50% 2 Employees were happier, better fulfilled, and as some studies noted, more productive. Incorporating remote workers into the workforce also opened up a wider talent pool for employers — they could now hire skilled professionals from around the world, instead of just the ones based in their city. Thus encouraged by employers, the number of remote workers rose by 400% over the last decade3.
And then came the ebb. The trend saw a sudden reversal when companies like Yahoo and IBM (which had been important advocates of this new way of working) recalled their remote working options. Declining revenues and a greater need for innovation prompted these tech giants to go back to a system where teams would work together at the corporate offices. Subsequently, work values in many companies shifted to favour physical presence, spontaneous collaboration, and collective creativity.

The re-emergence of the concept

Now, with COVID-19 posing a threat to public health, many companies find their way back to adopting remote working policies again. Leaders and entrepreneurs are realising the importance of workplace strategies that are not dependent on a physical office.
However, this time around, companies need to see remote working options as more than just a backup plan during emergencies. For an office-less workplace to be a success, building flexibility into one’s business model is key. In order to be able to do this well, companies must tackle the challenges that they may have faced in the past. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Infrastructure. Companies will need to ensure that employees are well equipped to deal with remote working practices. Some firms already do this by offering them an allowance to set up a home office where they can work uninterrupted, should the need arise. This allowance can cover a variety of needs — be it a high speed internet connection, power backup, necessary gadgets and devices, or even office equipment like desks and ergonomic chairs. People who do not have the required space or facilities at home will need to be provided with an alternative too. Perhaps companies can do this by having coworking spaces across the city that will function as work hubs.

Collaboration. Collaboration is one of the biggest challenges that companies face, when they allow employees to work from home. Effective collaboration goes much beyond just ensuring that people log in for meetings and calls when they are supposed to. Spontaneous collaboration has a big role to play in how people innovate and come up with creative solutions — and this should be taken into account when crafting a good remote work strategy. Companies will need to provide a good collaborative framework, consisting of meeting tools, chat apps and data sharing software. Encouraging video calls and promoting casual interactions can go a long way in reducing the sense of isolation that people report when they work from home.

Security. Firms that deal with a lot of confidential client information will have to ensure that employees are working from a secure environment when they work remotely. The first step here is to install the right security software and enable automatic updates, not just on laptops, but also on smartphones or any other personal devices that employees might use to access client data. Mandating device encryption is another way to ensure that there will be no security breach, even if the device is lost or stolen. Most importantly, firms will need to offer the right training, so that people across the board are able to spot suspicious activity and report malware, cyberattacks or phishing attempts.

Policy framework. In the past, people hesitated to work from home because of the perception that they will be penalised when it comes to promotions and bonuses. In firms where working remotely was largely seen as an exception, this perception was probably accurate. An employee may have had to ask for permission from their managers, or negotiate for the benefit on a case-by-case basis. In such an environment, those using this privilege too frequently may certainly have found themselves at a disadvantage. Now, companies who want to embrace an office-less future will have to put in the effort to build a culture of remote work. Ensuring that managers do not harbour a negative bias towards remote workers can be a great start. Having fair feedback policies and transparent appraisal processes are other ways to bring about this change.

Emotional well-being. There’s one oft-overlooked aspect of remote working that the recent COVID-19 outbreak has brought to the fore — that of loneliness and isolation. If remote working is to be normalised over time, companies will need to find ways to get around this. Innovative use of technology can help to some extent. The culture of having video hangouts every week is one great option, where team members can log in remotely to play games and catch up with colleagues. Managers can ensure that work achievements as well as employees’ personal milestones like birthdays and anniversaries are shared and celebrated with everyone on the team. Companies can also use technology to gamify the little things — like the number of steps employees take through the day. A spot of friendly competition or a shared joke or two can make all the difference when one is working alone all day.

At the end of the day, building an office-less workstyle does not mean being an office-free work culture. Instead, organisations need to look at their physical workplaces as a hub for sharing key  corporate values and knowledge sessions with employees and clients. In fact, to many employees, offices are no longer spaces where only work gets done. Rather, they are places where employees can focus on health and well-being, build their professional skills and spend time on their family, friends and personal interests. Now, workplace experts need to plan how to make an employee’s home function as a node to an office hub — smart technology, processes and policies are a big step in that direction.

Emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak may be the prompt behind companies re-evaluating the way they work, but it is always a good idea to diversify one’s business model and build a workplace strategy that is proactive, adaptable and comprehensive.

With more than 20 years of experience in Marketing and Branding, our Global Head of Marketing at Space Matrix, Fiza Hasan Malhotra, believes in the power of company culture to spark talent, power growth and build brands. As a member of Space Matrix's Executive Council, Fiza is deeply interested in the evolution of the workplace in response to global and regional socio-economic trends.