The past, present and future of remote working

In October 2019, the American Psychological Association (APA) wrote an interesting article about the future of remote work.

With remarkable prescience, the article outlined the benefits that remote - or home - working can have for both employers and employees. For businesses, these benefits not only include being able to draw from a broader and more geographically diverse pool of talent, but also a substantial reduction in overheads and a more satisfied workforce. Crucially, home working can also lead to higher levels of productivity.

In addition, remote working has been shown - even long before the spectre of COVID-19 reared its ugly head - to have substantial benefits for the workforce, including:

  • Time and money saved on travel
  • Better work-life balance
  • Greater flexibility in the work schedule, which can make it easier to fulfil family and childcare commitments
  • Being able to choose where you live, as you’re not tied to the location of your workplace.

In addition, the shift towards home working offers greater opportunities for diversity and inclusion by removing many of the obstacles associated with the 9-5 office environment. This facilitates the return to work for many women (particularly those for whom childcare costs/arrangements were previously prohibitive) and for people with physical or mental health problems which may have prevented them from fulfilling a more traditional employment model. 

Not to mention the environmental benefits: fewer commuters means a substantial reduction in unnecessary journeys, resulting in a significant drop in emissions.

So, working from home is better for businesses, better for staff and better for the planet. None of this is new to us: the benefits of working from home have been much talked-about since most of us were compelled to do it at the peak of the pandemic.

But it’s important to remember that remote working is far from a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s not suitable in all professions or for all individuals. Certain roles - think frontline medical, social care and hospitality industry staff - simply can’t work from home. And some industries will find it difficult to measure - and control - staff productivity levels when they’re not in the office.

Furthermore, remote working isn’t right for everyone. The WHO reported a 25% increase in global levels of depression and anxiety as a result of the pandemic. Although this was likely to have been a result of multiple factors - such as stress, grief from bereavement and financial worries - some of it is attributable to the social isolation and loneliness experienced by people who simply weren’t used to being alone all day, every day. Even for people who weren’t alone, juggling work and family responsibilities from home can present a significant challenge.

So, what has the pandemic taught us, and how has it helped to shape the future of home working?

Working from home has clear and tangible benefits for both employers and employees. However, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing solution.

Home working might be an important part of the future of the workplace, but it isn’t the whole picture. Studies have shown that some of the disadvantages of home working (such as difficulty maintaining good relations with colleagues) are only apparent when people work from home for 3 or more days per week. And numerous studies have shown that remote workers often find it difficult to maintain clear work-home boundaries, often putting in extra hours and responding to work issues outside of their working week.

As with most issues, there is a middle ground. Remote working should be a choice, not an imperative. Working from home is not for everybody: if employers (and employees alike) can approach the issue in a more flexible way, then there is no reason why we can’t all benefit from gains in productivity and satisfaction levels.

Even prior to the pandemic, there was a distinct upward trend towards working from home. Since then, most of us have become competent in arranging Zoom meetings, and many organisations now have the infrastructure in place to support remote workers. However, just because we can work from home now, doesn’t mean we all should. Getting together as a team still brings multiple benefits: it can help us feel more motivated, valued, improve collaboration and innovation, and improve our sense of security and wellbeing.

At the very least, additional steps need to be taken to ensure that the move towards remote working doesn’t ignore people’s mental health needs, and that remote workers receive the same support structure and supervision that office-based employees enjoy. Not only will this help to prevent social isolation, it will also improve satisfaction, leading to better staff retention.