In the wake of COVID-19, companies have discovered that remote working models can deliver a range of benefits in terms of operational cost savings, higher employee satisfaction and even productivity. However, they have also found that not every role or every employee is a good fit for remote work. As they slowly move beyond the pandemic, most will thus look at a blended model that includes some office work and some remote work.
The configurations this could take on are numerous—a mixture of employees who always work from home, some who always work from the office, and some who get to work from home some of the time. Companies that don’t navigate this carefully may face unhappiness and disappointment in the workforce, since many employees now expect the option to work remotely at least some of the time.
Indeed, a recent survey shows that 40% of South African employees want to work from home full-time and 27% want to work remotely at least half of the time. So, how exactly does a company decide? A starting point is to look at the requirements of the role. In some cases, it’s obvious that the employee needs to be onsite because they need secure access to systems handling sensitive data or need to interact face to face with clients.
The grey areas
But there are also the grey areas—the jobs where companies found it was possible—but not optimal—to operate remotely under tougher lockdown restrictions. An article on Inc. points out that more siloed roles are better suited to remote working than jobs that require collaborating or managing people. The former category includes roles such as sales, data analysis, copywriting, accounting, social media marketing, PR, web design and coding.
Roles, where more cross-functional cooperation is needed, may be better done in the office setting. “The higher up in the organisation, the more the employee needs to be (literally) present…The same is true for managers of large groups: face-to-face meetings with individual employees and with teams is easier—and much more personal —when you are in the office,” writes the author. For these roles, a blend of remote and office work might be best.
Another factor to consider is employee preferences and circumstances. If an employee has a strong preference for working from home, and the role can be done as well remotely as on-premises, it may be worth giving them the option. Conversely, some employees want the bustle of the office. It’s important to offer them that social support if they crave it. A flexible approach to work-from-home may make an enormous difference to workforce morale, attrition and talent acquisition.
As Kara Hamilton, chief people and culture officer of software platform Smartsheet, says in an article on SHRM: “It’s vitally important to allow for personal choice, whenever possible. The pandemic is impacting every individual differently, so offering ways to meet employees at their comfort level—for example, by providing the continued ability to work from home—provides meaningful support amidst the uncertainty.”
Looking at personal circumstances
Andi Britt, London-based senior partner for talent and transformation at IBM, tells SHRM: “The circumstances of our employees are so different in this pandemic.” Young employees will want to be in the office to build a network and escape their small flats. Parents of young children may need to provide care at home, while a senior manager who has a dedicated office at home will be delighted to work remotely.
Another element to think about is the employee’s living circumstances. Not every South African employee is a middle-class professional with fibre and a comfortable study at home. It’s important to find out whether it is comfortable and practical for each person to work from home, and to equip them with connectivity, furniture, backup power and so on, if their home is not work-ready.
During these times, there are other sensitive considerations to think about. As the International Labor Organization (ILO) says, during pandemic disruption, some workers may be facing personal challenges such as child or dependent care responsibilities and long-term health conditions. For others, their time at work is their respite from domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. And at least as long as the pandemic lasts, vulnerable employees should be allowed to use this as a shield. These human factors should also play a role in deciding who works from home.
However an organisation charts its long-term strategy for remote working, the key to getting it right is consistency and fairness. It’s worth taking the time to draft a policy outlining who gets to work from home and when, how performance will be measured, and how workers will be supported and managed. And as they make sense of this new world, companies can also benefit from regular feedback from their employees about how the arrangements are working out for them.
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