As the UK gears up for what some are describing as an Italy-style shutdown, companies across the country are scrambling to ensure that their staff can work from home.
But as we fire up our laptops and share articles about how to resist the temptation of daytime television an important question remains – why do so many workplaces remain underprepared?
Yes, the scale and impact of the coronavirus could scarcely have been anticipated — and the rise of working from home falls far down the list of priorities as we face a health emergency and potential economic crisis. Yet the sudden shift to remote work lays bare crucial gaps in many companies’ policies.
The digitisation of working practices means that a new era of flexible offices and remote working has long seemed to be just around the corner. In 1964 science writer and futurist Arthur C Clarke predicted a world where it would be possible “for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.” And whilst we can’t quite forgive Clarke for excluding business-conducting women from his vision of the future, it’s hard not to think “well, why not?” as we rattle into work on another long and exhausting commute.
Although teleconferencing and high speed internet have made working remotely a reality for many, only 11% of UK jobs are currently advertised as flexible, and 68% of British workers would still like more flexibility in their work life. Unfortunately, there will be many workers, including those in the service sector or gig economy, whose ability to work flexibly is limited. But that fact alone cannot explain why recent research shows that only 6.1% of UK adults work from home.
For companies who find themselves unprepared to permit their workforces to work remotely, the potential downsides are numerous and long pre-date Covid-19. With many industries focused in the south of England, being unable to cater to colleagues not located in this region cuts off entire counties of talent and potential. A lack of flexible working is proven to damage staff retention and diversity. And the Government Equalities Office has highlighted a lack of flexible working as being a key obstacle to women’s progression in the workplace.
If the technology to work from home exists, then why has it taken a global pandemic for us to fully use it?
Employers unfairly suspecting their colleagues of shirking off on their working from home days might be also surprised to find that productivity improves by around 13% when individuals work from home. A culture of trust between employer and employee seems to improve our willingness to work hard, and it’s much easier to get more done without the distraction of popping out to Pret or being dragged into endless meetings that could have been an email. With the UK still in the grip of a productivity crisis, remote work could be more than just a route to happier workers, but a solution to some of our most endemic economic issues.
Some companies have been quicker to spring into remote working action. In a viral tweet Karrie Higgins, a writer and intermedia artist asked why, when companies have previously told disabled workers that they are unable to accommodate them, livestreamed conferences and Skype meetings have been quickly set up to protect abled individuals from coronavirus. Although seeing companies adapt to the necessity of remote working is encouraging, Higgins raises an important point – if the technology exists, then why has it taken a global pandemic for us to fully use it?
It should not have taken a global pandemic to spur the start of a remote work revolution, but perhaps it might be one of the unexpected silver linings.
Companies that have long clung to the idea that staff members must be at their desks to do good work, and that meetings are most effective face-to-face, are about to be forced into a new reality. Their preparedness for change shows to what extent the oft-promised mantra of flexible work is a reality for their employees. Perhaps the unplanned shift to distributed workforces will make us all face up to how much we fetishise office culture – and how unnecessary this really is.