Remote working is nothing new. ‘Telecommuting’, a term coined in 1973 by Jack Nilles, a NASA engineer, saw an initial five IBM employees be able to work from home to test the effectiveness of telecommunications equipment.
By 1983, this number had risen to 2,000 and continued to grow throughout the latter part of the 20th century and into the start of the 21st century as the growth in technology saw work become increasingly more flexible, with a move away from factories and traditionally operational actions to a more hybrid, electronic/online approach.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic catapulted the ability for people who could work from home to be able to do so, accelerating the adoption of this style of employment and transforming the way we work. Three years on, it’s important that we now take this opportunity to review and reflect so that we consider the implications of the remote working era on both present and future workers.
A step forward for many but not all?
The benefits of remote working are clear to see:
- More flexibility
Both in terms of when you can work, making it easier for parents and carers to stay in work while juggling domestic situations, and where you work from, meaning travel is drastically reduced, supporting the drive to net zero.
- Increase in hybrid working
This helps to keep the flexibility but also addresses some of the potential negative impacts of remote working – such as loneliness and isolation – providing the opportunity for people to come together, have human contact and bounce ideas around.
- Attract and retain top talent
A flexible, hybrid approach to working provides the best of both worlds and organisations that offer this will be able to attract the top talent. In the short term, those organisations that are forward-looking enough to enable this way of working to remain will continue to see the best and brightest want to work with them. In adopting this approach, they are raising the bar as to what is expected from work, and all organisations will need to change their work styles in order to avoid falling behind
- Foster adaptability and versatility
By embracing the possibilities of remote working, we are preparing ourselves and future generations for a future that demands adaptability and versatility. We are fostering a generation that is equipped with the ability to connect, collaborate and excel regardless of physical boundaries and distractions, and organisations can help to foster the human connection, through initiatives like the apprenticeship programme, to grow their own talent.
Is this the road to equality and social mobility?
Remote or hybrid working doesn’t always, however, provide us with an approach that is fair and equal to all. For example, to work from home effectively, there needs to be the space, equipment and internet availability to enable it to happen. When viewed through this prism, home and hybrid working can appear unequal and, when the gender imbalance is taken into account, the opportunity to work from home can be viewed as a burden, as work and home pressures tend to fall more keenly on women’s shoulders (based on opposite sex relationships). Thus, traditional issues of poor housing and gender inequality remain issues in the modern approach to work, impacting on people’s chances of social mobility.
However, social mobility as a concept covers a wide number of elements and the ability to work from home, and not to have to relocate or travel, means for a section of society – often the young – there are increasing opportunities for them to stay in their local areas and build their families close to where they grew up; a position that has not been possible for recent generations.
Are we consciously aware of risks and impact?
As has been highlighted here, there are undoubtedly many benefits to remote and hybrid working and they have seen the trend grow from 19% pre pandemic to 25 – 40% post pandemic enabling those who are able to benefit from it, to do so, and relatively quickly. However, it has also highlighted issues for those on the fringes of mainstream society – those with poor housing, little space, poor digital access or skills, and those trying to juggle work and home life within overcrowded space. Also for those people who become more isolated and lonely without the social benefit of a work environment.
So how do we tackle some of these challenges and minimise negative impacts?
Increased focus of implications on mental health will lead to more support
There has been a growing recognition over the last decade or so to, rightly, normalise poor mental health in the same way as we recognise and treat poor physical health. The impact of COVID-19 measures on mental health – whether from limited social interactions and human contact or the pressure and anxiety of shielding – generated an increased awareness and strong evidence base of factors that impact on our wellbeing.
Organisations are increasingly responding to this by supporting their workforce with wellness programmes and initiatives which empower individuals to explore their own wellbeing and adopt healthy working habits which help with managing stress, staying healthy and supporting their health, wellbeing and resilience.
Arden & GEM, like other organisations, has a number health and wellbeing initiatives that are championed across our organisation among teams and by our wellbeing champions. We also have an ever-growing team of Mental Health First Aiders who are qualified to deliver support and signposting to colleagues with mental health concerns, supporting our workforce alongside our extensive catalogue of wellbeing workshops, championing open and honest conversations and empowering self-awareness. This approach shows how organisations can make the most of the lessons learned from COVID-19 to maximise the opportunities and potential of their workforce.
Taking a personalised approach
As well as an organisational approach, it is just as important – if not even more so - that we all implement our own, personalised, approach to help us deal with balancing all the different priorities so we feel safe, healthy and productive. At Arden & GEM this took the form of the ‘Future Ways of Working’ initiative which brought together home working assessments, risk assessments and staff surveys to ensure that people who want and are able to work from home have the right equipment to do so, and that offices offer flexible spaces for quiet work, meetings and collaboration.
Taking everything into account, society definitely appears to be on the right track, as long as we continue to ensure that the right support packages are in place for those who most need it. Whether in the form of digital access, digital training, safe places to live and work, and access to mental health support, to provide the infrastructure to allow everyone to grow and flourish in this bold new future. This will also enable us to implement working styles that align with our social value ambitions; having a positive impact on both environmental sustainability and community benefit.
You can find out more about Arden & GEM’s approach to and support for social value here.