In mid-March this year many employees left offices following Government guidelines around the worsening pandemic, and had to quickly adapt to remote or agile working, normally the preserve of flexible start-ups and progressive tech companies.
But in this time it has been proven that working remotely can impact positively on production, performance and results.
The reluctance by many employers up to now to allow agile working was born out of a fear that their business model could not be adapted to cater for it, coupled with concerns that any such change would cause inefficiencies, says Ciara Ruane, senior associate employment and reward at law firm Pinsent Mason.
“For example, companies were concerned about how they would move away from their traditional desktop set-up and face-to-face meetings. They were also concerned that their employees’ productivity would suffer if they moved to an agile environment, and it would be difficult to measure their productivity, which traditionally has been based on presenteeism and standard working hours. They believed they could not effectively monitor and evaluate productivity and performance if an employee worked remotely,” Ruane says.
For employers it had been easier and safer to keep doing what they had always done, especially if it had been successful in the past, says Gareth Cullen of Dell.
“It does require a certain cultural or at least a mindset change. You need to move from a mindset that says, ‘if my team are on site, from 9am to 5pm, I know what they are doing’ to one of trust and ultimately one that is focused on actual productivity.”
Of course, agile working also requires having the right technology in place to ensure that employees can work remotely and keep connected with colleagues and customers, as well as ensuring security of data.
“This cost of infrastructure, implementation as well as training for managers and teams were certainly elements in the reluctance to embrace this,” says Ruane.
The benefits of agile working are vast as it can boost employee morale as it enables them to work in a flexible manner that works for them and the business. This in turn can increase an employee’s job satisfaction and increase productivity.
“Agile working can also help businesses be flexible to respond to economic and social drivers in a way that a traditional approach to working could never do. Those who succeed in the business world are those who adapt quickly, and an agile workforce does this. It also helps attract and retain talent, who may otherwise have not joined or left due to caring responsibilities or a change in location,” Ruane says.
This period of forced flexibility has shown employers that there are benefits to agile working, and that productivity and performance does not fall off a cliff. Cullen echoes this as an employee but also as a dad.
“Speaking personally and as a father I place very significant value on how empowered I am by Dell to own how I balance my time and work in an agile way. It’s about the person being able to juggle their lives a bit easier, and knowing their company understands they have other demands outside work.
“It’s a more mature way to work. People and families have much placed on them – a family may have two parents working, young kids that need to get to and from creche or school – so there are many possible variables that place demands on people’s time. Agile working allows people to balance better and allocate their time a lot better,” he says.
Another correlated benefit is the impact on corporate social responsibility.
“Employees have become increasingly familiar with a wider range of platforms to facilitate communication and virtual meetings. We have seen an increase in colleague and customer communications but reduced environmental costs of face-to-face meetings and business travel. This will interest employees and employers keen to support the ‘green’ agenda,” Ruane says.
Now that it has been proven that agile or remote working can be effective, will companies continue to allow it or will they push for employees to return to offices as soon as public health advice allows?
“Remote working will remain a feature of many workplaces and, indeed, many employees will expect this. Thanks to electronic and digital developments, such as improved broadband/wi-fi, virtual meeting applications, cheaper laptops and smartphone capabilities, now more than ever employers are in a position to continue offering remote working arrangements.
“We have already seen a number of companies in the tech industry announce that their employees will be able to continue to work remotely into the future, and I suspect that many other companies in different industries will follow,” Ruane says.
Both Dell and Pinsent Mason had remote working in place prior to Covid, so it was normalised somewhat within both companies.
“For Dell absolutely our approach to the way in which we work will continue to be agile and flexible. It just makes sense when you think about how society operates today, and from an access to talent perspective it opens up so many avenues. If we are not confined by location, our access to talent is far wider,” Cullen says.
Aside from this Government guidelines are to continue to be “work from home where possible”, meaning that employers who might still be resisting remote working will have a lot more time to reconsider their position.
“Even when employees are allowed to return to work the number that will be permitted into the office is likely to be reduced for compliance with social distancing measures. Many employees will, therefore, be in the office only on a rotational basis, and will still need to continue to work remotely,” Ruane says.
So are offices a thing of the past?
“I suspect that most companies will still continue to have an office space and operate a flexible approach to remote working. Legally, of course, employers will want to ensure that contracts allow for this, and having policies adopted to this continued way of working,” says Ruane.