Roughly 70% of white collar workers are now working remotely, recent Bain & Company research has found. By forcing so many people to work from home, Covid-19 has created a time machine of sorts, one that’s taking companies into the future of work.
Much about that future looks bright. Teams are more agile, adaptable and better able to prioritize since Covid-19 struck, according to respondents to our global survey. Companies are adopting the latest technology, with the use of collaboration platforms up an estimated 30%. Globally, employee satisfaction as measured by Net Promoter Score® has increased too.
These positive results—perhaps surprising to some—have quickly elevated working from home to a credible long-term option for companies and employees. Now, as countries and cities begin to reopen, companies face not only the question of how to return to offices, but whether to do so at all.
Across a diverse group of industries—technology, telecommunications, consumer products, financial services, and even manufacturing—companies are considering a permanent shift to remote work for some staff. Twitter and Facebook have announced a move in this direction, and Facebook recently posted the job requisites for a “Director of Remote Work.”
Organizations have shown remarkable strength in a number of important aspects over this extraordinary period of remote operation. There has been a willingness to adopt necessary changes that has led to greater agility and collaboration. Companies have quickly adjusted to the crisis, prioritizing more effectively and empowering teams and individuals to make decisions faster. Some 65% of surveyed employees highlighted more effective deployment of employees to critical tasks, and just as many see a greater focus on innovation and new solutions for customers.
Speed and innovation are clearly on the rise as organizations like General Motors, currently ramping up to produce 30,000 ventilators, launch new products at unprecedented speed, sometimes without previous experience. One remarkable aspect of this period has been how remote work has enhanced collaboration. More than half of survey respondents agree that team collaboration across functions has increased. With travel largely on hold, a perceived barrier to communication across teams and regions has been removed.
This is all good news, but for many people, distributed work has also brought a surge of stress and reduced productivity as the lines between work and life blur, connection becomes 24/7 and the urge to multitask proves hard to resist. While a third of those surveyed report no reduction in productivity and a quarter report an improvement since going remote, more than 40% do feel their productivity has dropped (see Figure 1).
Remote working due to Covid-19 has had a mixed impact on productivity, but many are as productive as ever, or even more so
An intentional approach to remote work
Almost all of those surveyed—about 95%—expect the greater agility that has characterized this Covid-19 period to continue. But there will be challenges as we enter a period of (presumably) less urgency. Now is the time for organizations to fully capture the lessons of Covid-19 as they begin to plan for the future.
Companies are seeking to tap the benefits of the work from home experiment: speed, innovation, employee satisfaction. Over the long term, more permanent remote work options may also yield benefits to a company’s access to talent, retention rates and employee engagement, while still creating options for those employees who work best from an office.
When thinking through the future of remote work, executives should keep three principles in mind.
- Articulate the rationale. From the outset, clearly make the case for why remote work serves your organization. The most effective approaches will be rooted not only in the lessons of Covid-19, but also in company strategy and culture. If closing offices is simply to save on rent, a company may soon find the benefit short-lived as talent seeks more flexible employment elsewhere. Different rationales will dictate different approaches.
- Recognize that one size won’t fit all. No two companies, business units, functions or teams will have the same objectives, requirements or constraints for remote work. For example, French automobile and motorcycle manufacturer Groupe PSA will make remote working the benchmark through its “New Era for Agility” initiative, but only for nonproduction activities. Some are adopting hybrid approaches. A European telecom provider now allows all employees in support functions to work from home up to 40% of the time, if they choose to. Whatever the goal, workforce assessment is best done at a granular level, focused on why remote working might be helpful and its potential impact on each employee and role, and on the connections between roles. The future offers a range of possible work arrangements: fully remote, fully on-site, or a hybrid.
- Look to reorient how work is done, not just where it is done. Avoid boomeranging into old ways of working by taking stock of what has changed for the better in recent months. In May, the president of Toyota Motor, Akio Toyoda, noted that working remotely had reduced document creation for meetings by half. He hopes this time will instead be “invested for the future.” Some consumer products companies have cut SKUs by 30% or more during this period, a rationalization that would have taken years to accomplish before Covid-19. In your organization, how has the role of meetings changed for the better? What new ways of working have you adopted? Has your company rediscovered simpler, but equally effective, ways of collaborating? The answers to these questions hold important lessons for companies as they reformulate, rather than replicate, office work.
For many, remote work is here to stay. Today organizations have the historic opportunity to design the optimal distributed workforce model, the one that will get the most from employees while also helping to retain and attract great talent.
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