Remotely effective and effectively remote: the rise of the remote worker
Welcome the remotely effective
The return to a pre-COVID normality, of a humming office with shared coffee machines, filled meeting rooms, and end of trip facilities downstairs, seems far from our current reality. For those who have traditionally worked in offices, COVID has raised serious questions about how and when we will use them, particularly with the ongoing health risks and the flexibility benefits that come from working from home. Of course, many jobs in the Australian economy do not take place in an office, in front of a desktop computer. Those in jobs that involve physical labour, human contact, and/or specific workplaces have less choice about returning to the workplace, however some options do exist.
Regardless of the type of work and workplace, COVID has provided us with the impetus to think more deliberately about how organisations structure how and where their people work. While the future value of an office or other physical workspace may be uncertain, the value of an effective sustainable workforce has never been clearer. As we enter the post-COVID global recession, organisations are looking to understand how to maximise the levels of effectiveness in the new ways of working, while ensuring that that the workforce’s health and safety is paramount.
Mostly ‘remotable’ jobs
No one would debate that some aspects of jobs undertaken in offices pre COVID can be done remotely. A clear example is the many knowledge workers such as finance workers and scientific researchers who spend their days on a computer and taking calls. These tasks can be undertaken from home. And COVID has shown the power of remote technologies that enable interaction and collaboration on more complex tasks. For example, small and large group calls, collaborative document authoring, solutions discovery aids and remote security validation have all proven themselves to be strong technologies, that are sufficiently mature stage to be deployed across large and complex organisations over many thousands of people.
Some work requires physical presence and contact. As an example, a pharmacy sales assistant’s job will be composed of a collection of tasks some of which can be done remotely, and some of which can be improved through technology and others that are not suited to remote work and can’t really be done through technology either at this time.
Thinking differently about work
Whether dealing with remotable or partially remotable work, it is clear there is an opportunity to plan for and implement new workforce structures and approaches to take advantage of the opportunities for remote working. While some of the biggest companies have no plans to return to the office, others are considering, or have enabled, a partial return to the office for some workers, either in rotation or by segmenting their workforce by ‘remotable’ and partially remotable roles. And because of the ongoing need for physical distancing few companies have considered returning their employees completely to the traditional workplace. For those that have, they face uncertainty if further waves of COVID arrive and force their workforce back into remoting.
Careful strategic workforce planning can help to identify aspects of work that can be done differently, for example, through automation or part automation, from different geographies or even work that has been shown to add little value and therefore no longer even required. New operating models, new organisational design and reskilling opportunities can be planned for and implemented to embed these opportunities.
An important aspect of being able to redesign work is the ability to describe a job as a collection of tasks, some involving interaction with others, and some that can be done remotely. This atomised view of a job, and therefore a workforce, allows companies to identify groups of workers and jobs that are ‘mostly remotable’, where the majority of tasks can be done remotely, with small implications for effectiveness. Taking the example of a pharmacy sales assistant’s job discussed earlier, this role is composed of a collection of tasks some of which can be done remotely and some of which can be improved through technology, yet others that are not suited to remote work and can’t effectively be done through technology. This then allows a company to decompose these jobs and consider how to return these workers to places of work, potentially by changing the nature of the role, and repurposing some of the tasks.
We anticipate that some companies will seek to actively change the shape of their workforce, changing the job requirements of certain segments to make them ‘remotely-effective’, and others to make them much more office-based. In the presence of appropriate health and safety guidelines, companies may even ask their employees if they prefer the office or remoting, and proactively move employees into ‘remotable’ or ‘office’ specifically structured roles that are created to be specifically productive in those environments.
Addressing the challenges
It is clear, even when work can be done remotely, a remote or hybrid workforce (partly remote and partly in the office) does raise its own unique challenges. Ensuring a functioning and collaborative corporate culture, remote talent management, and ensuring wellbeing of workers all need attention to ensure that the workforce is not only functional but sustainable. So far, many remote workforces have relied on technology tools, primarily designed for efficiency, to back-fill other social requirements of working in a team. Team drinks have been moved online to video-calls, board meetings to the kitchen and client pitches to shared screens. While many of these changes ‘work’ in terms of short-term functionality, their effectiveness is yet to be determined, especially where, in the long term, they substitute human contact, relationships and trust.
Organisations are starting to turn their attention to strategic questions about, not only how to structure the work and workforces differently, but how to maximise employee motivation and engagement when work looks different. Questions such as how to capture and embed the leadership characteristics that have thrived during COVID and how to ensure that the organisational culture supports an employee value proposition that attracts and retains diverse and talented people. Questions of how space will be used, the ongoing adaptation of IT systems to some people working from home and some people working in the office, how to maintain security of information.
One of the practical ways to deal with this challenge that is starting to emerge is the part-time office solution adopted by many companies to ensure that employees are coming into the office a few times a week. This helps with team cohesion and relationship building, but to be productive, employees should concentrate their office time on specific activities that they are unable to perform from home. In other words, taking client Zoom calls from home, while only working on a computer at the office is not an optimal way of working.
An effective workforce is one where the jobs are well-structured, and the workforce is motivated. COVID has highlighted the potential for work to be restructured so that tasks that do not need to be done with a physical presence can be done remotely, and those tasks that are best suited to being physically present with other people are done in an office or other workplace. This creates the potential for a greater number of workers who are ‘mostly remote’; potentially becoming the norm in some industries. With due attention to employee engagement and motivation, organisations can successfully embed remote working.