The New Workplace: Remote Work Taking Off (Part 1)

The New Workplace: Remote Work Taking Off (Part 1)

09/17/20 Laura Gibbons

By Mike Jacquart

Like 9/11, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of those “seminal events,” the kind of crisis that leaves an indelible marker in our collective memory. The imprint has most assuredly included the working world. As employee assistance professional Bryan McNutt puts it, “People will not be returning to work. Rather, they will likely begin an entirely new experience of work.”

Even before the pandemic, companies were experimenting with changes like shorter hours and work weeks as well as more remote work. According to Global Workplace Analytics, before the coronavirus outbreak, there were 4.3 million remote workers in the U.S., or roughly 3.2% of the entire workforce. That number skyrocketed when over 60% of employed Americans said they had worked from home during the crisis. (According to Gallup, this was in April.)

As someone who’s been working remotely for years, I did not find that number surprising. In fact, I wondered why it’s taken this long for this trend to really take off. This begs the question: “Should the modern employer be less focused on providing state-of-the-art office spaces if employees would rather skip the commute and work from home?”

Whether to Build: A Murky Matter
“Brick-and-mortar” issues such as construction costs, office rent, etc. are a BIG consideration for any business thinking about allowing more employees to skip the office commute and work from home. It used to be that if a company wanted to expand, it was almost automatically looking at building (or leasing) a bigger building. Today this can be a murky matter. The firm might be better off sticking with the physical size building it has and encouraging (wherever applicable) more employees to work from home. What a cost savings!

Here is an example. A former employer of mine leased an office suite with rent that ran $800 a month for roughly 1,200-square-feet. When the business expanded and needed to hire a sales staff, the vacant suite next to ours of similar size was immediately rented – at a cost of $800/month. All told, that meant my employer had to shell out $1,600 every month above and beyond any other bill that came in, such as electricity and other utilities, to say nothing of payroll, which is usually the largest monthly expense for any given business. Sixteen hundred each month is not chicken feed when you’re talking a small business with a narrow profit margin!

My point is those same employees would be working remotely today, and at $800 a month, the savings would add up mighty quick! And this is just one example of one small business. I shudder to think how high expenses must be for businesses with large buildings! What’s more, many employers found during the pandemic that remote work went more smoothly than they thought it would.

Other Factors
Of course, the cost of business space, while a big factor, isn’t the only one. Part of any decision about remote work needs to address what type of worker YOU are. A remote employee must be very self-motivated and okay with having little interaction with colleagues, save for some phone calls and Zoom meetings. And what about concentration? A quiet, dedicated area to work is essential, as well as the ability to remain focused on the task at hand, just like a regular office setting. If none of these describe you, then remote work is probably not a good idea.

In addition to individual differences, the type of work the business does also needs to be taken into account. For instance, certain professions, like writing, editing and graphic design, are much more conducive to remote work than some other fields. When I started working remotely nine years ago, the only big change in my day-to-day work was that instead of being handed a paper proof, I received it electronically.

Back then, I’d run into people who were shocked when they learned I did not have to drive into an office each day. Today, that same response would barely get a stare. Times do change.

Digital Health is Increasing
As the world of work becomes increasingly remote and digital, so does an employee’s access to healthcare. As employers are becoming acutely aware of the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on not only the physical well-being of employees but also their mental health, many are making telehealth options available to their workforce, including through EAPs.

“It’s worked during the pandemic and I imagine it’s going to continue to work because of the convenience,” said Julie Schweber, senior HR knowledge adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Many healthcare insurance organizations are promoting it as a viable way to connect with your healthcare provider, so I definitely see that in the future.”

Research is bearing this out. Roughly 53% of 256 employers surveyed by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions reported providing special emotional and mental health programs for their workforce because of the pandemic, with offerings including virtual care, apps, and EAPs.

For example, Headspace says it’s seen a 400%- plus increase in requests from companies seeking support for their employees’ mental health since mid-March. Big Health cites that same triple-digit increase in employer interest in the same timeframe. Many workplace experts predict the interest in virtual care will not go away after the pandemic is over.

Rethinking Corporate Culture
Until now, most workplace culture was defined by people working together in an office setting. Some firms suddenly having a 100% remote workforce, employers are evaluating the need for a physical office. The trend toward remote work is resulting in a “great pivot in terms of the employee experience – a much more flexible work experience,” according to Ravin Jesuthasan, workplace futurist and managing director at Willis Towers Watson.

This doesn’t mean that offices won’t still be needed, but they will increasingly be seen as places for getting together when important thinking and strategizing is needed, as opposed to a setting where people simply drive to more out of force of habit.

“There is a lot of soul searching going on about the role of the office going forward, because it’s no longer the place where we come to put our heads down and just work,” Jesuthasan stated. “It’s increasingly really the place where people come to engage and collaborate, where they come to innovate in ways that Zoom doesn’t help them. So that’s not so much an acceleration, but a radical rethink.”

While the need for physical offices will remain, it’s likely they won’t need to be as large going forward, which can be a huge cost saver for a business since utilities and rent can be expensive.

What’s more, many employers found during the pandemic that remote work went more smoothly than they thought it would. As a result, Joe Connell, a principal at Perkins and Will’s, agrees a mindset toward more remote work is in place. Some people “are just rethinking having to be at the office all the time for accountability, because they’re actually pretty effective working from home,” Connell explained.

“There’s a much more permissive culture right now from the business leaders, and from the employees to work that out into full agility and flexibility.”

Clearly the pandemic has been accelerating workplace changes that were already taking place. But all is not rosy. Remote work and related areas also have drawbacks, which will be examined in an upcoming issue.

Mike Jacquart is the editor and publisher of “Employee Assistance Report” and he edits the “Journal of Employee Assistance” for EAPA. He has been writing about employee assistance and workplace topics and trends since 2004.

Source: Employee Assistance Report Lifestyle Tips Insert Vol. 15 No. 8

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