The Wright Brothers made the first powered flight in 1903, and by 1969 Neil Armstrong had stepped on the moon. The extraordinary technological advancements during this period were powered by two World Wars followed by a Cold War, demonstrating that necessity is the mother of invention and that times of crisis often drive innovation and technological development.
In February 2020 many business owners would have been highly dubious about the resilience of their systems to support the majority of their employees working remotely, or that employees would be able to carry out their roles productively in such a fashion. The success with which many businesses have met these challenges has led to some discussing a permanent shift to flexible working for some if not all of their staff. As someone who has for a number of years advocated a more liberal attitude to flexible working (treating work as something to be done rather than somewhere to go and focusing on output rather than input) it is pleasing to see more business recognising what technology can enable us to achieve.
Change in Government Position
Last week the Prime Minister announced that from 1 August the Government’s advice for England on going to work will change so that instead of government telling people to work from home, employers will be given more discretion, be asked to make decisions about how their staff can work safely. On the assumption that an employer can safely bring its employees back they will need to grapple with what practices should be retained and how much reliance should be placed on technology in preference to physical attendance in the workplace.
Firstly it will be important for business to recognise that different people may have different attitudes towards continued remote working. Every individual is different and will have their own motivations, priorities and concerns regarding a potential return to the workplace.
For some, perhaps older workers with no children at home and houses large enough to accommodate home offices, the last few months may have represented a pleasant break to the norm, especially if they had previously been required to endure a long commute into the office. Also, more experienced employees may require less day to day support and mentoring in their roles, enabling them to work effectively in a mini-silo.
In contrast, other (potentially younger) employees may be living in shared rental accommodation without enough room to set up a designated office space, who may also benefit from higher levels of interactive both as part of their training and development and on a social level. These employees may be keen to get back into the workplace as soon as they can.
Employees with children at home may be very keen to get back to the workplace to see a change in their routines but will be limited in their ability to do so until the schools potentially reopen in September. In addition to these broad groups businesses may also have to deal with employees who continue to shield if they are vulnerable or those who may have experienced a bereavement.
All of these groups may also be affected by other factors including whether or not they would need to rely upon public transport to get back and how willing they may be to get back on a train or bus to get to work. In addition, businesses may find that there is pressure from government to return more employees to their places of work when it is safe to do so to help drive the economic recovery and save the “lunchtime economy” of cafes and retail outlets from further damage, and to protect revenues for the train and bus franchises and TFL.
Finding a healthy balance
If restrictions can be overcome making it possible for employees to return then employers will need to weigh up the benefits of getting back to the workplace against continuing to utilise technology to permit remote working.
In the long term employers may be able to reduce costs through reducing office space. This may be very tempting, especially where productivity has remained good during the lockdown period and employees have expressed a preference to continue with remote working in the future. However businesses should also be mindful of some of the potential negatives of remote working such as employee isolation. Also, although remote working can provide considerable benefits in terms of work/life balance through reducing the need to commute, a blurring of the line between work and home when working remotely may have the opposite effect with employees being “always-on”.
Finally, although webinars and e-learning can provide excellent remote training opportunities, I can speak from personal experience how much more challenging it can be to build rapport with individuals you are seeking to train if this is being done remotely. Although it may be possible for 30 people to join a video conference for training the delegates may take more away from face-to-face training as and when it can be safely delivered. Also the effective mentoring and development of junior staff may be better conducted through in person discussions over a cup of coffee than via a zoom meeting.
Therefore although businesses may have surprised themselves with how effective technological solutions have been in helping their businesses to continue to operate a balance should be struck between them and a return to some more tried and tested practices.
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.