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Remote working and productivity - mutually exclusive?

In April 2020 The Office for National Statistics in the UK published its latest figures on remote working with 49.2% of adults in employment working remotely as a result of the lockdown measures imposed in response to the Coronavirus. This compares to less than 20% of people working remotely as recently as 2018. Both organisations and individuals need to adapt to what has been dubbed “the new normal” by the press and many commentators. Whilst we are still in the transition from lockdown to “the new normal” there is a lot of speculation on the impact of remote working on the economy. Despite the implications for the wider economy that remote working is having, and will continue to have, it is important to remember that some organisations and jobs cannot work remotely. Frontline medical staff, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, the police and postal workers are just some of the many workers who are unable to work remotely as well as having to respond to an increase in demand for their services. As we enter the post-Coronavrius world it can be useful to reflect on some of the emerging data and information that will help businesses and individuals adapt effectively to the changes. Since I am spending all of my working time in my home office this image captures my new, unforeseen, interruption to effective working.I still have to manage my e-mails and phone calls effectively but my latest disruption to productivity comes in the form of the regular and unplanned interruptions from my cat. What are your new and surprising experiences of remote working?

As we are still living with the Coronavirus epidemic there is more speculation and less evidence as to the impact of the virus on our working practices and productivity. We need to wait for the results of research and studies, and associated empirical evidence, to emerge. Most of the information available on the impact is based on the outcomes of surveys of peoples’ reactions to the virus and anecdotal evidence. Research by CanadaLife shows that remote workers rate themselves as more productive: home workers rated their productivity as 7.7 out of 10 compared to 6.5 out of 10 for those working in open-plan offices. This correlates with my anecdotal findings from leaders that I work with when I have asked them about the impact of team working on their productivity. I asked 17 business and team leaders the same question with 10 saying productivity had improved, 3 being neutral and 4 saying it had decreased. Richard Hemming, a very astute Marketing Director (and advocate of home-working) that I spoke to did sound a note of caution on these statistics when he commented that:

“Some of our collective productivity improvement may be because shops, gyms, pubs and cinemas are closed. Before we conclude whether the trend will continue, we should see what happens when they re-open and everyone has welcome distractions and temptations...” Richard Hemming - Marketing Director - Liv-ex

This increase in productivity has to be offset by a statistic released on the CanadaLife website on 3rd June that shows that 46%, nearly half, of working UK employees are feeling more pressure to be “present” during lockdown. This has led to 35% of people working through illness and 16% of workers reporting working through illness through fear of redundancy. The findings are not spread equally across the different generations with 41% younger staff, those aged 26 – 34, claiming to have worked through sickness compared to 20% of workers over the age of 55. The same poll also showed that 21% of people had taken what is colloquially known as a “duvet day” or a “sickie”, i.e. not working when they are not ill.

The evidence of the impact of remote working during the virus is still emerging. As with any major change, or what Thomas Khun so compellingly called a paradigm shift, there are going to major implications, both positive and negative, that will affect our views, attitudes and reactions to remote working. These are unprecedented times and all we know with certainty at the moment is that there will be major changes in attitudes, perceptions and practices that will define how we work, engage and produce value in "the new normal” post-pandemic economy. One caveat to bear in mind is that to rely on pre-pandemic statistics and attitude surveys will no longer be sufficient to help us define, analyse and drive forward the post-pandemic economy, our organisations and our careers.

What are your views on remote working? Has remote working impacted you? How has remote working impacted you or your business? What are the necessary pre-conditions that you will need to put in place to ensure that remote working is successful for both your organisation and your employees?

I would love to hear your thoughts, views and experiences of remote working. Please contact me on to share your experiences. All communications are treated with strict confidentiality.

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