Like some individuals, not all UK businesses have scrupulously followed the government guidelines when it comes to fighting the spread of Covid-19.
However, those that have done so – by enabling and encouraging employees to work from home since the pandemic began – have inadvertently done themselves and their staff an enormous favour. They've facilitated a great big experiment in remote working that they probably would never have otherwise undertaken.
In ordinary, pre-Covid times, I would often come across certain beliefs about homeworking. These included the idea that allowing employees to work from home some or all of the time would lead to poor productivity, lack of discipline, shirking of responsibilities, decreased professionalism, inequality across teams or departments and an extra burden on management’s shoulders.
Concerns about the logistics and costs of setting up the required technology and associated issues may also have turned business leaders off the idea.
The arrival of Covid-19 on our shores forced almost everyone who could do so to give it a go, and urgently at that. It's an arrangement that won't have worked for everyone, depending on their business model. But, 10 months on, a steady procession of household-name brands have announced that they liked what they found.
This week Alan Jope, chief executive of consumer goods giant Unilever, revealed that the company’s thousands of office workers would not be returning to their former working patterns.
“We anticipate never going back to five days a week in the office,” he said. “That seems very old-fashioned now.”
Like many other businesses, Unilever had had an unexpected crash course in the key benefits of remote teams.
These can include:
- Greater productivity and creativity, due to a better work/life balance for employees
- Improved stress levels and reduction in sick leave
- Better staff retention
- More streamlined and efficient communication
- Reduced overheads as offices no longer have to be rented, maintained and operated
- Expanded talent pool for recruitment, with less emphasis on candidates’ geographic location
Mr Jope had also been pleasantly surprised by how agile Unilever, one of the UK's biggest companies, had proved itself to be in response to the crisis – something that will no doubt boost confidence in its ability to make big changes quickly in the future.
The common objections that tend to be raised to remote working include:
- Remote workers are harder to manage and hold to account
- Homeworking isn't suitable for everyone, such as those who don't have an appropriate workspace at home or who struggle with isolation issues
- In-person interaction is essential for teambuilding and achieving the best work outcomes
However, all of these problems are solvable.
If a manager cannot confidently ensure that their staff are working ‘properly’ just because they’re out of sight, that manager is probably already not managing effectively in the office. Good management should be about ensuring outcomes, not worrying about accounting for every minute of their team's working day (something they're unlikely to be doing in the office anyway). Clear expectations and regular communication are the keys – just ask the many companies, large and small, who have made the switch to remote working successfully.
In answer to the other two objections, maintaining some kind of (cheaper) company or co-working space will provide an alternative option for staff who can’t or prefer not to work at home. I would argue that a lack of physical presence doesn't automatically lead to poorer team performance at all. But if that's a concern, retaining a space for regular in-person meetings would be a solution. Mr Jope stated that Unilever would look at a “hybrid mode” of office and homeworking once it was safe for staff to return to the premises.
For start-ups, small businesses and the self-employed, who are looking to get essential support for their businesses without the expense of taking on employees, remote teams could provide the solution. Removing the time and cost investment of going to an office means that freelancers can offer small businesses better flexibility and affordability, without compromising on the quality of their service.
If big business is heading that way, it’s smart for small business to get a step ahead by leading the way.