The Future is not Remote.. the Future is Flexible

For years, many business owners (admittedly myself included) have stood strong and firm against entertaining more flexible work arrangements, and more specifically, remote working. We cited and convinced ourselves of numerous reasons as to why remote working is a bad idea, from lack of supervision leading to less productivity, to lack of interaction eroding company culture. Yet, despite our protests, Covid-19 has dragged us, kicking and screaming, into these new ways of working and running our businesses.

First things first: Yes, remote-work and flexible work arrangements are here to stay

In a survey of around 750 workers in Malta, professional advisors PWC found that 71% of participants confirmed that they were working completely remotely, out of which a whopping 61% stated that this was their first experience of working remotely. Abroad, the indications are even clearer: Studies find that 82% of business leaders say their organizations plan to let employees continue to work from home at least some of the time, while 47% plan to allow employees to do so permanently.

Leading industry giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft have made remote work options permanent, and Germany is considering making home-working a legal right. Covid-19 has unleashed a remote working wave; the acronym WFH (work from home) is now known to all and sundry, and analysts across the world are convinced that the transition to remote-working and more flexible-work arrangements is permanent. 

For businesses, remote-work wasn’t and isn’t just about protecting against pandemic, it’s also about surviving the economic downturn

Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, estimates that at least 25 to 30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week throughout 2022. The sudden attractiveness of flexible-working arrangements to CEOs becomes evident when you look at the costs incurred, changing consumer behaviours, expectations of economic recovery, and overall effectiveness of remote work. For the majority of small and medium sizes business owners, remote-working is not just a way to prevent the proliferation of this virus, it’s an effective way to reduce real estate and operational costs. When you look at the data, you’d be hard pressed to disagree with this sudden shift in mindset.

Is this then a necessary evil? Not really. Overall, 77% of remote workers in a survey by IWG (International Workplace Group) reported higher productivity. Employees are more effective when they have some flexibility in their work arrangements. Businesses confirm this: 85% say that flexible remote policies have improved their overall productivity. In the survey by PWC Malta, 44% of respondents found that their productivity had actually increased when compared to working on-site and 31% stated that management had become less hesitant on this new way of working after experiencing its effectiveness during the crisis.

But flexibility isn’t just about the physical place of work, it’s also about time.

…and boasting about remote-first does not necessarily mean you’re offering flexibility

For workers in the hospitality, retail, service, or manufacturing industries, where you work and during which hours is not up for negotiation. Coming in at 8 or 9 and not one minute later is often as important as your work output, and failure to be on time  – regardless of reason, and especially if repeated – can be grounds for dismissal. While I can understand this logic, what did surprise me was finding out, during a conversation with my team, that many companies in the ‘digital industries’ were just as strict about the 9-5 routine.

Yes, they could wear whatever they wanted, had table tennis tables, regular evening hang outs, doughnut Fridays and countless other Instagrammable experiences, but when it came to choosing time and place to work, there was little room for negotiation.

What, in my mind, CEOs and managers of digital agencies fail to understand is that flexibility encompasses a lot more than letting your team choose their attires or their place of work, it’s also about trusting them to manage their own time, something which I’m proud to say that at M7Alpha this was a benefit enjoyed long before we knew Wuhan existed.

In survey after survey, the ability to skip the stress of making it to the office in time is cited as one of the big advantages to remote-work, but one must also consider that commuting to work wouldn’t be such a headache for workers in the first place if they didn’t fear reprisal should they not all arrive by 8:30am. In my company, an employee has the option to come in at any time between 7 and 9 and if someone needs to come in later, a message on our online communication channel will suffice.

Yes, we still expect employees to work 8 hours a day, and we also expect employees to be available between 9pm and 3pm, because those are the hours during which our clients are likeliest to make requests, but how they arrange their time beyond that is up to our employees.

No, the age of the office is not over, and it shouldn’t be

Over the last 6 months, business owners have swung to the opposite end of the office-vs-remote debate pendulum, with a number of agencies and companies going as far as positioning their company first as ‘remote-friendly’ then as ‘remote-first’ and now as ‘remote-only’

When you consider the challenges small to medium businesses are facing, the idea of doing away with the real estate involved with having an office is understandably appealing. As a business owner who’s navigating the new landscape Covid-19 has created, I’m not going to criticise anyone for trying to mitigate costs; likewise, it’s only rational to want to protect your employees from sickness, but there is an important rule to remember about pendulums: The more aggressively it swings to one side, the harder it’ll hit when it inevitably swings back.

This momentum towards remote working has led to a number of CEO’s to take things a step further and speculate that the office may be a thing of the past. I strongly disagree. I’ll tell you why in Part 2

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