The promise of remote working: from fighting commute to heading off contagion? Part 1

Statistics show that more than half the world’s working population work remotely at least half of each week. Is it the solution it promises to be? Why the popularity and what are the pitfalls? We take a closer look in our two-part article.

Sandra Bullock, sitting at a desk in her home, in front of a dual-monitor desktop setup, playtesting diskettes for a company she works with on one, and ordering pizza to satisfy her nightly craving on the other. No, it’s not the prelude to a cheesy dream scenario. Yes, it’s a movie, a 1995 thriller where Bullock, a cybersecurity expert, telecommutes to her workstation every day. And why wouldn’t she! She’s got everything she needs to work (and to feed herself, and to socialise, and to entertain…) right there on her desktop. For some of us hermits it really is a dream scenario. But you don’t have to be reclusive to enjoy the boon of remote working or “telecommuting”— as the phenomenon was initially called.

In fact, according to an annual global workspace survey released by IWG, a Switzerland-based serviced office provider, today more than 50% of people worldwide work remotely for at least half the week. This number is sure to increase in the coming days and weeks given the unprecedented event the world is currently facing as people worldwide are being encouraged to work from home during the coronavirus outbreak.

In our two-part article, we’ll first talk to Lieven Lambrecht, Head of HR at PwC Luxembourg, about remote working and its growing popularity. In the second instalment, we’ll look at how it has evolved over the years and how it’s perceived by workers and employers around the world.

  1. Why is there a growing need today for remote working? Why do we need flexibility?

First of all, the shift in culture and new entrants to the labour market necessitates a new approach to organising work and life. The latest generation is truly digital. They have grown up with technology and it is essential to their lifestyle. In short, remote working is driven by two major factors: mobility and technology. As today people are 24/7 on social media and the internet, the modern-day employee is very used to blending work with life and vice versa. The current mobile phone has become their gateway to the internet and their virtual social life. Secondly, as the mobility problem is growing by the day, and people lose endless hours of productivity in traffic, it is quite normal that they are looking for a better work-life harmony facilitated by technology, which allows for remote working. As the productivity demand has gone up significantly over the past decades, remote working on top of normal office hours have become the norm. But there is also a truth that employers are currently starting to recognise: many of their employees on average sacrifice more than 25 days a year to commute to a place that is no better suited to work than their homes.

Flexibility is also part of our modern-day culture. It’s quite normal that people want to work how they think they are most productive. For some, this means starting early in the morning from home, leaving for the office after the morning traffic jams, picking up kids from school at 4pm and then working the rest of their daily hours in the evening when kids are in bed. The division between work and life has always been artificial. I believe we need to harmonise these two elements rather than keeping them separate. It will lead to much more balance in life. And what we have to realise is that people want different things out of life. More money above a certain income doesn’t buy you more happiness.

RTL

  1. What are the benefits and potential disadvantages of remote working?

The biggest benefit is productivity for tasks where you need focus and a quiet space to do your work. The turmoil and constant interruption at the office is slowing everybody down. I live through days when I can really start working at 6pm because of hour long meetings, calls, constant distractions and so much more. ‘Can I see you for 5 minutes?’ is probably the most frequently asked question I get every day. The rise of open-plan offices due to the cost of real estate hasn’t helped productivity if they are not cleverly designed. People need quiet space to produce qualitative output.

The biggest disadvantage of remote working is the hurdle it represents when you need intense collaboration on a project, task, goal or whatever it may be, in cases where you really need to be together with your team in one place to be effective. Humans depend on face-to-face interactions to generate trust, collaboration and alignment. Doing this remotely is much harder than you might imagine. It might also lead to absolute solitude in your role. Another disadvantage is the reduction of your talent pool: as an office-first organisation we are self-limiting the talent pool from which we recruit.

  1. Are there any lessons learned?

What is most disheartening is the fact that our current legislative ecosystem is no longer fitting our needs, neither from the employer standpoint, nor from the employee standpoint. The social security and tax legislation in Luxembourg and its neighbouring countries are counterproductive to a harmonious work-life balance. Secondly, we need a culture shift in how we look at performance. We need to get away from assessing the input to valuing the output, specifically when you look at manager and above functions. I believe radical trust is the most important asset a team can have. Only then will they focus on the goals and tasks at hand without getting bogged down in the formalities of working life.

  1. What's next in flexible working?

I think remote and flexible working will be more and more accepted as the digital evolution continues to discover new ways of interacting with each other. I think the rise of gig workers (or independent contractors) will force the authorities to rethink the legal framework of labour.

One of the unintended consequences of technology is the ease by which ‘services’ can be done remotely and securely. This means that an actual presence on a work floor in a company becomes less and less a prerequisite. This will also change how employees ‘sell’ their services to companies and how companies will ‘buy’ the services of employees (will we still call them employees?).

It’s an evolution that cannot be stopped, only delayed. I expect to see intense cross-border collaboration as a second driver for change. Our current workforce consists of 77 nationalities. We bring them on a daily basis to Luxembourg. From an economic and mobility standpoint, this is not optimal. We lose everyday thousands of hours of productivity. The cost is too high. Losing everyday three hours on the road, in a bus or on a train is an absolute disaster for young families. Thus, building in flexibility in a working day itself is the next thing.

Thirdly, any office-first company will have a remote-first competitor. This will lead to a different competitor landscape in the near future, also for companies like PwC.