Earlier this year, Rest of World published the stories of nine workers across the world who turned their homes into makeshift offices during the pandemic. They ranged from a logistics specialist in Kyrgyzstan, a chef in Bangkok, a marketing consultant in Bangladesh and an environmental campaigner in Seoul. Their jobs are varied, but the pain points are similar: distractions at home, less effective team collaboration, connectivity issues, blurred lines between work and personal lives.
In April 2020, ONS reported that over half of London’s population had shifted to remote working solely as a result of the pandemic, with similar proportions across the rest of the country. For organisations, ensuring business continuity meant a herculean effort to enable mass remote working, putting huge pressure on both IT teams and employees themselves. Over a year later, the new work reality still remains a minefield of challenges.
Today, many organisations are still figuring out what new working environments will look like. As we found in our Digital Trends Report 2021, 30% of business leaders consider “adapting to changing working environments” as one of their top three challenges for 2021.
THE COLLABORATION CHALLENGE
Attitudes towards remote working are mixed. While some laud the flexibility and freedom that it has afforded employees, others consider it culpable for a mental health epidemic and a decline in employee morale, engagement and belonging. One of the commentators on this year’s report, a tech change leader from a prominent UK bank, argued that “organisations are not properly supporting their employees. Everyone’s working harder than they have been traditionally and employees aren’t equipped to support themselves.” It’s a topic that requires nuance, with each individual having a unique experience. As John Lewis’s Group Operations Director, Andrew Murphy, said, “The main lesson taken from remote working is there's no one statement you can make about it that is true for every employee.”
As we emerge from national lockdowns and regain control of our economies, it’s clear that “change” will continue to characterise the workplace (wherever that may be) for the foreseeable future. And there are hurdles that we are yet to leap.
In the Nimbus Ninety community, the top people management challenges in new working environments are considered to be morale and engagement (55%), improving collaboration (45%) and fostering a sense of belonging (44%). Fostering collaboration has already been a bumpy ride: Microsoft Teams reported record numbers of new users in March 2020 of 44 million users in a single day, up from 20 million four months earlier. A Deloitte study found that 75% of office workers have used at least two new types of technology for work, with many having limited collaboration tools, then too many.
Despite a flood of new collaboration and communication tools, visibility across projects is considered to be more of a tech issue than a people issue, according to this year’s Digital Trends Report. 42% of business leaders consider visibility to be the biggest technology barrier to effective remote working, with most of these coming from small to medium businesses. For larger organisations, lack of timely access to data and information is considered a more significant challenge.
THE INNOVATION CHALLENGE
In early April 2020, I was in conversation with an innovation leader from a high street retailer. “The voice of change, the voice of making innovation happen, is so much clearer,” he told me. “We know that we have to make changes in order to get somewhere.”
That sentiment of innovation necessity is echoed across industries, no matter who you speak to. It’s become even more core to organisational DNA over the course of the pandemic: as Ahmed Mazhari, president of Microsoft Asia, asserted, “innovation is no longer a luxury.” In the Nimbus Ninety community, 71% agreed that they have become more innovative in the last 12 months than in the last 5 years, with the self-described disruptors making up most of that number.
However, for many organisations, the technological challenges of remote innovation still stand in the way of seeing results. Maurizio Pilu, VP of Innovation at Lloyd’s Register, explained to us the difficulties that his innovation teams have had to overcome in terms of adapting to the changed environment. “We work with companies that manage parts of the supply chain, so it’s a very physical industry,” he said. “This year, we’ve had to figure out how to do the same job, without those people there. It’s required a lot of innovation to think about different ways of using technology to fill this gap.”
With a lack of timely access to data and inadequate collaboration tools topping the list of technological barriers to effective remote working, organisations have work to do on the tech side before remote innovation can reach its full potential.
THE WELLBEING CHALLENGE
“Be kind. It's tough. It's been a difficult time. Everybody's got their own personal pressures, loved ones at risk. The things that people have to deal with are intrinsic to how they turn up. That kindness, that flexibility, is hugely important.”
This was the advice given by a retail CIO to an audience of business leaders. In November 2020, the mental health charity Mind revealed that calls to its helpline doubled in volume that month as the UK went into a second lockdown. With a mental health epidemic mirroring the COVID pandemic, it’s clear that organisations must do more to support their employees in their physical, social and mental wellbeing.
In 2021, 35% of business leaders want a greater separation between home and work while remote working. Respondents from smaller organisations also desire time in an office-style environment more than those from larger organisations. After a year where social interaction with colleagues has been confined to the four sides of our computer screens, bringing people together across an organisation has never been more important for morale and a sense of belonging.
There is a productivity piece in the mix too: research done by collaboration tool provider Asana estimates that a whopping 157 hours of productivity has been lost thanks to unproductive meetings. Where a question in the office could be asked through a quick desk-side chat, a meeting now has to be booked in: the average office worker is now spending 24% more time in one-on-one meetings than they were pre-pandemic. The result is decreased productivity, longer days and more chance of burnout.
It’s clear that remote working still has a long way to go before perfection. With a return to the office still in progress and more organisations looking at hybrid working options, the art of adaptability will be crucial to bringing the workforce on that journey. But even more important, however, will be the art of empathy.
Read more about how organisations are driving innovation and supporting employee wellbeing in our State of Recovery Report.