Remote Working: Is this the way of the future?

Image courtesy of Wiki.

Peter McNamara

Remote working is not new. Since personal computing and the internet came into its own in the late 1990s, people have been clocking-in from home. Up to this point, however, it has been a fringe phenomenon – an arrangement you might come to with a certain company under a certain manager – and certainly not a style of working most people would expect, or even desire. Enter 2020.
The benefits of remote working have been widely touted. It has the potential to create a happier workforce, who build work into their lives and not the other way around. It can lower business costs due to less need for office rental. And it gives employers and employees the chance to hire from and be hired from anywhere in the world, spreading the net for potential employees as wide as possible, and giving those in less fortunate countries and situations a leg-up.
Companies have long been resistant to trying it out, chiefly due to concerns around discipline and productivity – if someone is paying for your time, they want to watch how you spend it. Everything changed with the pandemic, and for the last 11 or so months, the world has seen a mass experiment in this way of life.
When the Covid storm finally passes, many jobs are likely to return to their former in-office structure. But many others will not. For some, this experiment has triggered a prickling sense of unease, with many people wondering: if I can do my job from home in Dublin, London, Brooklyn or Canberra, could someone else do it more cheaply from Sofia, Mumbai or Manila? Others have raised concerns about workers rights in this new era of remote working, and question whether current legislation is fit for purpose.
For better or worse, companies and managers have now been thrust into a world where this form of working has, at the very least, been proven possible. While surveys and collected data from the last year indicate that clocking-in from afar is not for everyone, for many people, remote working – quite simply – works.

The Benefits of Not
Showing Up
In 2018, about 216,000 people in Ireland opted for working from home or a co-working space. As of March 2020, it seems that anyone and everyone is trying out this way of life.
The potential advantages are many. For one thing, employees can enjoy much greater flexibility. Working remotely allows a person to plan their schedule as per their individual preferences, as opposed to strictly adhering to the rigid schedule demanded by the workplace. Individuals have different needs based on their personalities, so the work schedule cannot cater to everyone. With the flexibility to build your schedule, you can work at the time and place that suits you best. Added to that is the potential for a better work-life balance. With a lot of flexibility in terms of scheduling, you can slot your work time around your free time, and hence, can find more time to spend with your family and friends. Additionally, with this flexibility, you can also adjust your schedule depending on your day-to-day changing needs. Remote workers also find time to spend on their hobbies and improving their skills.
On that note, working to your own schedule can have positive health impacts. It can be difficult to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle when you are working from an office. Many workers want quick lunches so they can get back to their duties, and usually do not bother to bring a healthy, balanced meal with them – most people end up eating either a light snack or grabbing a bite from the nearest cafe. Working from home gives you the chance to maintain a healthy diet, not just because of time but also the availability of a properly-equipped kitchen. The option of being able to take a break whenever you need is also a bonus and encourages the movement you need for staying in shape.
One of the biggest draws for working remotely is the chance to avoid the dreaded commute. Commutes have been getting longer and more expensive. For many people, it means hours lost every day on getting to and from work. Most companies also do not include commuting in the work hours, so this comes out of the employeesʼ personal time. By working from home, you can save time and money. And given the ever-increasing traffic on our roads, it’s not just better for the individual but also the environment.
There are huge potential advantages for businesses also. With the option to work remotely, geographical barriers become nonexistent: all you need is an internet connection and a computer to be able to work. This means that a company’s potential talent pool has increased massively. Businesses could also see huge cost savings by going remote, as having a physical office space can bring huge rental fees.

One Year On: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Now, almost a year into this great experiment, we have gathered data on how things have gone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results have been mixed. It seems that remote working can be a great option for some, but given the strange and straining conditions in which we find ourselves, the experience has been difficult for many.
According to research carried out by pollsters Behaviour and Attitudes (B&A) on behalf of Laya Healthcare, about 40 per cent of workers are “struggling” with the remote set-up. The research lays bare the unpreparedness of most people, with almost 20% working from their bed and one in two working from either a converted sitting room or kitchen.
“If you choose to work remotely,” said Sinead Proos, head of wellness at Laya healthcare, “thatʼs a choice for your lifestyle. Youʼre probably set up ergonomically. You also choose to have child care. But many people have simply been catapulted into this way of life.”
According to the B&A survey, 42% of people are experiencing “extreme worry” because of the Covid-19 pandemic while 36 per cent admitted to struggling with everyday life.
Research commissioned by Linked-In made similar findings. It seems people who are working from home due to the coronavirus are clocking up an extra 38 hours per month – the equivalent of an additional working week. What’s more, 56% of respondents to this survey said they felt more anxious or stressed about work than before the Covid-19 lockdown was introduced. The lockdown is also having a greater impact on the stress levels of younger workers, with over 70% of respondents under the age of 24 saying that they feel stressed or anxious as a result of working from home.
Meanwhile, the merging of home and work environments resulted in almost one-quarter of respondents struggling to switch off at the end of the day. People were also anxious to prove that they deserve to keep their jobs, with 43% of respondents saying they felt under pressure to answer emails and calls quicker than usual, or be visible online while they are remote working.
Overall, the Linked-In research shows that keeping their job is the biggest concern among respondents with 41% concerned that their employer may no longer operate or make staff redundant.

Remote Control: Workers Rights in a new Era
The fear of being made redundant due to outsourcing is not new. In 2007, Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton University estimated that “stunning advances in computerised telecommunications technology” meant that between 22 and 29% of US jobs were already offshorable, or would be within a decade or two. Many lower skilled service-sector jobs did indeed move from the US and the EU to cheaper countries such as India, from call centres to IT and back-office support.
The current situation will undoubtedly accelerate this process. The “new” offshoring is more likely to be via platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr, which connect employers with freelancers for task-based work and take a cut of the pay. Engaging freelancers is more flexible and avoids the risk of an outsourced office being closed. Upwork and Fiverr reported 24 and 88% year-on-year revenue growth in the third quarter respectively and their share prices have risen sharply this year.
White-collar platform work ranges from simple jobs, such as a piece of copy writing, to complex project work. The competition for jobs is borderless. A search on Fiverr found someone in Sri Lanka who would write a blog post in 24 hours for $5 (he has more than 1,000 reviews with an average score of 4.9 out of 5), someone from India who would charge $15 and someone from the US who would charge $10.
The platforms open up opportunities to those with in-demand skills who want the freedom to freelance – especially valuable for talented people in poorer countries. But for those with more generic skills, there is the risk of commoditization, compressed pay and no employment protections, in the developed and developing world alike.
A 2017 International Labour Organization study of 3,500 workers from 75 countries on five micro-task platforms (which feature simpler tasks) found average hourly earnings ranged between $2 and $6.50 per hour, with a high proportion of workers earning below the prevailing minimum wage.
In Ireland, a leading HR organisation has said that employment conditions need to be “significantly reviewed” in light of the coronavirus pandemic, as much of the legislation in place is not fit for purpose in an era in which remote working is becoming the norm.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which represents more than 6,000 Irish HR professionals, said more action is needed by Government and employers to increase the opportunity and uptake of flexible working arrangements. They added that there was no legal entitlement for workers to be granted part-time employment, or a broad entitlement for them to even request flexible or remote working.
The institute is calling on the Government to “lead by example in the public sector”, by creating and sustaining more flexible and remote working roles.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is another body that has urged the Government to commit to a review of employment legislation to ensure protection of remote workers during the Covid-19 crisis.

A Hybrid Future?
In an Adecco Group survey of thousands of workers around the world, more than three-quarters said that a mix of office-based and remote work is the best model in this new era of work. And 79% want more flexibility in how and where they work overall.
That doesnʼt mean all the jobs currently being done remotely in the rich world can move offshore. Shared language, culture and time zones will continue to matter. In addition, many employees working remotely this year have relied on accrued social capital with colleagues and clients that will eventually need to be refreshed with face-to-face contact. These jobs are more likely to become “hybrid” after Covid-19, with a mixture of office and remote days. They may move out of cities, but not countries.
The pandemic also highlighted the risks associated with offshoring: when some call centre offices had to be shut down in India and the Philippines staff didnʼt have the laptops, internet access or security clearance to work from home. Telstra, an Australian telecoms company, was badly hit by shutdowns in the Philippines and decided to hire 3,500 temporary staff in Australia.
So, after all this, it seems that office jobs arenʼt going to disappear – but the past year might persuade companies to shrink their “core” of permanent staff and expand their periphery of on-demand workers based anywhere. This confluence of globalisation and casualisation could have big consequences, especially for younger and lower-skilled white-collar workers.
Undoubtedly, we will need to tread carefully into this new style of working, and aim to strike a healthy balance. When properly put into practice, the potential gains for remote-working are huge. And, informative as the great “mass experiment” has been, for the most part it has not been carried out in strict laboratory conditions – employers and employees are trialing this new way of working in the most worrisome and difficult of times. A future set-up of remote working days being balanced by time spent at the office might be the best approach. Like the fellah says: everything in moderation.