COVID-19 has brought us challenges of all kinds. From dealing with lockdown, home-schooling our kids to working from home. And it’s the latter that will be one of the lasting legacies of 2020. We will see marked shift towards a distributed working model for an increasing number of businesses with current government guidelines advising employees to work at home where possible.
Most businesses in the UK will continue to use some form of distributed working model, whether through a hybrid approach or everyone working remotely. Very few have returned to pre-pandemic working practices with current government guidelines advising employees to work at home where possible.
What are the challenges of a distributed working model?
It does look as though a distributed working model is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Despite the Government asking businesses to get their staff back to work, most businesses, including public services, have not yet fully done so. This is due to a mix of reasons, ranging from the difficulty of ‘COVID-proofing’ the space to cutting costs in office rent.
Capita plc, for example, announced a permanent closure of a significant number of its offices. One of the biggest outsourcing businesses in the country, Capita employs 45,000 people. It is now ending the leases on approximately 100 of its previous workplaces. For companies like this, who were struggling even before the virus, opportunities to slash costs are vital.
This means more companies that traditionally had their entire workforce in offices will switch to flexible working practices. A move that saves so much money in office rents is too good an opportunity to miss. Many more companies are likely to reduce office space.
Shift in attitude towards working from home
It appears that there has been a significant cultural shift towards working from home, or as part of a distributed working pattern in the UK. This is due to a combination of factors, including:
- We went into lockdown later than other countries.
- The significant cost and stress of commuting for employees.
- Schools have only just gone back after six months in lockdown.
- Businesses see an opportunity to save money.
- The tech works and is easy to use.
A BBC survey recently found that of 50 major employers in the UK, none have plans to have all their employees back in the office full time. The fact remains that the virus is still here, and while the Government urges a return to the office, The Financial Times says that only a tenth of civil servants have done so.
Challenges of distributed working models
Distributed working brings with it its own set of challenges. One of the biggest and most important for employers is how to ensure employees feel fully integrated. Here are some of the common problems employers can come across with distributed teams along with potential solutions.
Very little in-person interaction
Distributed teams can stay in touch throughout the working day using all kinds of technological innovations. From video calls to messenger systems, there are plenty of ways to communicate often. However, it is more difficult to read the mood of the team or wider company without in-person interaction.
Holding regular virtual meetings is a good way to combat this. Remote collaboration and communication are possible with the right technology and video conferences allow employees to see each other’s facial expressions and body language. All of which helps to make employees feel more connected.
A common issue for employees while remote working is feeling out of the loop. This is particularly marked with employees who usually work in the office 100% of the time. Remote working requires different collaborative approaches to ensure that creativity, communication, and workflow remains constant.
To combat this, employers and managers must ramp up their internal communications. Avoid giving one-to-one instructions without a team meeting to show everyone their place in the overarching goal. Ensure daily communication, and ‘open-door’ management structure and regular video conferences for best results.
Lack of team building opportunities
Meetings still need to happen, and employers should consider how to roll out socially distanced get-togethers. There is a danger that team building opportunities are lost with teams working in different locations. The challenge for employers is to find regular ways to facilitate meetings for work purposes and for social reasons.
Virtual meetings are the logical answer, with simple tech necessary to get everyone together online. Zoom has become extremely popular as a virtual platform, but there are other more heavily encrypted services available too. Away from work, virtual meetups work well for social meetups too. Lockdown saw a sharp rise in online virtual quizzes of all kinds, wine tastings, silent discos and virtual escape rooms among other innovative team-building opportunities.
Poor understanding between remote teams
With people working remotely, it’s common to see interactions between team members become more difficult. This is often due to a lack of understanding of each other’s role or position. Without regular face to face interaction and in-office meetings, communication can quickly become clouded.
Employers must take the time to encourage inter-team alliances and help remote workers feel like they’re still part of the company and its overall vision. This means using real time messenger apps, virtual meetings and socially distanced meetups if possible.
Distributed working can suit employers and employees alike
Many companies say that their employees are fully behind switching to distributed working models. People who are situated all over the country can work together effectively. They can still service clients and the business can still function.
This represents a sea-change in the way we all view the office. It is still there, and it’s still an important part of our working lives, but it is no longer the only way to work. I think we will see more businesses terminating leases and using serviced offices along with remote working. This will become the new reality for many.
A survey of UK workers by the University of Southampton and Cardiff University researchers shows that 88% of employees who began working from home during lockdown want to continue doing so, at least some of the time. Almost half of the respondents said they want to work from home all of the time.
By early August 2020, only 17% of people had returned to work in offices across the 63 biggest cities in the country. This is roughly the same number as at the beginning of June when lockdown was first relaxed. Interestingly, in France, 83% of office workers are back in their building and 76% in Italy.
Most of the issues employers face when switching to distributed working or partial home working can be rectified through proper internal communication. Communication plans must change and be reworked to allow for the fundamental differences between in-office teams and remote working teams.
Integrating employees within distributed working models is crucial for their success. But as we’re seeing across the board in the UK, companies are moving towards making remote working permanent. This change of attitude towards working from home could be one of the lasting legacies of COVID-19.
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