Over the years, remote working has become gradually more accepted in mainstream society. This is even more evident in the midst of these challenging times as many companies go the way of teleworking due to the COVID-19 pandemic and self-quarantine requirements. What this means is that with millions of people across the world no longer opting – but being required – to work at home for a prolonged period of time, we are able to better draw more universally applicable conclusions about remote working habits.
The truth is that until now, we haven’t been able to get a true picture of how working outside the office affects individual satisfaction and organisational practices when it becomes a necessity rather than a perk. The workplace’s ability to survive such a stress test at scale has also never been tested to this extent before.
INSEAD’s Phanish Puranam, Roland Berger Chaired Professor of Strategy and Organisation Design, and post-doctoral fellow Marco Minervini therefore recently decided to conduct a survey on how employees are dealing with having to adjust to this accelerated change in ways of working and their impressions of working remotely. They hoped that the responses would give clarity to the capacity of organisations to adapt and benefit from remote work, which would in turn allow for the development of potential solutions to some of the challenges.
Survey findings – the good and the not-so-good
The survey garnered a total of 429 responses from 58 countries, spanning a range of industries and company sizes. Initial findings showed that, at least for those surveyed, the key bottlenecks in transitioning into working remotely may be more organisational rather than technological in nature.
In the sample 40% of respondents indicated an improvement in their productivity while working from home, while only 23% expressed a decline in productivity. The remainder did not observe any difference. It is also interesting to note that seniority and prior experience with remote working was associated with higher self-reported productivity, whereas other factors such as company size, industry, nature of work or age of respondent had little effect.
The sample also showed that while 80% of respondents said that their technology infrastructure was effective in supporting their work-from-home needs, only 63% agreed that their organisation had established clear procedures and processes to facilitate such arrangements, and even fewer (50%) felt that their manager was supporting them effectively.
“The good news is that technology is ready and it was correctly the first concern for all organisations” said Minervini. “Now it’s time for managers to focus on how to best adapt the organisation of their teams to the challenge of working remotely and on supporting their subordinates.”
There were clearly mixed reviews about the pros and cons of teleworking, with the strongest self-reported positive correlate of productivity being an improved work-life balance. However, it is important to note a concern for issues of inequality here, as those who reported having greater work-life balance are likely to be those who can avoid the commuting and who have a constructive workspace at home – not a given for everyone. On the flip side, the strongest self-reported negative correlates of productivity are the lack of social interaction and greater distractions at home.
The data also revealed a tendency for employees working from home to default to synchronous communication tools such as video calls and chat groups, while asynchronous tools such as repositories and file sharing are used less frequently.
So how can managers facilitate remote working habits in an organisation?
Puranam and Minervini suggest a closer look at restructuring work processes to allow people to work either independently, or at least asynchronously, in order to ease the burden on workers struggling to balance work with family or domestic responsibilities. Another way to ease the transition to working remotely is to combat isolation by encouraging virtual socialising such as video chats without an agenda or online gaming, even if it feels unnatural in the beginning. However, it is equally important to respect boundaries as “working without an office does not translate to unlimited working hours”.
Managers can also use this time as an opportunity to improve their written communication and team management skills, as well as to better understand their organisation by studying the plethora of data on interaction patterns made available through chat and video call logs and the like.
“Remote work may have arrived suddenly for most companies, but it will not disappear as quickly even after the pandemic subsides,” explained Puranam. ”The results from the survey give us a head start on what we need to do to help organisations adapt.”
This story was first published on INSEAD Knowledge in March 2020.