HomeInsightsRemotely aware? Lessons from 9 months of remote working

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As we slowly move back to a less restrictive way of life and with talk of vaccines generating much-needed optimism, we’d all be forgiven for contemplating the genuine prospect of getting back to some form of normality soon. Covid-19 has clearly had a seismic impact but the world will no doubt bounce back – it always does. And the sectors Wiggin serves perhaps have more reason than most to be positive as 2020 draws to a close.

With the prospect of a new decade ahead of us, Covid’s most profound impact on business may end up being the changes it has brought about that are here to stay. Of these, arguably nothing is as significant as the widespread shift in the way that many of us work on a day to day basis.

Like many, my normal work routine completely transformed following the first Covid lockdown in England back in March 2020. While my day previously involved a long commute to one of Wiggin’s offices, regular face to face meetings and chats around the water cooler, it soon became dominated by Teams calls, home schooling and a constant search for a quiet room in my house. Things soon settled and it’s certainly been nice to see my wife and kids a bit more than usual! Many of you will have your own unique experiences either similar or very different to mine.

What’s apparent though is that for most, business does not appear to have suffered with staff working from home. In fact, there have been widespread reports of boosts to productivity, improvements in work-life balance and in some cases even increased collaboration. If these stories are to be believed (and there’s no particular reason they shouldn’t be), large numbers of employers are now reassessing how they plan to operate long term with a focus on embracing flexibility and remote working.

As an employment lawyer, it’s been fascinating advising clients at a time when long-standing policies and customs have literally been turned on their head. While it’s liberating that businesses have embraced the potential for doing things differently (particularly when this may arguably have other significant knock on benefits, for example, reduced carbon emissions or increased gender equality), there will naturally also be scope for conflict and legal issues to grapple with. It’s clear that some of you are already facing such dilemmas.

I recently spent time speaking with a number of clients to reflect on their experiences from the last 9 months and get a sense of what they see for the future of their workplace in the short, medium and longer term. My discussions have involved businesses across a variety of sectors, including tech, computer games, film and TV, publishing and betting and gaming. Despite the many differences in these businesses, my discussions revealed a number of consistent themes:

Positively, levels of productivity for most clients seem to have remained steady. As you’d expect, experience varies depending on the business and the roles in question. Some mentioned with surprise that certain roles appear to be more effective when performed remotely while others noted that pre-existing capability concerns became even more pressing and difficult to manage with staff being remote. A few clients also highlighted that this recent ‘Covid’ experience may not actually provide an accurate prediction for productivity longer term with the possibility that there has been something of an ‘all hands-on deck’ approach from staff given the very unusual circumstances.

Virtually all clients raised concerns regarding wellbeing. The difficulties managers and HR teams have been facing in addressing such issues with staff that are not physically present at the office day to day is clearly extremely challenging and some amazing and truly creative initiatives have been introduced by clients to tackle these challenges.

Very few appear to have given timely consideration to the health and safety aspects of their workforce being thrust into remote working arrangements. Practical aspects were prioritised – i.e. making sure staff had the right kit as quickly as possible. This is perfectly understandable and likely reflects the national picture, but there is a growing appreciation within clients of the need to ensure safety (from both a physical and mental health perspective) within the remote working environment.

Maintaining effective collaboration is clearly not straightforward, particularly in certain roles. While clients (and the world at large) have been quick to embrace the virtues of video calling, sometimes it simply isn’t as effective as being in the same room. Examples provided were creative roles such as editors and writers or those in accounts/finance who often work better in a face to face environment. Important functions like board meetings were also reported to be difficult over a video call while a few emphasised the onset of ‘Zoom fatigue’ on a wide scale in their business.

Almost all of the clients I spoke to had a clear expectation that their general way of working will continue to be different when the Covid pandemic is finally a distant memory. In most cases, this is expected to comprise a much more open approach to flexibility and remote working while some referenced a shift to an ‘outcomes’ focused approach to performance assessment as opposed to the more traditional focus on hours worked.

Finally, most clients were hopeful for the future. This was great to hear, but there is an appreciation that it won’t all be smooth sailing. Perhaps the biggest concern most are facing is how to maintain the culture of their business which is so important in areas such as staff retention and general staff loyalty and morale.

The last 9 months have truly laid bare a remarkable propensity for business to adapt to and embrace change. And with many positives being realised, it’s almost inevitable that the way many of us work will never be the same again.

Such widespread changes will nevertheless bring with them many legal and commercial implications and employers must be alert to these. Flexible working requests will almost certainly increase and it may no longer be quite so straightforward refusing these. Also, will the typical considerations relating to indirect discrimination claims still apply where it’s no longer obvious that such requests will be made predominantly by female employees?

Employers will likely need to consider a variety of new policies. Remote and flexible working policies are the most obvious but prudent employers would do well to consider whether their policies related to data protection and IT security are suitable to protect the considerable personal and confidential information which staff will be working with in remote locations.

Health and safety will also be a key consideration. While the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) may have taken an understandably relaxed approach to home workstation considerations during the early stages of the pandemic, they will no doubt expect much more from employers in the coming months and they are already taking a particular interest in how employers are looking after employees’ mental wellbeing while employees are working from home.

In the New Year, I will be chairing a webinar and Q&A for clients on all these issues with assistance from my colleague Charis Shakespeare. Invites will be sent early next year so make sure you’re subscribed to “Worked Up” to reserve your spot!

In the meantime, I hope you have a lovely break over the festive period and a very Happy New Year.