World’s biggest remote working experiment: What did we learn?

Covid-19 News | Employment & Skills | Reports | Technology

On 23 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced unprecedented lockdown measures in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Measures included limiting outdoor exercise to once a day, shopping trips for necessities only, and travel to work – but only for those who were not able to work from home.

The overnight changes caused instant disruption to businesses and employers, and led to the biggest remote working experiment in history for the professional and white-collar sector.

As companies prepare for the return of professionals to the office, recruiter Robert Walters shares insight gathered from 2,000 global firms and 5,000 professionals on what the key outcomes and learnings have been from the last few months of remote working.

  1. It was a smooth relocation for almost all 

Companies all over the world acted fast to initiate remote working programmes. For most of them the transition was seamless, with a global average of 47% of firms moving employees to a remote work environment within two days and only 61% taking more than a week.

Companies who were able to transition to remote working in less than 7 days
1 Canada 85.00%
2 Switzerland 82.35%
3 Ireland 81.82%
4 USA 75.68%
5 UK 69.70%

 

The UK experienced an even more drastic change – where just 11% of businesses stated their workforce were able to entirely work remotely pre-lockdown. This sky-rocketed amid COVID-19, with 70% of firms being able to push the button on remote working in less than a week.

Of the 70% who were able to do this under 7 days, over half (53%) of these firms in the UK were able to transition their staff to remote working in less than 48 hours.

It seems workplaces weren’t the only ones who were happy with the smooth transition, with 71% of staff describing their relocation to homeworking as seamless and 82% being satisfied with their homeworking set-up.

  1. Tech is not our strong point

Remote working has relied whole-heartedly on technology and internet connectivity. Despite a smooth transition overall, it seems the main sticking point for most companies has been in the IT department.

Getting the required IT hardware – such as laptops – in place (59%), IT infrastructure & security (28%), and technology software such as Zoom (15%) were the biggest impact to companies in the UK when transitioning to remote working.

In fact, over half of staff (52%) are expecting their employer to invest in technology that enhances working from home post COVID-19.

  1. We’re more productive at home

A third (31%) of companies felt productivity has increased since remote working began. This was seconded by employees, of which 35% stated their productivity had increased since remote working began.

Commute time (81%), more flex in hours (57%), less distractions (51%) and a relaxed environment (49%) were the leading reasons why productivity increased when working from home.

Top factors causing increased productivity, according to UK professionals
Less commuting time 81%
More flexibility in working hours 57%
Better ability to focus / less distractions 51%
Comfortable / relaxed environment 49%
Fewer meetings 26%
More autonomy 26%

 

As a result, an overwhelming 87% would like to factor in more remote working post-lockdown, with 20% stating that they would like to work from home permanently.

When asked what changes employees expect to the future workplace, they stated more flexibility to work from home (89%), more autonomy and trust (29%), and changes to work hours (18%).

However, despite the unanimous agreement that productivity increased during lockdown, companies are still dubious about allowing more remote working once social distancing measures ease – citing concerns about employee productivity (64%), senior leadership preferring traditional ways of working (57%), and manager’s ability to oversee virtual teams (33%) as the main reasons for not wanting to continue with remote working.

  1. We still don’t understand mental health

A third (30%) of professionals claim remote working has negatively impacted mental health, according to the Robert Walters survey.

This sentiment is mirrored by employers, with 35% of bosses claiming they are concerned about staff experiencing mental health issues on account of social isolation and economic anxiety bought on by remote working and COVID-19.

According to the survey, more women (34%) reported a decline in mental health compared to men (24%), with the biggest difference in causes between men and women being:

  • Lack of interaction with the team (73% of women vs 62% of men)
  • Pressure to deliver results (24% of women vs 14% of men)
  • Distractions at home (43% of women vs 54% of men)

Those working at home with children in the house (33%) reported a higher decline in mental health, compared to professionals in shared accommodation (30%), those living with a partner but no children (30%), and those living alone (22%).

Sam Walters, Director of Professional Services at Robert Walters comments: “Economic uncertainty, health fears, furlough, risk of redundancy, reduced or longer hours, social isolation, poor physical work set-up, home schooling – these are all fresh concerns which employees did not have to worry about two months ago.

“Employers should be mindful of these concerns, and if they haven’t done so already should be ramping up the support for staff in this area – whether it be through sharing third party advice and tips, paying for external support, or altering working practices.”

32% of employees are expecting their company to be more focussed on wellbeing when they return to the office, however 29% of companies admit they have not yet considered a return to work strategy.

It does seem, however, that mental health is on the agenda with half (52%) of companies admitting their management team will need to evolve to have a better understanding of mental health & wellbeing post COVID-19.

Sam Walters adds: “The extended period of remote working means that employers shouldn’t just expect ways of working to return in the same way as before.

“We have now had the joy of no commute, more time with loved ones, and genuine flexi-hours. Professionals have also had time to reflect on their wellbeing and identify trigger points – such as pressure from management or long hours – and so will be returning to the workplace with a heightened sense of awareness towards these issues.

“As companies develop their ‘back-to-work’ strategies, a revised and updated mental health policy should be a part of this.”

It seems there is a long way to go in this department with half (49%) of professionals having never received any form of mental health training at work – including how to manage stress or deal with colleagues with mental health issues.

  1. Managers need training

78% of companies stated that their leadership team has not been equipped to manage teams remotely, yet employers have done little to fix the problem with only a quarter providing relevant training sessions, and half relying on the method of sharing best practice.

How UK organisations assisted managers on how to deal with teams remotely
1 Sharing best practice 54%
2 Clear remote working policies (e.g. working hours, availability) 28%
3 Training sessions on remote management 26%
4 One-to-one coaching 10%
5 Revised employee KPIs 4%

 

A third of companies believe that a manager’s ability to oversee virtual teams and autonomous work has been the biggest challenge to remote working.

To counter this issue, a third of managers (30%) increased the number of catch-ups they held with their staff – with 20% holding calls multiple times a day, and 37% holding calls with their staff at least once a day during lockdown.

It seems the revised management technique has not had the desired effect, with 30% of employees claiming that the increased number of meetings and managers checking-in more has negatively impacted their productivity.

In addition, 21% of staff stated that increased contact with management led to more pressure to deliver results, in turn having a negative impact on mental health.

  1. Video calls have replaced emails…forever?

Professionals in the UK ditched emails (38%), in place of instant messenger (73%), video chats (64%), and telephone calls (59%) – as the lack of physical interaction with the outside world drove professionals to be less formal with colleagues and acquaintances.

The trend took over globally as video calls (70%) became the number one form of professional communication, taking the crown from the age-old email (38%).

  1. We took over our dining rooms

Over half of UK professionals (52%) worked from their dining or kitchen room tables during lockdown – compared to a global average of 35%.

Globally the most frequent remote working location was a home office or study (53%), but it seems British professionals were less likely to have this luxury with only a third (35%) being able to work from their home office during lockdown.

The next most popular location for Brits was the bed (15%), followed by the living room sofa (9%) – with the more casual setting typically preferred by Gen Z and Millennials.

Where have UK professionals been basing themselves when working from home
In Bed Dining Table Living Room Sofa Outside (balcony or garden) Study / Home Office
Gen Z: 18-24 32% 43% 9% 8% 32%
Millennial: 25-39 20% 39% 17% 4% 44%
Gen X: 40-54 11% 34% 13% 4% 57%
Baby Boomers: 55-74 6% 28% 5% 3% 69%

 

  1. We have been loving our lie-ins

Almost half (40%) of UK professionals substituted their commute time for extra sleep – with this being most likely with Gen Z (60%) and Millennials (45%). Women (43%) were more likely to have a lie-in compared to men (34%) during lockdown.

The other most popular ways in which professionals substituted their commute time was exercise (38%), completing personal or household tasks (36%), working more hours (32%), and spending additional time with loved ones (21%).

It appears Brits were not interested in taking up a hobby, with just 6% of professionals stating that they used their substitute commute time to take up a new skill.

How do you typically use the time you used to spend commuting to work?
  Working more hours Extra sleep Exercise Household / personal tasks Consuming media (tv, podcasts) Spending time with loved ones Hobby
AGE
Gen Z:

18-24

19% 60% 34% 36% 15% 11% 6%
Millennial: 25-39 33% 45% 30% 35% 15% 16% 7%
Gen X: 40-54 37% 34% 33% 33% 14% 20% 6%
Baby Boomers: 55-74 35% 30% 38% 35% 13% 17% 7%
GENDER
Male 38% 34% 30% 32% 16% 20% 8%
Female 31% 43% 36% 36% 12% 16% 5%

 

  1. Brits are social animals – and work plays a big part in that

According to the Robert Walters survey, 69% of UK professionals stated that a lack of physical interaction with the team was the leading cause of a decline in mental health.

On average, professionals in the UK socialise with colleagues outside of work at least twice a month – and during lockdown colleagues ensured they kept this up virtually, with three quarters (74%) stating that they stayed in touch with colleagues in a non-work-related capacity.

Over a third (38%) of professionals stated that they spoke to their colleagues multiple times a day, with a further 40% stating that they would reach out at least once a day.

The most common form of non-work-related contact with colleagues took place on group whatsapp chats (48%), group video sessions (42%), and one-to-one video or phone calls (37%).

It seems Brits are also big fans of the virtual quiz, with 17% stating they used online games as a way to stay in touch socially with their colleagues – double the global average (8%).

Top countries who used online games to stay in touch socially with colleagues
1 Ireland 18.67%
2 UK 16.58%
3 USA 15.25%
4 New Zealand 13.68%
5 Philippines 13.24%

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