Wednesday 20th May 2020
Before the days of the Covid-19 pandemic, remote working was already becoming an increasingly popular practice, and a desirable factor in choosing a potential new employer. The context for this trend is a slow but definite shift towards readdressing the work/life balance, with the ideas of four-day weeks and universal basic income becoming credible and considered concepts.
More employers and HR professionals are also starting to appreciate the positive effect a better work/life balance can have on productivity and staff sentiment. There is also the increasing pressures on physical space, and the ever-growing need for more offices in the best locations to accommodate a growing business.
The beginning of 2020 has seen a massive shift in the daily lives of working people in the UK. A greater proportion of business are having their employees working from home, necessitating a rapid deployment of new internal policies and approaches for companies.
We’ve taken a look into the attitudes and policies of business owners with regards to remote working, and how offices and workplaces might change forever as a result. We conducted our research across 250 UK SME business owners in Recruitment, Manufacturing, Logistics and Business Services to reveal their perceptions and plans for the future.
Performance under lockdown
When the government announced the need for people to work from home, only 52 per cent of UK business owners felt positive about their employees continuing their work remotely, revealing the initial trepidation of such a set-up. However, this contrasts sharply with a change in attitude just a few weeks later, when 75 per cent of business owners felt positive towards the idea of staff working from home. Necessity has allowed the practice to be tested in a way it never could have been otherwise, resulting in a rapid change in understanding of how businesses can operate remotely.
These business owners are also seeing the potential for the future and life after lockdown, with 73 per cent agreeing that this period of working from home will aid their businesses’ success in the future. The key to making it work now, and in the future, is to develop policies and technology solutions that will work beyond the lockdown period.
Technology and community
One of the biggest facilitators of successful remote working is technology. From VPNs used to access company servers to video chat for virtual meetings, the machinery of the office can be replicated to an impressive degree. Around half of businesses are now regularly using channels like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to facilitate communication between colleagues and clients, and 38 per cent of businesses reported taking a more hands-on approach with projects.
Business owners are also taking increased care of their employees’ wellbeing during remote working, with 33 per cent reportedly touching base with colleagues more frequently than usual. Managers are also prioritising staff wellbeing in light of reduced workforces as many are placed on furlough, with 34 per cent ensuring staff aren’t overworking or heading for a burnout.
Along with staff wellbeing comes office culture and community, aspects that also presents difficulties in a remote working environment. Over one third (36%) of businesses are taking steps to keep their office culture alive with more virtual social events such as yoga and team lunches.
During our research, we also looked into a few specific industry areas to see the effects of the lockdown on working practices, and the different pressures these industries face.
Currently, on average, 44 per cent of staff in the recruitment sector are working from home, but this was also the industry most likely to have a remote working policy in place already. This readiness and an existing culture were largely reflected in the industry reaction to the government’s lockdown order, with only 22 per cent having an initial negative reaction to the new rules, reducing to 8 per cent after a few weeks.
This generally positive outlook is helping recruitment businesses look to the future beyond Covid-19, with 79 per cent of business owners in this sector looking to permanently implement some form of working from home policy, and 74 per cent anticipating the changes will lead to a more successful business in the future.
As you might expect, only 30 per cent of staff working in manufacturing began working from home during the first stages of lockdown, and this industry was the least likely to have a remote working policy in place before the pandemic. With 42 per cent having no policy, and 30 per cent having no formal policy but with some staff able to work from home.
Another interesting finding from our study was that the main concern for the manufacturing industry during the last couple of months has been retaining its customer base, something which hopefully this sector can begin to recover from as we enter a new stage of lockdown.
Currently, nearly half (49%) of staff in logistics companies are working from home, with only 34 per cent having a remote policy already in place. The outlook within the industry is generally positive, both for coping under the pressures of lockdown as well as looking to the future. A high number of business owners (86%) said they felt positive about their staff working from home, the highest of any industry we covered, with nearly all (97%) planning to introduce a formal working from home policy in the future.
Logistics business owners also felt that the lessons learned from remote working during the pandemic will lead to their business being more successful in the future (81%).
The Business Services sector had the highest proportion of employees engaged in remote working, with 74 per cent of staff at home. Ensuring staff aren’t overworking or succumbing to stress during this time was one of the top initiatives employed by business owners in this industry.
Before the government changes, staff performance was the top concern for this sector in regards to remote working of staff, but the benefits of working from home are now being felt across this industry, with a positive outlook for introducing future formal policies (81%) and many believing these changes will contribute to the success of the company in the future (80%). Business owners in this sector also reported that that the greatest benefit was staff being able to spend more time with their families.
The future of working
There were some expected differences across industry lines revealed by our research, as well as a sense of unified priorities. The top initiative reported by all our respondents was to keep the business communicating effectively day to day, making use of technology to allow face to face meetings without the need for expensive equipment. Other top priorities also hinged on this ability, from maintaining the office culture and social events, to keeping in touch with employees to ensure their wellbeing was looked after.
While life will one day return to something resembling normality, and the majority of UK workers will be able to safely attend their workplaces once again, there’s a definite drive to hold on to some of the culture changes brought about by the requirements of lockdown. Remote working may become something that most businesses offer as standard, with formal policies in place for employees to use. The original tentativeness of such an ideal have been thoroughly tested by the Covid-19 pandemic, and will be further tested, and businesses have largely seen a positive response from their workforce, not to mention remote working providing a route for their companies to survive these difficult times.
The benefits of more family time, less time commuting, and a more flexible work/life balance have all been borne out during the crisis, and these benefits will surely only increase with the return to normality.