As the dust settles on almost three years of change and upheaval in nearly every aspect of our lives, we are starting to recognise those changes that will stick with us through post-pandemic life.
One of those evident changes is the shift in our working lives. Working from home or remote working has become standard. A change forced upon us out of necessity has been quickly embraced as the way of the future, but we have yet to thoroughly understand the true impact of such a monumental shift on our collective well-being.
To start with, let’s talk about the word “remote.”
It’s a word that means to be distant and disconnected. With that in mind, should we describe our new ways of working from home as “remote working” or our colleagues as “remote workers?”
This definition is obviously an oversimplification of the challenges that come with working from home or new hybrid ways of working. Changing what we call it doesn’t change the dilemma.
However, reflecting on the meaning of ‘remote’ in the context of working from home does give us a glimpse of the challenges it brings and a starting point for digging into what the future of work should look like to develop a road map to get us there.
From challenge comes opportunity
The paradigm shift in 2020 to working via digital tools like Zoom or Teams was largely successful in the short term. It was a testament to our collective capacity for change and opened our eyes to what was possible regarding how and where we work.
To date, most of these changes in our ways of working have been reactive, adopted in haste to meet an urgent need. Now, as we venture back out into the world, we have another unique opportunity to be proactive in designing how we want to work in the future.
As time has gone on, and a hybrid model of working, divided between home and office, has become typical, serious questions are being raised about the consequences for employee well-being. How do employers support staff who are, in more than one sense of the word, “remote?”
For managers, no longer sharing physical space has opened a whole new world of challenges to be considered. For employers, initial benefits like not commuting and childcare flexibility now need to be complemented with a working model adaptable to individual circumstances or personality types.
In March 2022, a Gallup survey of US workers found that only 24% felt that their employer cared about their well-being, the lowest figure in almost a decade of Gallup polling. Compare this to 2020, at the height of the global pandemic response, when a similar Gallup poll found that 49% of employees felt their organisation cared for their well-being. Recent New Zealand figures are more forgiving, with 52% of employees believing their company is proactive on well-being. Still, in June, news reports covered AUT research data suggesting about the same number of workers were suffering anxiety about returning to the office.
Part of this change has come from the tension between employers wanting staff to return to the office and employees resisting the call, with 73% saying they needed a better reason to go into the office beyond company expectations (Microsoft Work Trend Index 2022). 50% of leaders wanted staff back in the office, according to the 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index, backed up by Elon Musk’s demand in June that Tesla staff return to the office or lose their jobs.
But there is a bigger picture. When we work remotely, we lose the ability to read people’s non-verbal communications. The pandemic has not changed our essential human need for connection, to be treated equitably, to be creative and collaborative and to make choices for ourselves.
But this raises questions. How do we work with people remotely? Are staff in the office given preferential treatment ahead of remote workers—or vice versa? How do we onboard new staff remotely so they are supported and able to connect effectively with their teams?
How do we consider the individual circumstances of different employers where some are in the office? Some are set up at home with quality equipment and a quiet place to work, but others might be working in communal family spaces with high thoroughfares or environments that aren’t somehow safe.
Our pandemic-driven adoption of technology and the shift to hybrid working between home and office have yet to find adequate solutions to any of these human needs.