As someone who has looked at the COVID-19 enforced global remote working reality as an opportunity to cut down on travel and to bring in much needed work-life balance, I’m hoping that when the deadly virus recedes (which can’t happen soon enough), the landscape of corporate work shifts unalterably towards teleworking. Unfortunately, my calendar reflects a different sobering reality. Between the months of September and November there are less than five days left when I will be able to work from home, as most of the face to face conferences and business engagements have been postponed to the latter half of the year. Will the lessons of the current crisis change the way we work at least in part? As it turns out, the answer may be more complicated than the camps of vocal supporters and caution-suggesters expect.
The historical reality of remote working experiences
On the pro-telework side, the idea feels like a no-brainer. Data from Flexjobs has shown that it increases retention (76% of employees would be more willing to stay with their current employer if given flexible hours), reduces stress (86% feel stress reduction) and increases productivity (75% employees report fewer distractions). It’s also financially good for the businesses, the employees and the earth as reported by State of Telecommuting, with employers saving as much as $44 billion already in 2015, telecommuters making $4000 more per year than non-telecommuters) and a reduction of greenhouse gases equivalent to 600,000 cars. And so, when companies like IBM, Bank of America, Yahoo and Reddit dramatically reduced or eliminated their telework programs a few years ago, it became clear that there was more to this issue than the statistics might suggest. New lessons on potential down-sides to teleworking emerged. They ranged from employee complaints about loneliness (reported from Chinese company CTrip’s experiences), problems unplugging after working hours as reported by Buffer, innovation and collaboration issues (Yahoo), and the challenge of scaling these policies in large organizations across regions and time zones. The world’s company’s teleworking policies have swung with this pendulum of learning over the past five years. And then COVID-19 struck, bringing along with it a large-scale experiment about the entire world being forced to telecommute. Which brings us back to the question of what happens after the crisis ends. I believe it will trigger evolutionary (not revolutionary) changes in work-processes, management perceptions and organization culture.
The evolution of how we work
Although remote working itself isn’t a technology, it’s helpful to look at remote working adoption with the lens of new technology adoption. Take any emerging technology that has high potential - for instance blockchain. Initial excitement about its possibilities as well as whistleblowing about its wasteful experiments abound. Over time, what emerges is the primacy of leveraging “use cases” over technology. In other words, some use cases in blockchain are mature and make business sense and should be leveraged, while others need to be dropped. Over time we learn that what’s important is the discussion about use cases, not about the technology itself. That’s likely to happen with remote working too.
There are specific work-processes (e.g. tasks that involve more knowledge work than say manual work) that lend themselves better to telework. Human Resources organizations will get better at learning where these work-processes lie as a result of the enforced global experiment. Secondly, management perceptions will evolve with new process measurement systems. The development of end-to-end process re-engineering is already forcing managers to focus on better “outcome” metrics than tracking the amount of time worked by subordinates. For instance, tracking how PC reliability in an enterprise is improved by noting a reduction in calls to the helpdesk is a better metric than measuring the number of hours put in by an IT helpdesk person. Finally, as the enforced experience of remote working ends (hopefully sooner rather than later), the culture of openness to change will hopefully have reached a tipping point. In other words, the debate about remote working should evolve from “whether” it should occur to “where” it makes sense.
So, the reality of remote working will be complicated as the world emerges on the other side. But that’s a good thing.
Best-selling author, Fortune 100 board and CXO advisor and retired senior executive Procter & Gamble
About Tony Saldanha
Tony Saldanha is a globally recognized expert and thought leader in Global Business Services (GBS) and Digital Technology. He ran Procter & Gamble's famed multi-billion-dollar GBS and IT operations in every region across the world during a 27 year career there. Tony has over three decades of international business expertise in the US, Europe, and Asia. He was named on Computerworld’s Premier 100 IT Professionals list in 2013. Tony's experiences include GBS design and operations, CIO positions, acquisitions and divestitures, outsourcing, disruptive innovation, and creation of new business models. Tony is currently President of Transformant, a consulting organization that advises over 20 Fortune 100 companies around the world in digital transformation and global business services. He is also a founder of two blockchain and AI companies, and an adviser to venture capital companies. His book titled Why Digital Transformations Fail was released globally in July 2019 and ranked #1 on Amazon’s New Releases for Organizational Change, listed on publisher Berrett-Koehler’s best-sellers for July 2019, and recommended by various