As governments around the world race to cover priority population groups with the COVID-19 vaccine, humanity is heaving a collective sigh of relief. Finally, there is some light at the end of what has been a dark and long year.

With this development, some companies that made big adjustments to the way they work are hoping to resume life as it was pre-COVID. But many believe we’ve crossed the Rubicon and have entered a different, somewhat adjusted reality, one that is here to stay. The pandemic may have permanently altered the way work is performed. The traditional model of work – working in a fixed physical office during fixed timings – is gone.

Many organisations intend to continue remote working, either partially or fully, even after confinement rules are lifted and offices reopen. The Silicon-Valley technology giants like Facebook and Twitter have announced ‘work from home’ on a semi-permanent basis, and even the manufacturing players like Siemens have moved to mobile working two to three days a week as a worldwide standard.

At the same time, flexible working is becoming the new norm by choice. Nearly three-quarters of global workers in our  Accenture 2020 Workforce Resilience Survey[i] said they would like to spend part of the time working remotely. While the advantages to employees are clear to see, organisations are also seeing benefits like improved agility to assemble and disband team rapidly in response to specific events, better access to diverse talent worldwide, higher productivity when done with thought, and greater cost efficiency.

The work of the future will move to Work From Anywhere, Anytime (WFAA). More than remote working, it is flexible working, which offers both temporal and location flexibility. This could be the next norm.

The challenges of remote working

While the pandemic caught many companies by surprise when it came, many found ways to deal with it, rapidly adopting technology solutions and online collaboration tools to keep their operations running even when physical movements were restricted. Many firms also recognised the need to support and engage their employees as they dealt with the stresses of working from home. They sent care packages, organised group fitness classes over Zoom, and even conducted on-line fun activities for employee’s children so they can take work calls while keeping their little ones occupied.

But the challenges of remote working extend beyond just providing technology and some form of emotional support. There are several reasons for that:

  • Not all jobs can be done remotely. According to a University of Chicago, Booth School of Business whitepaper [ii], while as many as 83 per cent of jobs in the educational services sector can be done entirely at home, this proportion shrinks to just 4 per cent when it comes to the accommodation and food services sector. Another report from Elsevier [iii] says that the impact of telecommuting on productivity of routine tasks is negative, while that on creative tasks is positive.
  • Not all individuals are equipped to work remotely. The context of each individual matters, such as their family and housing situation, or their state of mental preparedness. One employee may be a caregiver at home, while another may find it difficult to be focused. Many business leaders lack the know-how on unique behaviours and the skills and interventions required to help every individual thrive.
  • Not all managers are ready to manage virtual teams. There was an 87 per cent increase in search data for employee surveillance software [iv] in April compared with pre-COVID times. As Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, put it in a recent article: “One of the biggest holdbacks of remote work is trust – managers simply don’t trust their people to work untethered. They’re used to managing by counting butts in seats rather than by results.”

To truly and effectively move into the future of work, we must look beyond the cosmetics and make sure that all of these challenges are properly addressed.

    It takes three to thrive

    Companies must adopt a coordinated strategy at three levels: job, individual, organisation.

    1. Raise the remote flexibility of jobs with enabling technologies. Take for example the Product Development Manager role. Our Remote Work Indicator tells us that tasks like analysing data from equipment and overseeing prototype development can be done remotely by using enabling technologies, bringing the total proportion of work that can be performed remotely to 42 per cent. This is a big improvement. With some job-redesign, it is possible to reduce the number of people who come to work physically each day.

      Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba has led the charge in creating new agile approaches to work. In response to the SARS crisis in 2003, Alibaba quickly developed a remote office platform to maintain the company’s operations during the quarantine. As the pandemic took hold of China, the firm expanded and improved its online working platform DingTalk to support remote working with video conferences that could cater to large groups of employees – allowing for as many as 100,000 devices to be connected to a video conference at any one time. The IT teams were tasked with creating new apps, such as the Alipay Health Code, which has gained popularity throughout China and was originally conceived to serve the company’s needs.
    1. Second, consider enabling the holistic well-being of the individual employee that leaves them Net Better Off. This is a way of measuring and making visible what motivates employees at the workplace across six distinct and connected dimensions that can unlock their potential. This concerns the “me” factors i.e. the Physical, the Emotional & mental, the Financial and being Employable; the “we” factors i.e. Relational and feeling a sense of belongingness; and finally the “us” factors i.e. having a sense of purpose. In fact, 22 per cent revenue growth potential is unlocked when organisations leave their people better off because of working there, according to Accenture’s Modern HR research [v].
    1. Third, build a culture of trust. This must start from the top, and mindsets among leaders and managers will have to change, with new traditions for socialisation and one-to-one connections on a personal level that will create trust and psychological safety. For example, introducing communication guidelines, etiquette rules for virtual meetings can bring structure to remote working. Formalising ownership of work deliverables and timelines will reduce misunderstandings and clarify accountability. Creating new traditions for socialisation like one-on-one connections will help build trust and psychological safety. Providing regular feedback and recognising the team’s efforts and celebrating the small successes will help improve relational capital. In essence, it is about telling employees that they are valued and making sure they are aware of it.

      In April, during the thick of the pandemic, a leading bank, DBS, launched a “Together” movement [vi] to galvanise its workforce – of which 80 per cent of its 12,000-strong Singapore workforce was working from home – while encouraging them to think about opportunities and future growth. It focused on taking care of employees’ well-being, such as by helping them adopt new behaviors and ways of working. A communications programme with advice about the transition to new work arrangements was rolled out, along with guidance for managers on how to better engage their teams remotely. 

    In summary, the winners of tomorrow’s world will be the ones who thrive not just with new ways of working remotely but with new ways of working flexibly, or put simply, WFAA.

    1. Improve the remote flexibility of jobs with enabling technology
    2. Embed flexible working in a people-centered framework
    3. Evolve leadership practices and culture, not just systems and processes
    END

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    [i] Accenture. (2020) Workforce Resilience Survey. Retrieved from https://www.accenture.com/za-en/insights/communications-media/coronavirus-never-normal-defining-new-ways-working

    [ii] Dingel, Jonathan I. and Neiman, Brent. (June 2020) How Many Jobs Can be Done at Home? Retrieved from https://bfi.uchicago.edu/wp-content/uploads/BFI_White-Paper_Dingel_Neiman_3.2020.pdf

    [iii] Dutcher, E. Glenn. (September 2012) The effects of telecommuting on productivity: An experimental examination. The role of dull and creative tasks. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167268112000893

    [iv] Migliano, Simon. (June 24, 2020) Employee Surveillance Software Demand Up 51% Since Start of Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.top10vpn.com/research/investigations/covid-employee-surveillance/

    [v] Accenture. (September 23, 2020) Care to do better. Retrieved from https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/future-workforce/employee-potential-talent-management-strategy

    [vi] DBS. (April 28, 2020) Physically apart, but always TOGETHER – DBS launches employee movement to keep morale high amid Covid-19. Retrieved from https://www.dbs.com/newsroom/Physically_apart_but_always_TOGETHER_DBS_launches_employee_movement_to_keep_morale_high_amid_Covid19

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