UK, US workers report ‘overwhelmingly’ positive experiences of remote working

Study finds that despite challenges, mass remote working due to Covid-19 has been a net benefit on both sides of the Atlantic, suggesting companies should maintain some degree of flexible working

As companies around the world assess their next steps in trying to adapt to the post-Covid-19 world of work, research shows that despite some challenges, home working in the UK and US at least has been generally positive.

In a study of 1,000 remote workers in the two countries, global comms agency FleishmanHillard sought an insight into displaced workers’ perspectives and experiences of using digital tools for business purposes during lockdown.

The research found that, overwhelmingly, workers’ experiences of technology for remote communication have been generally positive, and remote working has been a net benefit, despite its challenges. As many as 85% found work/life balance advantages to remote working, suggesting rise in digital comms for work as lockdowns lift.

FleishmanHillard drew the conclusion that workers don’t want to give up what they have gained, indicating that companies should maintain some degree of flexible working arrangements and double-down on digital tools for remote communication.

To examine workers’ experiences, FleishmanHillard started from the beginning of the lockdown in each country, noting that the transition to remote working was an overnight revolution and experiment.

It calculated that in the UK, the percentage of employed workers doing their jobs remotely full-time grew from 7% before the pandemic to 55% in mid-May. In the US, 25% of employees worked from home at least occasionally in 2018, but only 2% worked exclusively from home five or more days a week. At the beginning of April 2020, an estimated 62% of US workers had worked remotely in response to the pandemic.

Assessing the benefits of remote working, the survey found that 80% of remote workers felt healthier, less tired, more human or more connected to their family since transitioning to remote work, and 85%, found advantages in remote work that make for a better work/life balance.

But there were downsides. Fourth-fifths of respondents said they had experienced some disadvantage in remote work relating to communication, and 55% identified not being able to communicate in person as one of their top three challenges. Also, just over two-fifths found it difficult to separate work and home, and 61% were worried that as remote work continues, they will be expected to be even more reachable outside normal business hours.

However, there was general positivity about the rise of digital tools that had enabled home working, with 83% liking some of the new ways of getting things done remotely more than the old ways of doing them. The same percentage felt technology was doing a better job substituting for in-person interaction during the pandemic than before, mainly because the systems have now been widely embraced.

Almost four-fifths of respondents were actually surprised by how well some of the technologies they had ignored or doubted before the pandemic actually work, and almost three-quarters said they would choose to interact more digitally after returning to the workplace because it has proved to be more efficient.

“Our research shows that the vast majority of people don’t want ways of working to just return to ‘normal’, as some employers start to plan for a return to physical offices. Jobs we previously thought could only be done from the traditional workplace have adapted, and workers have discovered they enjoy many parts of remote working,” observed Sophie Scott, senior partner and global managing director of technology, FleishmanHillard. “It’s not all been easy though, with many identifying the inability to communicate in person as a key challenge, as well as finding it harder to separate work and home. It’s clear though that many of the communications tools that we have been completely dependant on during lockdown will play a far greater role in day-to-day work than they did before Covid-19 suddenly disrupted our lives.”

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The survey also provides some interesting perspectives of what the post-Covid-19 working world may look like. In a real heads-up for employers, particularly in terms of what investments they may have to make going forward, workers said they wanted to go back only if and when conditions were right to do so.

Nearly three-quarters of remote workers said their company shouldn’t reopen workplaces until there was a treatment or vaccine for the virus and 79% would rather see their employer invest in technology to improve remote work than in remodelling offices to make them safer to return to.

Essentially, workers said they wanted to collaborate on a plan for the future of work. Nine out of 10 remote workers said companies should take this opportunity to have a true discussion as a society about how work and life should coexist moving forward – a sentiment strongly felt among executives and senior managers (92%).

The same percentage of workers were both eager to engage in a dialogue with their employers and take a new look at company culture, values and purpose – and also expected companies to take steps to help workers stay healthy. A quarter of employees said a company’s response to the pandemic will affect their attitude to current and future employers.

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