Since COVID-19 forced employees around the world out of the office almost a year ago, much thought and effort has gone into finding effective ways of managing people remotely: from clear and consistent communication, to keeping them engaged, to driving collaboration, to ensuring training and development does not fall behind, and most recently how to maintain their mental well-being.
All this work, it seems, is now going to be the foundation of a long-term arrangement. Despite the availability of vaccines, the pandemic shows no sign of abeyance, with infections surging in some countries and travel bubbles and “green corridors” indefinitely postponed.
This may be a good thing for the working world: even before the pandemic, research by recruitment firms was indicating that employees preferred flexibility and agile working because they believed it could improve their productivity. And last year after remote work became the norm, a survey by Skillsoft found that 59 percent of employees in the region want permanent flexible work, and almost as many want to continue working from home even after returning to the office becomes possible.
So what is the outlook for remote or hybrid working in 2021? People Matters spoke to a few business leaders and consultants who are relatively optimistic about the future of flexible work.
A shift in how we view productivity
Once the technological hiccups had been worked out in 2020, one of the largest obstacles to remote or hybrid work turned out to be organizational culture and managerial attitudes—for instance, a Microsoft white paper from July 2020 identified “a quite outdated concept of how managers need to manage”, arising from the assumption that people are not working unless they are physically visible.
However, business leaders now believe that the way people view productivity is changing. “One of the current observations is that many of us are moving from a time-oriented work focus to a task-oriented one,” says Lawrence Chan, Managing Director of MyRepublic Singapore. “With remote working set to be the norm, it is then crucial for companies to look deeper into online collaboration methods and employing task tracking tools to measure productivity and progress, while ensuring a clear delineation of work and life boundaries.”
Agreeing, Leong Chee Tung, CEO and co-founder of EngageRocket, believes that now that COVID-19 has opened people's minds to the possibilities of flexible working arrangements, we will see a more inclusive and human-driven workplace in the near future.
“This is why HR needs to look beyond this crisis to support sustainable work-life integration,” he says. “To do so, HR will need to implement structured processes and encourage an anti-presenteeism culture that focuses on outcomes rather than employees' availability."
Furthermore, with the growing understanding that productivity is less a matter of butts in seats, and more about the work getting done at the quality needed, in the time needed, many business leaders and industry experts also believe that this year, flexibility will become not just a forced fallback but a deliberate choice. Toby Rakison, Managing Director for Asia at Unispace, told People Matters earlier this year that with the workforce distributed across different locations and even different geographies, flexibility is going to be not just a key leadership strategy but also a strategic business advantage. “Having ready access to different ways of thinking can enable leaders to shift quickly and effectively as things change,” he observed.
The experience of businesses with a distributed workforce backs this up. Bill Fry, Managing Director of EVE Investments, says flexibility and collaboration are basically built into the business by now, through the work structure, communication channels, and tapping on technology to help remote teams work together. “Having staff located in a variety of different geographical locations, it’s important to have flexibility in terms of working hours, workplace locations and reporting structures,” he points out.
A more educated approach to the use of technology
Technology was a critical central part of the 2020 working experience, first because of the need to digitalize work—with all the accompanying challenges of equipment and Internet access—then because of the need to introduce more technological tools to bolster the remote working experience. Parag Patki, Managing Partner at the ANZ consulting practice of Tata Communications, predicts that this year, there will be an increased uptake of digital collaboration platforms with niche solutions for managing various types of projects, workflows, document sharing, online chats, video conferencing and productivity.
“43 percent of organizations find it difficult to manage key improvement projects with remote teams,” he observes. “Already, TCS research shows a rise in investment in collaborative tools by 65 percent of companies.”
More importantly, the use of technology comes with the need for better cybersecurity—a concern already voiced by experts in 2020 as the rush to remote working opened myriad holes in organizations' security arrangements.
“The new normal poses a new set of cybersecurity challenges for businesses as employees access corporate networks and sensitive data off-premise,” says Parvinder Walia, President Asia Pacific and Japan, ESET. “That being said, cybersecurity is no longer the sole responsibility of the IT department as the most prevalent cyberthreats today are those that rely on social engineering which trick humans into clicking malicious files or disclosing sensitive credentials.”
Walia recommends that organizations train their employees in essential cybersecurity skills, such as data protection, password management and good cyber hygiene, and ensure that they are educated on the latest cyberthreats to look out for.
And in fact, industries working with large amounts of sensitive data—such as fintech and healthcare—are already leading the way in cyber-proofing their workforces. Jonathon Miller, Managing Director for cryptocurrency exchange Kraken in Australia, told People Matters that all 1,200 of the company's employees undergo mandatory cybersecurity training to help them recognize and avoid phishing attempts and other cyber-attacks—something which, he points out, is the company's duty as their employer.
Companies are still experimenting right now
The prognosis for remote or hybrid work is somewhat mixed. On the one hand, a great many companies are thinking very hard about the issue: Aon's recently released Future of Work study found that 78 percent of business leaders are currently evaluating or updating their approach to remote or virtual work, and another 14 percent are actively considering such a re-evaluation.
But on the other hand, there are indications that some companies can't wait to get back to pre-pandemic arrangements: Aon's study also found that 32 percent of companies globally expect most or all their employees to return to the office once the pandemic ends, and another study by IDC found that the number shoots to 74 percent in the Asia Pacific region.
Employee expectations, however, may eventually win the day. For instance, DBS Bank announced last November that after extensive research and gathering employee feedback, they are making hybrid work a permanent option even after the pandemic ends. And just earlier this month, OMRON's global head of human resources, Virendra Shelar, told People Matters that management should not make decisions based on their own isolated perceptions of what is desirable in the workplace.
In the short term, business leaders predict that hybrid working models of varying degrees will be implemented over the coming months. MyRepublic MD Chan believes that practices such as hotdesking, for instance, may gain popularity once safety regulations permit. “Companies and employees alike will have to explore and experiment with workplace practices to find solutions that can best maximize productivity while keeping in line with the prevailing safety regulations,” he says—adding that his own company is looking into the reallocation of office space and resources as a way of staying “lean and mean where required”.
And Kraken MD Miller, while cautioning that remote working is “not a panacea to every problem experienced in the workplace,” believes that the benefits outweigh the discomfort of having to change working structure and work culture.
“On balance, we find the flexibility of WFH far exceeds any benefits gained from forcing all of our employees to work from the same location,” he says.
“While not suitable for every single business, in our experience, WFH has led to a happier, productive and healthier workforce – something we are proud to support.”