Remote work has become all the buzz over the past year and a bit, and with good reason. Many firms without the capacity to operate remotely scrambled to acquire this capability following the sudden lockdown and employee averseness to interacting with others in close proximity and on a daily basis.
But opportunity lays in the potential to maintain remote working arrangements and leverage investments made throughout the pandemic to facilitate such a mode of organising the workforce moving forward. Successfully capitalising on this opportunity will require a keen understanding on the kind of roles that are conducive to remote work, and an appreciation of the important benefits of a blended approach for employees and firms alike.
What work can be done remotely? A task-role perspective.
The value of flexible workspace arrangements gets its thrust from the understanding that some tasks can be carried out remotely whereas others require close interpersonal relations, physical proximity, or are simply best undertaken in person. A study by McKinsey took a task-based perspective, categorising tasks based on those for which productivity is retained or diminished when undertaken remotely, due in part to the benefits of physical proximity and interpersonal relations. The study found that industries such as Finance and Insurance, Management, Professional Scientific and Technical Services, and IT and Telecommunications have significant potential for maintaining remote working arrangements ( Lund, Madgavkar, Manyika, & Smit, 2020), and concluded that in the US, about 22% of employees can work remotely for three to five days a week, and a further 17% could work between one and three days remotely for a total of 39%. This is corroborated by a study by Dingle and Neiman (2020) who estimated a total of 37% of jobs in the US can be carried out remotely (Dingel & Neiman, 2020).
Figure 1 – McKinsey report on remote working in industry (taken from McKinsey)
Along a similar vein, The Central Bank of Malta (2021) issued a report on the potential for tele (remote) working in Malta (Central Bank of Malta, 2021). The study also found that prior to the pandemic, Malta’s proportion of remote workers when compared to the rest of the EU was relatively low (though growing) at just 11.7%. Whilst the size in terms of employment in industries which tend to necessitate physical presence such as wholesale & retail and manufacturing tempers this potential, during the pandemic one third (33%) of all employees did some work from home. Using a classification of firms by economic activity which are able to work remotely in full, partly, or not at all, this study indicates three scenarios to assessing the potential for remote working in Malta. According to these scenarios, Malta’s potential for remote working in non-pandemic times is anything between 15.5% and 33.8%, depending on whether one includes sectors such as education and telecoms. In part given the sectoral constitution of the Maltese economy particularly in relation to employment in gaming and financial services, the study finds that under each scenario Malta’s potential is higher than that of the EU.
Figure 3: Central Bank of Malta (2021) – An Analysis of Malta’s Potential to Telework
These studies show that from a national perspective, the potential to maintain working remotely is largely available. They also indicate that the optimal organisation of the workforce from a task/role fulfilment perspective seems to revolve around a blended working arrangement which allows for the flexibility of remote work whilst facilitating the use of an office space as a basecamp within which teams may collaborate and undertake tasks more heavily dependent on interpersonal relationships and physical proximity. Furthermore, from a Maltese perspective, it may seem that the unique sectoral constitution of our economy facilitates this more than other EU member countries, potentially indicating a national competitive advantage for attracting talent and improving the Maltese national knowledge base.
The State as innovator: remote working in the public sector
We do not tend to consider the State as a beacon of light in terms of innovation. In fact, the general outlook is that the State tends to be a backward and slow moving entity which more often stifles innovation, rather than promotes it. But in terms of remote working in Malta, the State is positioning itself to take a lead role. A remote working policy was published in July 2021 as a means to pave the way for such arrangements becoming an integral part of the way we work in Malta. Noteworthy to the concept of flexible workspace (and office space in general), this document explains that employees in the public sector whose role is conducive to remote work may take on this working arrangement and work from anywhere that allows them to adhere to important professional and data protection standards. It also indicates the availability of ‘Remote Workspaces’ for such employees: “Remote workspaces shall be available to employees on a first-come-first-served basis. Employees may opt to work away from these identified remote workspaces. However, set standards are to be observed in all circumstances.”
This move hits the nail on the head in a couple of ways. Firstly, it takes a role and employee centred approach to the facilitation of remote working. Secondly, the concept of the ‘workspace’ is maintained such that employees may work from a formal office, home, and a suitable remote workspace alternative, rather than only have the option of working from two places: home or office. Finally, the policy may serve as an important case study for such workspace arrangements for the private sector also, serving as a test bed for refining the structure and approach of such arrangements.
Unlocking the full labour force potential
An important aspect of the remote working consideration has to be mentioned, and that is the opening up of the job market to primary care givers who predominantly tend to be women. We have undoubtedly made some significant progress on making work accessible to women over the past years, with the difference in the proportion of women in employment when compared to men being reduced from 26.3% to 20.0% between 2013 and 2018. Whilst this is certainly progress, it is not enough. These statistics indicate that in 2018, whilst only 18.5% of male labour was unutilised, a concerning 38.5% of the female labour force remained unutilised. Of the total population of inactive persons (individuals who are not classified as employed or unemployed), 62% are female. Moreover, some studies have showed that women have been more at risk of losing their work due to the pandemic (Dang & Cuong, 2020). It is also no surprise that women spend more time performing unpaid work, such as childcare and housework than men.
The possibility of remote work through flexible arrangements may help in this respect. Companies who are equipped to offer task-based rather than hours-based working arrangements may open themselves up to the potential of the unlocked female labour force. Moreover, from a national perspective, the utilisation of more of the labour force has obvious benefits in terms of productivity growth. Remote working through flexible workspace arrangements, therefore, allow for an increased and likely highly educated labour force (as women constitute the majority of graduates every year).
But what do employees think of remote working?
Remote working became a very abrupt reality for those lucky enough to be able to keep working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and whilst perhaps the switch to work from home arrangements was not smooth across the board, it seems that employee outlook varies. A PwC (US) study carried out in June 2020 and again in January 2021 found that between 55% and 59% of employees would like to be able to work from home at least 3 days in the week. But the same study also found that less experienced workers seem to tend to favour working from an office space over working from home, possibly due to the need for building important interpersonal relationships (PwC, 2021).
The study also reported some interesting findings, such as:
– Productivity improving over time with remote working;
– That employers seems to be more ready to return to office than employees;
– Hybrid workspaces are set to become more commonplace;
– There is a tension between employers and employees in terms of the schedule for from-home and from-office work, and;
– Most executives expect changes in their real estate strategy throughout the year.
To get a well-rounded perspective on employee outlook on remote working, however, it serves to understand the perspective of employees working remotely (1) almost exclusively, and (2) outside of the context of the pandemic. A survey by Virgin Pulse (2018) reported in a Harvard Business Review article in 2018 interviewed over 2,000 employees and found that despite the benefits of flexibility, two-thirds of employees working remotely find themselves unengaged by their work (Schawbel, 2018). The same study also found that employees working exclusively remotely are less likely to commit to their current company for the course of their career. In response to this, several large companies such as HP, Reddit and IBM (back in 2018) had started to roll back their remote working allowance and invest in well-designed office space instead.
Therefore, given pre-pandemic conditions, there seem to be benefits to reducing the amount of remote working from 100% to some middle-ground in which employees work in a blended manner, partly remotely and partly from a centralised office space or flexible workspaces.
Know your boundaries: the future of remote work
The value of flexible workspace arrangements from an employee perspective is evident – if it’s done right. As can be expected, employees seem to benefit from more time at the office if they are new to the firm, whilst employees with more seniority tend to prefer to spend marginally more time working from home. Nonetheless, moving toward being 100% remote may have more detrimental effects than positive ones.
These preliminary figures indicate the need for companies to make some very important considerations. Is the sector you operate in conducive to remote working arrangements? Are you dependent on sectors which lend themselves more to remote working, and what will your client working arrangements be like in the future? How much employee turnover does your firm usually see, and what will that mean for the proportion of employees who would benefit from more time in closer physical proximity building important interpersonal relationships? How can remote working be used through flexible workspace to mitigate business risks?
Offering more flexible workspace arrangements may have benefits for companies too. A 2017 study found that about 8% of employees were actually willing to take a wage reduction to gain the flexibility of remote working (Choudhury, Larson, & Foroughi, 2019). Moreover, reducing office space size and leveraging the infrastructure of employees homes and flexible workspaces may create significant costs savings for companies (check out this article for more on the benefits of flexible workspace for businesses).
Moving toward a flexible workspace arrangement will need some getting used to, and we are unlikely to find the right balance immediately. Nonetheless, moving in this direction is past being a necessary temporary fix and is now an appealing strategic consideration.