For many people, the events of this year have made it one of the most disruptive periods in living memory. And for most organisations, it has resulted in the need for an entire rethink when it comes to business operations, cultural identity and the needs of their workforce. While we don’t think this means the end of the office, we do believe that the office no longer needs to be the centre of an organisation.
In fact, according to new research on the future of work from our report “2020 Foresight: Managing an ‘anywhere’ workforce”, there’s been a 41% increase in the proportion of employees across EMEA who see remote working as a prerequisite rather than a perk, rising to 53% among Gen X workers*.
Recently, we hosted an online panel debate featuring external experts and customers to discuss our report findings and drill down into what business leaders need to do in order to successfully adapt and manage a distributed workforce.
Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, Director of Future of Work at Oxford University, and Véronique Karcenty, Director of Digital Workspace at Orange Group, France, together with our own Kristine Dahl Steidel, Vice President of End-User Computing at VMware EMEA, shared their thoughts on the current working situation and what they think the future holds.
The full debate is available to view on YouTube – but we’ve summarised the key takeaways from the lively discussion below.
1) It’s not about choosing between the office or home – it’s about facilitating both
Kristine kicked off the discussion noting that this year has proven that a distributed workforce model – working in the office, at home, on the move, or a combination of all three – can work for businesses across the globe. More than just a hybrid approach, the distributed workforce model sees employees fulfilling needs they had already expressed before this year – to have more flexibility around their working hours, and to be less tied into their commutes, while having the option to work beyond their homes or the office.
It’s clear that we can no longer be defined by location. As Kristine pointed out, “the challenges in the past six months have forced businesses to quickly adapt to new working practices where ‘work’ doesn’t equal ‘the office’.”
Our latest research also shows that there are tangible benefits for both employees and businesses. Despite there being feelings of pressure to be online outside of working hours (59%), employee morale and productivity are on the rise. As is recruitment, with 67% saying recruitment of top-tier talent has been made easier, specifically for working parents (83%) and minority candidates (68%).
The fact we can already see these benefits bodes well – although Kristine also qualified that while distributed working is clearly feasible and should be encouraged, it will require changes in leadership teams, management styles and company culture for all employees to feel they are being trusted to not only get their jobs done, but achieve business and personal goals from any location that they choose to work from.
2) Navigating existing barriers for a longer-term solution
The discussion also recognised that while working from anywhere can and should be the goal for many organisations – there are still several barriers to navigate for this to work in the long term. Dr Frey acknowledged that although we’ve been heading down this path for many years towards greater flexibility and autonomy of our working practices, at the moment, we’re still very much in an experimentation phase.
With less oversight of their teams as a result of remote working, more than four in ten (41%) decision makers surveyed in our research worry their team won’t stay on task. Alongside this challenge with managing ‘out of sight’ employees, all three panelists acknowledged other issues we’re facing.
Lack of visibility means managers are unable to know how long their employees are working, or what their home environment is like – and also means that having an ‘always-on’ culture will have to be adjusted. Dr Frey suggested an ‘outcome-based’ approach to management will help facilitate this and ensure employees can truly benefit from flexible working when it comes to their careers long-term.
Additionally, all three panelists agreed prioritising employee wellbeing is critical as employers navigate distributed workforces. Kristine argued that as someone who has worked and managed teams remotely for a long time now, having a blend of face-to-face and virtual connections has helped her and her teams support each other’s needs.
Véronique pointed out that “to embrace today’s distributed workforce model, middle management needs to demonstrate trust, energize the team and build a sense of shared purpose.”
3) Work from Anywhere is here – but it’s an ongoing process
One thing is for certain – this situation is not going away. The best route forwards as businesses seek to recover, is balancing the efficiency that distributed working can provide, with the innovation that can spark from employees getting together in person.
It looks like technology holds the key – prompting discussions from Kristine and Dr Frey about the role of virtual socialising in keeping teams connected, and how it should be combined with in-person interaction. As Kristine put it: “Leading companies will become ‘anywhere organisations’, with the right digital foundation to support their distributed workforces.”
According to Dr Frey, while demand for office buildings will still exist for the purpose of face-to-face interactions, it will have to bring social distancing into consideration. Véronique pointed out that Orange Group are looking at modelling multiple, smaller offices or co-working spaces based around where a group of employees live, so that they can get the benefits of co-working – no matter if they belong to the same team or not. The times where everyone of the same team meets daily in the office are over for many.
While for now, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to dictate most people’s lives and working practices, this year has proven that there’s so much more potential to be a part of an organisation outside of the office. What the panel discussion surfaced is that the right balance between flexibility, productivity, and human connection still needs to be worked out – and this requires managers and senior leaders to find out what their staff need.
Read more in our related blog article “Distributed working is here to stay but what does it mean to you?”
*The “The New Remote Work Era: Trends in the Distributed Workforce” report is based on a survey, sponsored by VMware, of 2,850 EMEA respondents (950 HR decision makers, 950 IT decision makers and 950 business decision makers) across 12 countries – UK (600), France (450), Germany (450), Italy (150), Netherlands, (150), Russia (150), Poland (150), Norway (150), Sweden (150), Spain (150), UAE (150) and Saudi Arabia (150). Vanson Bourne conducted the survey in June and July 2020.