The Pandemic Period has seen a huge rise in Remote Working.
Over the past 25 months, many changes have occurred since the virus known as COVID-19 first gained the world’s attention. As countries worldwide implemented varying levels of lockdown restrictions aimed at containing and limiting the spread of the virus, our collective everyday lives turned upside down. From curfews and capacity limitations to vaccine passports and hotel quarantines, it has been a period of significant adjustment. Now, with scientists and government officials across the world hoping that we are at the end, or at least through the worst of the global pandemic (The Lancet, 2022), it’s time for us to start thinking about what comes next. What is likely to change and what is likely to stay the same? What exactly is the new normal?
One of the most profound changes to emerge from the pandemic has been the dawn of remote working. The level of take up across the world has been highly variable. To give you a sense of the degree to which remote working has increased over the pandemic period, let’s look at some important statistical data correlations. [Please note that the phrase “teleworking” below is used to denote the practice of “working from home or remotely using modern technology and telecommunications to remain in touch with your employer or business” (Market Business News 2022)].
Advanced vs. Emerging – Disparities in remote working conditions
The first observation of note is a general correlation between advanced economies and increased capacity for remote working. Taken directly from the OECD, “In Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, 47% of employees teleworked during lockdowns in 2020. In Japan, which did not institute a nationwide lockdown, the teleworking rate increased from 10% to 28% between December 2019 and May 2020”(OECD, 2022). If we take by comparison an emerging economy such as Brazil, we can see that while teleworking in fact “doubled from 5% in 2019 to over 10% in May 2020” (OECD, 2022), this 100% increase still represents a much smaller comparative level of representation in this sector.
The disparity in the level of increased remote working capacity amongst different nations can be attributed to a few key factors. Amongst them, is the level of existing technology infrastructure, and differing industrial profiles between advanced and emerging economies. Services-based economies such as the UK, for example, have a high propensity for remote working due to the nature of the work itself not requiring direct physical interaction. The level of Information and Communication Technologies Infrastructure already present there also allows for a relatively easy transition from on-site to remote working (OECD, 2022).
A vast, emerging economy such as India offers a very different picture. Though well known for its presence in the high-tech and financial services industries, as referenced by Lund et al. in their analysis on behalf of the McKinsey Global Institute, “the vast majority of its workforce of 464 million is employed in occupations like retail services and agriculture that cannot be done remotely” (Lund et al., 2020). The reality of the chasm in readiness between advanced vs. emerging economies in terms of remote working is further highlighted by Lund et al.’s revelation, “In the US workforce, we find that just 22 percent of employees can work remotely between three and five days a week without affecting productivity, while only five percent could do so in India” (Lund et al., 2020)
Many have come to embrace remote working, with a sizable number demonstrating a wish to never return to pre-pandemic office norms.
It all comes back to Productivity
So what has this meant for worker output? Research carried out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has demonstrated a marked increase in productivity – here defined as the amount of output produced by one hour’s work – throughout the Covid pandemic. Their data shows, “The world’s output per hour worked surged by 4.9 percent in 2020, more than double the long-term average annual rate of 2.4 per cent registered between 2005 and 2019.” (Kapsos, S., 2021). A current working study by Barrero et al., on behalf of the University of Chicago, supports the notion that the increased levels of productivity seen during the pandemic are, in fact, sustainable. They even go so far as to suggest that a continuation of remote working practices could boost productivity in the future by as much as 4.8% as compared to pre-pandemic levels (Barrero et al., 2020).
The study credits over 50% of this productivity gain to time saved commuting, while also indicating a strong desire amongst a majority of workers to continue to have the option of working remotely in the post-pandemic period. Most survey respondents indicated a desire to work from home two or more days per week, with a significant number – 27.6% of overall respondents – indicating a willingness to work entirely remotely (Barrero et al., 2020). One concern amongst these findings is the degree to which Employer and Employee expectations appear to differ regarding remote working practices from now on. Employees expect significantly more remote working time than the Employers have planned for. This raises the prospect of inevitable clashes between Employers wishing their staff to return to physical office spaces and employees who have now gained a taste for a different kind of work practice.
The future conflict between Employers and Employees on the right to work remotely seems inevitable sorbetto.
While there may be significant overlaps in defining remote working capabilities within the Advanced vs. Emerging Economy dynamic, there are specific practical implications regarding remote working that transcend national boundaries or economic composition. The term "frontline worker" has become a commonly used phrase over the pandemic period – here to mean anybody who is exposed through their occupation to an increased likelihood of direct interaction with persons who may be potential carriers of the COVID-19 virus. Healthcare workers serve as a prime example, though this principle extends to supermarkets, classrooms, public transportation operators, and beyond. Certain jobs, at this moment in human history, simply cannot be performed remotely.
So what now?
The dissipation of lockdown restrictions has seen a drive amongst certain sectors to see staff return to the office. Different countries are at various stages of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, so there is no set timetable for when the office life will return to pre-pandemic norms. There is the genuine consideration for businesses operating with large office spaces of whether it is logical to continue to incur such expense if physical face-to-face interactions are no longer necessary to daily work functioning. There are also broader and actual societal implications to be considered: reduced traffic congestion and carbon emissions, the potential repurposing of office space, a shift in the very core of contemporary family and home life dynamics, to name but a few.
A hybrid compromise?
A working compromise for both parties would seem to be the normalisation of a hybrid work environment across a significant portion of industries. This would see employees working remotely, from home or otherwise, for extensive or majority periods of their work lives. Allowing them to attend the office in person several days per week or perhaps less frequently and for specific occasions only. Outlining above some of the practical wider societal implications, the potential impact of such a profound change in work practices becoming permanent is challenging to quantify or underestimate.
Murray, C J L. (2022). COVID-19 will continue but the end of the pandemic is near. The Lancet https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(22)00100-3/fulltext
Market Business News (N.D.) (2022). What is teleworking? Definition and meaning. Market Business News. https://marketbusinessnews.com/financial-glossary/teleworking-definition-meaning/
OECD (2021). OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19), Teleworking in the COVID-19 pandemic: Trends and prospects. OECD https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/teleworking-in-the-covid-19-pandemic-trends-and-prospects-72a416b6/#section-d1e858
Lund S., Madgavkar A., Manyika J., Smit S. (2020). What’s next for remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries. McKinsey.com https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/whats-next-for-remote-work-an-analysis-of-2000-tasks-800-jobs-and-nine-countries
Kapsos, S. (2021). Why would labour productivity surge during a pandemic? ILO https://ilostat.ilo.org/why-would-labour-productivity-surge-during-a-pandemic/#:~:text=The%20impact%20of%20the%20COVID,registered%20between%202005%20and%202019.
Irwin, W. (2021), Will the Pandemic Productivity Boom Last? The New York Times.
Barrero, J.M., Bloom N., Davis, S. J. (2020). Why Working From Home Will Stick, University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper No. 2020-174
Levanon, G. (2020) Remote Work: The Biggest Legacy Of Covid-19. Forbes
Colgate, D. (2021). Remote working in 2020 – what did we learn? Hardsoftcomputers.co.uk/blog
People vector created by pch.vector, Happy freelancer with computer at home. young man sitting in armchair and using laptop, chatting online and smiling. vector illustration for distance work, online learning, freelance Free Vector. www.freepik.com,
Sorbeto/Getty Images, retrieved from Olya, G (2021) How To Deal With Conflict in a Remote Work World, accessed 16th February 2022