Call it remote working, teleworking, telecommuting, work-from-home, or smart working, the modality of employees performing office-based work from outside the office using ICT-based tools, is now a global experiment that the whole world was forced into with the COVID-19 pandemic. Corporations of different sizes and sectors, having various degrees of openness to flexible working modalities ,had to adjust working patterns to keep their operation going in this time of uncertainty. We have even seen major global companies like Mondolez, Barclays, Twitter and Facebook talk about more permanent work-from-home positions and less investments in office spaces.
Now, more than three months into the experiment, it is indeed the time for business leaders to reflect on it. More importantly, if this modality is heading towards being more widely used, there is a need to refine the processes and regulations that will govern it.
Promising but not as easy as it seems
Fady Labib, head of HR at DHL Global Forwarding Egypt, speaks to Business Forward about the transition of the giant logistics player to remote working, saying it had worked for most of the functions, except about 25% that require physical presence in the office, warehouses or ports.
“One of the advantages of COVID-19 is that it forced us to apply what we have been saying for years,” says Labib. “Working remotely is the future and office spaces will be reviewed again by the management boards.”
“Many organizations, globally and locally, had questions around whether it was really possible to have permanent work-from-home options, at least for some jobs. The short answer is yes but it is not as simple as that,” tells us human capital expert Nermine Fawzy, who’s also the cofounder & senior partner of FosterEdge, and cofounder & CEO of Techr, an HR Tech firm. “Questions arise around employee productivity, management capabilities, teamwork, culture, skill development, and a whole range of other issues. One aspect that will encourage companies to do so is the cost of office space.”
In a huge metropolitan like Cairo, where the bulk of office jobs are based, the remote-working modality brings obvious benefits related to employee and community well-being. “In Egypt, some of the most important pros would be zero commuting, less traffic as well as fewer office distractions,” says Sarah Refaat, senior associate vice president for HR at the American University in Cairo. “However, as we learn about its advantages, it also has many drawbacks if not implemented correctly.”
Reflecting on what was at first a challenging transition of a huge community of staff, faculty and students into remote work, Refaat sees that internet connectivity problems, a lack of community and changed ways of communication between colleagues, and the overlap of the working day with personal life are some of the risks that are yet to be addressed as business leadership assesses the experience.
Some human factors to consider
Through the video software that replaced in-person office meetings, employees might be seeing more of their colleagues’ living rooms, dining tables and other spots that have been turned into home offices; as well as children, spouses and family members running in the background of video calls. Everyone was going through the same unprecedented experience, which potentially creates empathy and connection on the human level between team members. However, even with video calls, screen sharing and advanced digital solutions driving and facilitating the change, the spontaneity of corridor and water cooler conversations, the non-verbal cues during meetings and unplanned brainstorming cannot be totally replaced and can impact creativity.
“Drawbacks are mainly confined in the limitations of communication and the absence of the face-to-face conversations between colleagues,” concludes Labib.
Team dynamics will be greatly impacted according to Fawzy, no matter how great the IT tools are in filling the gaps of the current crisis. While the new working setup could be functioning well with already-established teams or individual contributors, they will be quite limited when it comes to newly formed/forming teams. According to her, leadership capabilities develop in being physically around team members, and from observing other leaders.
In a Gallup survey, more than half of work-from-home employees reported preferring to continue working from home once restrictions on businesses and school closures are lifted. Interestingly, this percentage had dropped from 62% to 53% between March and April, after some time into the work from home pilot. School closure is a significant factor for working parents who have taken on additional childcare and education responsibilities. “It is a new, challenging and stressful situation for most people,” says Mai Elwi, counseling psychologist and founder of Raising Happy for parenting services, “To make things work, both parents need to try to align their weekday structure, especially if they need support on a specific day, or need to prepare for an important meeting, etc.”
Research-supported positive effects
Based on the review of various researches, the study titled “Smart Work and Efficiency at the Workplace” and another report by ILO and Eurofound, suggest that with remote working employees are less interrupted, exercise better time management, concentrate more, and this translates into higher productivity and job satisfaction and reduced turn-over. In turn, less demand on office space yields savings on rent, maintenance and operation costs. “Office building cost saving is a huge trigger for corporates,” says Fawzy, “and it will have implications on the real estate market.”
Some findings show mixed results. A 2017 Gallup research found that out of surveyed employees with degrees of remote working ranging from zero to 100, the highest number of employees who strongly agreed that their engagement needs in terms of development and relationships are being met, are those who work remotely 60-80 percent of the time. Engaged employees are naturally more productive. Gallup also refers to a positive community externality related to reduced car pollution, less waste of paper and electricity that are more likely to happen with home-based work, compared with office-based.
An upside of COVID-19: expediting what was already in demand
In fact, the pandemic has only expedited what was already in demand. Facilitated by technological advancements, remote working has been in the recent years already finding its way into the job market in Egypt and the region, while being already more commonly used in the west as both employer-led and employee-led. As put in a research published by AUC’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, “with the increasing number of professionals in the knowledge management effectively capturing, and distributing knowledge, media and finance industries, the image of a typical work has changed.” Professionals have chosen to partake their professional expertise in a way suitable to tend to other commitments and pursuits.”
A more inclusive and millennial-attractive work culture
A previous Business Forward article presents how workplace flexibility is one of the key factors for attracting and retaining Generation Z talent. Moreover “we are seeing more and more global nomads who are often Gen Y and Gen Z talents, who want to live and move to different places but want to work,” points out Fawzy as another reason to revisit the traditional workplace setup. She believes that the remote working model opens up possibilities of recruiting from wider talent pools, from the other side of the city or even other cities.
This flexible work arrangement also serves to attract young graduates who want to pursue higher education while also entering the job market. The ILO reports on country examples shows that teleworking or remote working allows for the participation of certain groups such as older workers, young women with children and people with disabilities in the labor market.
A solution that can improve female participation in the labor market
Embracing remote-/home-based types of contracts expands potential for more female participation in labor markets, especially in this region where gender roles impose a load of domestic responsibilities to fall on women. With remote working options, women can tend to childcare and elderly-care while being employed, especially considering that unlike part-time, seasonal work and leave-without-pay, this arrangement allows for maintaining productivity while not affecting pay.
With the right management processes, remote working will no longer be an exceptional perk
The global patterns indicate that embracing and regularizing remote working responds to the changing social needs and expectations within the workforce, especially post COVID19. The workplace culture and human resources policies need to be agile and responsive enough to reflect this, to continue to compete in attracting the right talents for the right jobs.
Even in the public and government services sector in Egypt, Fawzy believes the change will be slow but inevitable, especially with the growth of the generation of digital natives and the computerization of databases and government services.
Fawzy shares some of her insights, “there is no perfect formula, but I believe there are five fundamentals: commitment is needed from the company and the employee to make it work – the transition occurs in both mindset and tools. The second point is about leaving no room for assumptions by laying clear expectations. Communication cannot be more critical in this working modality as opposed to traditional ones; teams need to be aligned on the processes of follow-up and updating. As we experiment, agile and frequent feedback cycles are key to be able to recognize what is not working and changing it fast. Finally, great leadership to be able to manage it all, is the make-it-or-break-it of this setup,” she concludes.