Out-Law Analysis 4 min. read

Coronavirus: cultural change needed for remote working shift

Many businesses will need to work harder in future to embed the culture of their company in workforces as remote working arrangements become more common.

While lots of employers had embraced a degree of remote working long before the onset of coronavirus, many more employers have been forced to deliver remote working capability for their workforce on a scale they will have been unlikely to have anticipated just a few short months ago, just to continue operating during the pandemic.

As businesses now look to life beyond the strictest of lockdown and options for returning staff to office work safely, many are likely to be considering an enhanced role for remote working arrangements in comparison to pre-virus times.

Where this is the case, employers will need to manage change and consider how to retain workplace culture in an environment where colleagues operate from separate locations as well as ensure they have the appropriate technology infrastructure in place to enable seamless working wherever the location.

Coronavirus and the acceleration of a shift to remote working

Despite news of the spread of coronavirus, officially Covid-19, in China in the early new year, and the subsequent impact of the virus in other countries, such as Italy thereafter, many employers were perhaps unprepared for the virus to take hold in the UK and put to fundamental test the way they operate in the way it has.

Research indicates that this is true for many employers in relation to remote working capability pre-virus.

Business Leader reported in mid-March on the results of separate studies carried out by business solutions firm 8×8 and workplace performance firm Leesman. The 8x8 study, at that pre-lockdown stage in the UK, found that 41% of businesses did not have a home working policy, while the Leesman study – of almost 140,000 UK workers – found that 55% had little or no experience of working from home. The same Leesman study found that almost four in every five people who were used to working from home did so just once a week.

Livesey Samantha

Samantha Livesey

Partner, Head of Commercial

As time moves on it will be vital that employers consider the cultural impact of home working on their organisation

IT infrastructures had been developed to support this happy hybrid of predominantly office-based working and some remote working, but as it became clearer that the UK government would soon be following Italy and other European countries in implementing restrictions on normal life and business, so many businesses were forced to consider at short notice whether their systems and networks could withstand demand from a workforce working almost exclusively from home.

According to a Financial Times report on 17 March, a number of businesses had by then – days prior to lockdown restrictions being introduced by the UK government – already mandated that staff work from home, while others were involved in urgently testing and bolstering IT systems to facilitate such a move, including installing IT equipment at employees’ homes.

Despite the initial IT challenges, remote working has now become the new norm for millions of UK office workers.

There has also been an increase in virtual meetings with, as the Guardian reported, platforms such as Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Trello seeing an increase in usage and in some instances offering their services for free at present. Many companies have offered staff training in these services to make the transition smoother, as the Institute For Public Relations highlighted in a report into the way businesses are handling the Covid-19 crisis.

A more permanent shift towards remote working?

Many of the unknowns about remote working at scale have now been answered. For instance, the UK's broadband infrastructure has held up to the strain of additional demand, and businesses have now tested IT infrastructures and scaled up to ensure they are able to facilitate home working for all staff.

Other benefits have emerged too. Employees have become more familiar with a wider range of platforms available to facilitate communication and meetings virtually, and there are reduced financial and environmental cost of 'meeting' colleagues, clients and contacts on a virtual basis too, which will interest businesses keen to cut staff travel costs and support the 'green' agenda in tandem.

A cultural shift

For many businesses, remote working may only have been delivered at scale in their company within the past two months. The immediate focus would have been on business continuity and crisis management, but as time moves on it will be vital that employers consider the cultural impact of home working on their organisation.

Gitlab, a company operating a collaboration tool, works entirely remotely worldwide. It has produced a remote working playbook which, amongst other things, recommends that businesses embracing remote working minimise the IT tools they allow staff to use so as to achieve an effective home working arrangement.

At the heart of the shift to remote working are cultural considerations, Gitlab has said, emphasising the "critical differences" between managing in offices and remotely. Workplace culture and personal culture are prevalent when home working, and Gitlab has said maintaining "a stable sense of both" is important.

While "processes, camaraderie, and culture" that is taken for granted in an office environment, these must be "cultivated deliberately" when staff are working remotely, according to Gitlab,  who have urged companies to emphasise and reinforce their values to help guide workers' actions and decision-making and how they address challenges when logging in from home, and to write down any associated rules to avoid "dysfunction".

Global consultancy McKinsey has also identified the potential for work and personal life to become more blurred when staff are working from home. It said employers should "foster an outcome-driven culture that empowers and holds teams accountable for getting things done, while encouraging open, honest, and productive communication".

Employers should instil "a caring culture" too, it said.

McKinsey said: "As companies transition to the new normal, it’s important to acknowledge that some employees may be facing other pressures at home, including caring for their children when schools are shut, leading to feelings of isolation and insecurity. Business leaders need to respect and address these additional needs. Empathy is a crucial tool here, offering a way to connect, promote inclusiveness, and create a sense of community in a void of physical interaction. Increasing social interactions within the team, particularly through one-on-one catch-ups, guards against feelings of isolation and demoralisation and creates space for people to speak up and share their thoughts."

As businesses consider how to accommodate remote working to a greater extent in their organisation, questions of culture should be considered as seriously as those of IT capability and resilience.

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