More than 30 million infected, more than one million deaths, and the global economy in tatters. These are the obvious impacts of Covid-19.

But coronavirus is having unexpected consequences in the workplace; not only in the number of furloughs and redundancies, but also in accelerating the work from home trend. Covid-19 has proven that not only can working from home be done en masse, it can be sustained. And that is where ‘working from home’ morphs into ‘remote working’.

Here in New Zealand, more than 40% of employed Kiwis did at least some of their work from home during the Covid-19 level 4 and level 3 lockdown, Statistics New Zealand said recently.

Working from home has many benefits, with a 2019 US study identifying the elimination of daily commutes, increased productivity, and healthier lifestyles as the top three. It’s a win-win situation that workers relish for its flexibility – but it comes with a work-life balance caution! When you’re working from home, you’re never away from work.

It’s also important to make the distinction between ‘remote working’ and ‘working from home’ (flexible working).

The EMA’s Employer Bulletin says that working from home is a temporary change, contrasted with remote working, which is instead either semi-permanent or permanent. Staying at home for the day because you don’t have any meetings? That’s working from home. Businesses and employees having to adapt so they can work away from the office on a semi-permanent basis? That’s remote working.

Brad Olsen, senior economist at Infometrics, says that remote working will be a key change for post-pandemic New Zealand, and that means major changes for employers and their workers.

With the pandemic forcing so many to work from home, it might be hard for businesses to revert, once the threat of infection subsides. Rather than trying to swim against the tide, employers should take the opportunity to move to working styles that better suit modern working, and fit with the expectations and lifestyles of the modern workforce. Granted, not everyone can work from home or work remotely; but for those businesses able to offer this, it can help to strengthen employer branding, and offer improved work/life balance for team members.

Commercial landlords may also be quaking in their boots, as the work from home trend leads businesses to reassess whether they need large premises to accommodate 100% of their workforce five days a week.

Anecdotally, downtown Auckland has been a bit of ghost town, hit by a double whammy of a second lockdown and a damaged Harbour Bridge. Millennial commentator Verity Johnson, writing in Stuff, recently observed that the city has lost its mojo and that “many of us who previously threw ourselves eagerly into the rat race are pulling back and questioning what we want from life. And many have realised they’re disenchanted with the hustle and the pace. Both of which were Auckland’s drawcards.”

Infometrics’ economic pundits are also saying that remote working could also benefit regions like Hawke’s Bay over the medium term, as where you are located becomes less important for some industries.

The jury’s out on whether working from home is good or bad for business. In a recent Economist article,  Jack Dorsey, the head of Twitter, says the company’s staff can work from home “forever”, but Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, says home-working is “a pure negative”.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and businesses that adopt remote working (in any form) as a long term policy will have to work hard to ensure that culture, creativity and relationships don’t suffer, and invest in setting up employees with the right work from home infrastructure.

Working from home also requires a strong degree of trust. A New Zealand legal firm came under fire during lockdown for requiring computer cameras to be switched on or have zoom running all day to “prove” that staff were working. Not only unreasonable, but also illegal as a gross invasion of privacy!

Some form of working from home is likely to become the norm for many New Zealand businesses and their teams.

Top remote working tips for employers:

  • Ensure your teams have the right equipment – computer, suitable desk and office chair. Be prepared to invest in getting the set-up right for your remote workers.
  • Ensure your teams have the right infrastructure – broadband connection and online security.
  • Ensure regular check-ins between managers and team members.
  • Be prepared to adopt pastoral care.
  • Remember that your health and safety obligations extend to remote workplaces.
  • Keep the team communication and connections going.
  • Provide the right tools to stay connected and be productive – e.g., Zoom, Teams etc.
  • Consider a policy that incorporates both remote and in office working – for example 3:2 to get the best of both worlds.
  • Bring your people together for brainstorming and creative sessions.
  • Research the tax implications of work-from-home allowances for employees.

Top remote working tips for employees:

  • Have a dedicated workspace if possible.
  • Have all the equipment you need, including a proper office chair.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for what you need.
  • Have a regular start time, maintain regular hours.
  • Take scheduled breaks.
  • Interact with other humans.
  • Dress for work.
  • Don’t be distracted by social media. Switch off, or use apps to silence.
  • Use technology to stay connected to colleagues and managers.
  • When work is finished for the day, switch off!

Businesses should seek advice if remote working is going to be a long-term part of their business plan. Done well, it can set you apart from the pack, and be a drawcard for attracting high quality candidates.

For employees, if remote working is on the table, be sure to understand expectations, get everything that you need to be productive, and establish communication and connections from the start.

Lead photo: BayBuzz World HQ

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