With the experiences of 2020-21 not quite yet in our past, and the lessons learned from that all around us, it’s time to revisit the hybrid model for working remotely to consider how that might be applicable going forward. In Part 1 of this series, I reflected on the rapid move to remote working necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Part 2, I looked at the lessons learned during the pandemic work-from-home situation. Now, in Part 3, I’ll look back at those original four arguments about working remotely to see how they might apply in the new normal of the working world.
I meant to write and post this in the Spring of 2021 – when the transition back to the worksite was supposed to start – as a look at a hybrid model in action. But with the pandemic situation extending and dragging through the summer and into the autumn, things have been delayed. The long-term forecast is for the current remote-work requirements and opportunities to continue for a while, and perhaps become the new normal. In other words, the hybrid working world is upon us, perhaps not by choice but by necessity.
The Four Arguments
The original proposition from the 2017 article had four arguments around working remotely, each of which I’ll reconsider in turn.
There are several stakeholders to consider in each: the organization, the clients, the managers, and the employee. The latter of these comprises the individual and their family or life situation. Collaborative, inclusive, and empathetic employers and managers recognize that professionals put a lot of themselves into their work and so include (or at least they should) consideration of the larger impact on the employees’ health and well-being and that of their families that results from this commitment and contribution.
The pandemic period has allowed for remote working scenarios to be tested vigorously but also involuntarily – as the world situation and the requirements of many employers made remote work, if not mandatory, certainly essential for one’s continued employment in many roles – and with a much larger sample population than was strictly necessary were it not for the global public health crisis. This crucible approach pushed the envelope on the original arguments, perhaps skewing perceptions of the pros and cons across the entire population. With both the original theories and now 18+ months of practical experience, we can better assess the potential of a hybrid approach to our working lives and worlds.
As a reminder, a hybrid approach is about working remotely sometimes (or perhaps always) as an option (not a requirement) for some (not all, but maybe most) team members, in a department or organization.
Let’s look at each argument one by one, starting with…
The economic argument: office space is expensive, so having employees work remotely is cheaper. And clearing the roads of commuters is better for the environment.
This argument is primarily about the costs to the employer – specifically, the costs of office space or any centralized workspace – with a sidebar consideration of the eco-costs of commuting. As we’ve learned over the pandemic period, there may also be impacts on and for employees.
There may be some truth to the savings for employers, but most of those would likely come with added other costs. Things like penalties for lease terminations, relocation costs if going to a different, smaller location, the potential future costs when expansion becomes required again – a real consideration for rapidly growing businesses. The near-term savings need to be balanced against these other real and potential costs. And the costs don’t go away entirely, as most organizations need to have some kind of central location and a valid business address for things like shipping and licences, not to mention for control and storage of confidential or sensitive documentation.
A quasi-economic argument could be made about recruitment. Without a firm requirement for employees to be at a central location, the pool of available candidates for consideration just got a whole lot bigger. While this may not translate directly to an economic benefit, the intrinsic value of having a larger candidate pool should translate to real value in terms of the quality of candidates and, ultimately, employees. Plus, lower (or no) relocation costs. There may be organizational or legal reasons why candidates must be within a certain geographical region, and managing across time zones may introduce other challenges (communication, camaraderie supervision), but flexible and inclusive employers looking to fill roles with highly-specialized talent would have more options in a hybrid or remote work model, both in whom they can consider for roles and what they can offer as part of compensation – flexible work location is a highly-prized benefit that is emerging as an important consideration for candidates. And by the way, increased size of the candidate pool also contributes to great diversity and inclusion in recruitment.
As discussed previously, other costs could increase, such as the need to establish and maintain robust and secure networks that go beyond the physical space of the office. As we experienced in the pandemic transition, the computer network requirements are considerable, not just during the transition but on an ongoing basis. These remote set-ups can be more complicated and so require more – not less – client services. Companies should not rely on someone with a non-IT job and a rudimentary understanding of the network and security (i.e. me) to take care of all my own IT set-up and troubleshooting (and that’s not what they pay me for), so the standard support-to-employee ratio will require adjustment. Maintaining the same or less IT support is truly a recipe for save-now-pay-later, with the costs realized in more than dollars if data is lost.
Over the pandemic period, the positive environmental impact has been shown to be real, albeit limited in both scale and duration. It is possible that that the impact could be sustained if there were more permanent plans for companies and employees around remote working, and perhaps incentive programs specifically targeting reduction of both the company and the employee carbon footprint. However, I’m not aware of any of those in the offing.
Not previously discussed is the economic impact on the employee. The positive benefit of less commuting has a financial element, with reduced transportation costs and possible reduced housing and related costs. With not having to come to the physical office that often (or at all, in some cases), individual costs for vehicles and transit will go down but not be eliminated; the values realized by volume purchases (such as a monthly pass) will disappear, and maintaining a vehicle or a bus pass for fewer trips to the office means the per-trip costs will increase, requiring juggling and decisions by employees influenced by the costs of going to the office. Similarly, costs at home will increase for things like office supplies, internet, and the creature comforts of the office space, and while some of these may be recouped at tax time, many will be either ineligible or exceed the maximum claim amount.
More significantly, employees might consider relocating further from the central office, especially in cities where rents or real estate closer to the office is pricey. This distance may further increase the transportation costs (and by extension reduce the environmental benefit). There may be another cost to employees (and benefit to companies): if the high cost of living near the central office is no longer a consideration for employees because they can live farther away, overall salary levels may (or even will) be reduced, or at least not increased as much each year. The benefit-cost balance here will be difficult to get right and may take several years to be realized in any significant way, but it is still something for employees and companies to consider as part of the economic argument. And it does seem that employees are seriously thinking about it.
In the next parts of this series, I'll be looking at the other arguments about remote or hybrid working: teamwork, trust, and work-life balance. I'll conclude by suggesting some tools and approaches to make work and communication effective in a remote or hybrid work set-up.
What has been your experience? Good, bad, ugly? What works really well, and what doesn't work at all? What challenges are you experiencing that need a solution? What opportunities have you been able to realize and take? What do you miss most about the pre-pandemic working world? Please comment below or email me at email@example.com with your questions and comments.
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.