COVID-19 has completely transformed the way we work and live. Away from the frontline of healthcare, food and medical provisions, most of us are working from home. And for the typical urban office worker, this is a whole new world for us.

The morning rush with packed trains, tubes or roads is replaced with a home office. Meetings are online. Everything’s virtual and Zoom is our best friend. Millions of people are discovering what it’s like to work from home for the very first time.

Will working from home continue after COVID-19?

Many countries are now at a crossroads in the collective fight against COVID-19. Lockdown is easing around the world, and in the UK, we are working out how best to do this and stay safe. Coronavirus effectively shutdown the global economy and as we come to terms with the damage, we’re considering options for the new normal – whatever that may be.

A question many people in the corporate sector are asking is whether mass working from home should be a temporary measure, or whether it should become standard. Should employees even have the right to work from home if they can do the job effectively?

Around ten years ago, working from home was automatically considered impractical. The traditional thinking being that people need to be in the same physical space to work effectively. And while the increasingly sophisticated and connected technology available to us have shifted this attitude, pre-COVID-19 the idea of millions of people ditching the office was unthinkable.

How many people were remote working before the pandemic?

Let’s look at the stats. Government figures show that out of the 32.6 million employed in 2019, just 1.7 million people were working mostly from home. Around 8.7 million people said they had worked from home at some point in their past, but even this is less than a third of the country’s workforce.

Broadly speaking, most industrial, manufacturing, retail and hospitality sectors offer few opportunities to work from home due to the nature of their work. Sectors that offer the highest chances of effectively working remotely include real estate, scientific and technical, all professional services, information, media and communication.

And between 2015 and the end of 2019, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows more people shifting to remote working. However, in the transportation, accommodation, and food services sectors, just 10% have due to the nature of their work. These sectors include services such as rail, air, road, shipping, bars and restaurants. Post-pandemic, this split is unlikely to change. The biggest long-term changes will be driven by the sectors that can feasibly work remotely.

UK workers have had the right to request flexible working patterns for years, but only 5% worked from home before COVID-19. Now that entire business sectors are demonstrating that collective remote working is not only possible, but preferable, this will change.

Employees may force employers to change longer term

With the long-term health implications of COVID-19 still unclear, and without a vaccine available, employees are likely to directly ask to work from home. This culture shift will likely begin at the recruitment stage, which pushes employers to consider flexible or home working in entirely new ways.

In a bid to keep their employees safe, leading organisations around the world are looking ahead and embracing new ways of working. An increase in remote working, flexible working patterns and staggered shifts will ease pressure on commuters, keep the roads clearer and save tube and train space for those who cannot work from home. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has already announced that the company’s employees will be allowed to permanently work from home even after the pandemic ends. Similarly, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has formally extended the tech giant’s remote working policy until 2021.

Companies will soon have to make difficult decisions regarding their employees’ health and wellbeing as the economy is forced back on its feet. However, it’s not just about ensuring employees are socially distant. There is evidence to show that remote working is demonstrably more efficient than office working. One 2019 US study by Airtasker says that employees working from home average an extra 1.4 days of work every month – that’s three more weeks a year compared with office workers. This should make it more attractive to employers as a feasible option into the future.

Is there a downside to working from home?

While there are clearly multiple upsides to remote working, it’s not popular with everyone. The pandemic lockdown has put enormous pressure on families with both parents working from home and children studying remotely. Others feel isolated and find the lack of personal interaction takes a toll on their mental health.

There are undoubtedly vast amounts of workers who would love to get back into the office for a multitude of reasons. However, the reality of COVID-19 means this is unlikely. And even if you can get back to your office, social distancing and mandatory hygiene measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus will mean it’s a very different place.

Will working from home become a permanent ‘new normal’?

Remote working will clearly continue for the time being. After all, we’re not yet out of lockdown, and while some businesses will be opening up over the next few weeks, we don’t yet know what this will look like. Whether remote working should become a permanent trend when the pandemic ends depends very much on how long that takes. While the world waits for a vaccination to be developed, the impact of the pandemic will hit hard and last a long time.

How we finally adjust as a workforce depends on a number of factors that we just don’t yet know. The moment of truth will come when the pandemic is truly over. The most likely outcome is a sharp increase in long-term remote working and employers opening up to more flexible work patterns. A combination of working from home, part time and full-time hours will probably become the new normal for corporate Britain.

Companies will be forced to put more trust into their employees and focus on the bigger picture. At Inc & Co Group, our priority remains our employees’ physical and mental health, even if this means more independence and remote work patterns. I expect that most comparable businesses will take the same approach.

While it’s impossible to definitively quantify the total impact of millions of people working remotely on a permanent basis, there will be an undoubtedly positive effect on operational costs, employee wellbeing and long-term sustainability.

Jack Mason

Jack Mason

Jack Mason, Founder and Group CEO of Inc & Co. Welcome to Jack's personal blog where he’ll be sharing strategic business insights on everything from operations to culture and all there is to know about the benefits of digital in business.

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