What are the effects of moving towards a more virtual way of work?

After the recent measures put in place and a country wide lockdown all non-essential UK workers have now been advised by the Government to work from home. This comes as part of a range of new stringent measures to help curb the peak the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic. As it stands, the single most important action we can all take, in fighting coronavirus, is to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives.

During this unprecedented time, many have been fortunate enough to be able to work from home temporarily, or work flexibly in order to adopt the social distancing procedures that the government has recommended. But, could our experiences in the coming weeks support a permanent shift towards flexible and virtual working?

The phrase ‘flexible working’ has been used frequently in business articles and by social media influencers in the last few years so it’s not an entirely new concept for most A 2018 report the CIPD defined flexible working as the ‘Mega-trend’ of the year and according to their research, two in three workers (68%) would like to work flexibly in a way that is not currently available to them. 92% of millennials want to work remotely and 87% want to work on their own clock instead of a 9 to 5 workday: an emerging workforce has made their opinions clear. But what does ‘flexible working’ actually mean?

Certain working patterns or ways of working, such as flexi-time, part-time hours, or working from home are all regarded as types of ‘flexible working’. Although there is no agreed definition of flexible working, the recent government guidelines have shone a spotlight on working from home and mobile/virtual working which has been a huge change for many.

For years there have been a number of emerging trends in the workplace that have contributed to a growing demand for flexible/virtual working in many industries:

  1. Stressed and overworked.

Evidence shows that one in four UK workers is overworked by ten hours a week or more. According to figures released by HSE in 2018, work-related stress, anxiety or depression accounted for over half (57%) of all working days lost due to ill health in Great Britain.

  1. An increased of awareness around mental health and wellbeing.

At least one in six workers has experienced common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression (Mind). However, improved understanding of mental health conditions in recent years means there are significant efforts being made to improve these figures.

  1. Reducing our carbon footprint – cutting the commute.

A study by the Campaign for Better Transport found that work-related travel accounts for over a third (37%) of total CO2 emissions from passenger transport – 24% from commuting and 13% from travel during business hours

  1. Childcare responsibilities.

Parents who return to work after having children are looking for flexibility to structure their working days around family life as well as allowing them to spend quality time with their children while they grow up  Add in quote from Mother Pukka

  1. Advancements in technology

The technology on offer today is without-a-doubt the driving force enabling businesses to adopt more flexible working policies. For many employees, increased connectivity has made the transition into remote-work easier. Faster and more readily available Wi-Fi and broadband, as well as easy-access cloud systems and team collaboration tools mean ‘the office’ can be just about anywhere you take your laptop.

In light of the current guidelines we spoke to Chris, SustainIt’s IT and Systems Consultant, to discuss the journey SustainIt has taken into the world of flex-enabling tech:

“Years ago, SustainIt worked using various 1-2-1 coms apps. These were all local, self hosted platforms that required a fair amount of manual maintenance from employees. Then Slack arrived. The company was able to converge all that technology from lots of segregated systems into one, cloud-based, centralised virtual workspace. People within the company jumped on board pretty quickly, realising that this was the perfect tool to give us a way of collaborating / working together when we were not all in the office. We moved to Microsoft Teams for communications in early 2019 and since then have adopted other collaborative cloud-based apps for team projects, most recently Zoho CRM & Social and Jura Cloud. This year, we’re considering moving towards the use of Sharepoint for our file sharing, but, like everything else we just want to make sure that this is the right tool for us. Exciting, emerging technology is certainly offering new capabilities for us to work flexibly as a company.”

We’ve focussed on the reasons why employees are pushing for flexible working, but looking at it from a longer term perspective – what does this mean for employers?

According to a 2018 survey by Udemy, more than 70% of workers report feeling distracted on the job, with 16% saying they almost always feel unfocused.There’s evidence to show that open office layouts and shorter attention spans might be contributing to this. It also takes most workers two hours per day to recover from interruptions from co-workers. – So could flexible working offer more focus and concentration? For more info on how much time gets wasted in the office, we found this fantastic infographic.

It also appears that offering flexible working encourages employee retention too. Most flexible arrangements make a big difference to employee’s quality of life and usually have no impact on one’s career. The US technology products retailer Best Buy trailed giving employees’ flexibility over working time and measured productivity in the trial teams. Voluntary turnover rates reduced by 90% and productivity increased by 41%. People were happier and healthier and more motivated to stay! Figures point towards demand for flexible work from a large proportion of the workforce. Advertising jobs as such can help organisations access a wider and more diverse talent pool – therefore enabling them to get the best person for the job.

As we are all discovering,, having to adapt to working from home does require some adjustments as well as a change in management styles, clearly defined roles and responsibilities, trust, and technology that supports collaboration and productivity. An emerging workforce with new ideas will require a shift in the traditional structure of the workplace. To prepare for this shift, businesses can start by making sure that they have the right connectivity capabilities in place to support a digital-working model.

But what’s next? SustainIt’s Chris anticipates improvements in Digital Conference technologies. “So far we have seen various technologies merge to create platforms to host digital conferences, but right now they are very much in the early stages. As many more events and conferences get cancelled this year, there’s a hope that this will drive innovation in this area and push more and more conferences to become digital.”

While we are weathering the storm and adapting to the changes in our working environments, our CEO Charlie has put together her top tips on how to be most productive when working from home:

“Initially working at home is great… sitting in your PJs on conference calls, making a coffee whilst emptying the dishwasher or taking a 5 min break to load the washing machine.  But now the kids can’t go to school, or child carers can no longer look after your little one.. And to top it all off your partner or house mate is sent home and your all trying to work out this new normal. Very quickly this ideal digital workspace is pretty chaotic and the peace and quiet disappears. By developing a clear work-life and home life divide you can alleviate some of this.”

  1. Get your routine set – agree with work, partner, children or house mates what is going to happen and put a rota or note up on the fridge or door to your make shift home office so that everybody knows what’s happening. Divide your home space up into work zone and home zone so you have some space to reset and think.  Thinking about childcare maybe sharing it and dividing it into morning/afternoon shifts or 2-3 hour increments and making a backup list of activities to keep them occupied.  If you need to take an important call or need thinking time the front seat of your car is always an option or the garden/outside if the weather allows. Maximise what you have.
  2. At the beginning, middle and end of day make sure you add in some fresh air. Even if it means drinking a coffee in the morning in the garden with some deep breaths, a walk to the shop or quick game of football with the kids at lunchtime and then some exercise in the evening after work.  A run or a walk for an hour or so with the dog if you can.  The standard 7.5 hour day sat at your desk is not going to work for most people now… working different hours and shifts meansour efficiency in some areas will improve but in others decrease. Your standard day will seem very different when you don’t have a huge commute, casual distractions (making the office coffee round!)  and colleagues stopping at your desk for a chat (for 30 mins).  Maximise your diary and split it up into different blocks of things that you need to do – emails, meetings, thinking time, project work etc – sometimes writing it out on a big piece of paper so you can visually see the structure of the day
  3. Communication is going to be vital for everyone.  Clearly telling colleagues when you are working and when you are not. Everybody is in a similar boat so be flexible, considerate and clear.  We will all have different challenges coming up so be mindful of colleagues, clients and friends as we all deal with this unknown event.  As time moves on and the adjustments become tougher remember that everyone is in the same boat and the important thing is to come together as a community to support each other.  Over-communicate so that people understand. Use video so that you can talk to friends, family and colleagues face to face.  Most of us have really good broadband and access to some form of communication so we should be able to use it well. When managing teams make sure your asking them regularly what is working well and what is worse than in your regular daily routine in the office, and try to keep the positivity and team comradery
  4. Don’t lose sight of your longer-term objectives and goals even if they need a little realigning.  If your goals have changed dramatically then taking a bit of time to have a rethink might be just what the Dr (or government) ordered.  Our current global circumstances are forcing everybody to rethink our working world. What worked previously might now not work and gives us an ideal opportunity to try out what work life might look like if we go back to the drawing board and redesign it from scratch.

We feel the most effective way to conquer the drastically changing working landscape is by working together and being as supportive as you can, however you can. We want to let our network and community know that we are here – we understand that this is a very difficult time for many, many people and appreciate that in times of uncertainty, and with everything moving online and virtual meetings and conversations becoming our norm…let’s embrace the change and use the opportunity to make new connections, further the positives of flexible/home working and also offer a helping hand for anyone who’s struggling – workwise, at home or if anyone just needs to see a friendly face (albeit over video)!

By Jess Knights, Creative Marketing Assistant at SustainIt (with contributors – listed in text)

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