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Focus on remote-first: why businesses need to flex their flexibility credentials

By: Callum Adamson, CEO, Distributed

From casual Fridays to watercooler moments, the office has been the centre of the business world, and a permanent fixture in global culture for decades. Yet, the past year has done more to overturn traditional notions of the working world since the Industrial Revolution.

Callum Adamson, CEO, Distributed

But  the long-term direction of that change is far from clear. When it comes to the future of work, or more specifically, where we will all work, many of the biggest companies across all sectors don’t know which horse to back. This includes a broad spectrum of decisions from juggernauts like Deloitte, which is opting for a work-from-home-forever approach, to tech giant Google, which controversially no longer offers WFH for longer than two weeks.

The consensus for most businesses has been to offer some form of “hybrid working”, theoretically providing the best of both worlds. However, in my view many of these policies are simply dressing up well-worn office perks as the future of work, and not very well. 

The lack of consistency across the business world demonstrates that many companies have  not considered the long-term impact of working models beyond the next year. 

If we are to respond to the lessons from the last 18 months, we must focus on a remote-first approach to the future of work – one that has already proved successful for the knowledge economy.

Overcoming the office obstacle

As the UK first went into lockdown last spring, there was a lot of concern from business leaders about productivity levels dropping as workers settled into a working from home pattern. But since then, workers have shown not only that they are willing and even want to work remotely, but that they are also more than capable of doing so efficiently and effectively. In fact, new ONS data estimates that output per job was 9.2% higher on average in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same pre-Covid period last year. 

Despite this, many companies are eager to bring their employees back into the office at their earliest convenience. IBM, for example, proposed a system of remote working in March 2021 which requires 80% of its workforce to be in the office at least three days a week. This model was based on a fear that long-term remote working will affect employees’ career trajectory, stemming from ineffective management of people and poor maintenance of company culture.

But this outdated attitude can cause even more damage to workers’ career progression, namely by harking back to old stereotypes of not trusting employees to work effectively and efficiently – like adults – without being visible by their managers. Reinforcing unnecessary restrictions also indirectly hinders workforce diversity. How often can it really be said that the best team for the job is one located within 25 miles of an office and can commit to being there full time?

It’s also bad for business. Forcing employees’ hands to work from one centralised location  means organisations are not benefiting from broader national and international talent – it limits a business’ talent pool and therefore its potential. 

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Recognising remote-first

The loudest voices over the past 18 months have been those calling for a hybrid style of working. It remains to be seen how this will be put into practice – especially on a large scale. Not only that, but there isn’t a collective understanding of what hybrid working looks like. Whatever form it takes, however, managing hybrid workforces and helping to build a successful culture will undoubtedly create a disadvantaged party in those that are remote.

It’s an unnecessary burden for employers and employees alike. That’s why remote-first is the best solution – and we’ve seen that it works. Work that was once “only” ever meant to be done in the office is now accepted as more than achievable remotely. Early bird decision makers like Spotify and Twitter opted for the “work wherever” model in 2020. Indeed, even more traditional, white-collar businesses such as HSBC and JP Morgan stated they will allow thousands to permanently move away from the office.

The flexibility and work-life balance offered by remote working goes beyond the ability to work wherever, without commuting. The money saved from overheads or rent could even go towards new, improved and more meaningful employee perks that offer a replacement for in-person interaction in a better way – perhaps a summer beach break or ski trip.

Embracing remote working rewards

Choosing a remote first approach avoids the resulting hierarchy that many businesses risk developing in the coming months between those in and out of the office. This is especially true when it comes to using resources, networking and collaborating. But remote working is not about putting certain people at a disadvantage. In fact, it’s about creating a level playing field. 

Key to this is trusting and empowering employees to meet up for in-person collaboration when necessary, rather than forcing it with permanent office space. Applying a remote-first lens removes the office-as-a-nucleus perspective and means businesses can make budget available for flexible collaboration space to meet the needs of the employees at any time and wherever they are. 

According to the WEF, job satisfaction greatly increases for those given the opportunity to work remotely thanks to the greater flexibility and increased trust between employers and employees to effectively do their job. This is largely enabled through a growing adaptability by using digital tools that enable remote work.

Putting plans into action 

The remote-first experiment over the past year has demonstrated how unsustainable and impractical our ways of working were before the pandemic. By presenting the sheer variety of options available to us, employees should no longer have to settle for any less than the flexibility they require and deserve. 

Businesses and workers alike have more opportunities than ever to break away from the constraints of office-based working, freeing them to work and do business wherever and whenever. Only through establishing a clear, communicative network – that offers self-determined career progression and space for collaboration – can the business world every truly call itself flexible. 

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