China was the first country to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and people there are finally returning to work. But after spending weeks experimenting with remote working, not everyone is in a hurry to return to the office. Microsoft says the number of people in China using its Teams teleconferencing service continues to grow despite the end of the lockdown, while a study predicts output from the country’s remote workers will more than double this year.
Maybe working away from the office isn’t the nightmare many expected. Faster internet and online work platforms like DingTalk and Feishu have made remote working an attractive alternative, even in a conservative work culture like China’s. So how will this play out in the rest of the world, where flexible approaches to work were well under way before millions of companies and employees were forced into self-isolation?
A recent survey of CFOs suggests a big shift in America. Three out of four CFOs said remote work will now become a permanent feature at their companies. The pandemic triggered this change, but the argument for remote work has been building for some time.
Here are four reasons why remote work will transform society — and one reason why it might not.
A survey of 2,500 remote workers found an overwhelming 99% wouldn’t go back to a 9-5 office job. They cited flexible schedules, working from different locations and time with family.
This echoes what surveys tell us about all employees today, with nine in 10 preferring a meaningful occupation over one that pays more.
Happy workers are productive workers. The numbers don’t lie. Remote employees work 1.4 more days a month than office workers. That’s an extra 17 days a year. This synergy between happiness and productivity also has a significant impact on the bottom line. A Harvard Business Review study estimates a satisfied employee can generate an additional S$12,900 annually.
The typical remote worker saves $5,700 a year. That’s what we’re spending on long commutes, an office wardrobe, car insurance and meals in the city.
There are other less obvious savings as well. The prospect of an early wake-up call for an hour-long trip to a drearily familiar office means that about 38% of sick days are fabricated (at least in the UK). An average sick day costs a company S$190.
There’s also a flip-side to absenteeism. Called presenteeism, it refers to people going to work while ill, and then underperforming and infecting other people in the office. This is ten times the cost of those people who pretend to be sick and don’t show up. But it’s hard to see presenteeism surviving our collective experience with the incredibly contagious coronavirus.
There’s an important distinction between working at home and working remotely. Working from home can share the same obstacles to creativity as working in an office, such as monotony and lack of stimulation in a static environment. To work remotely is to have flexibility to log in from anywhere, so you’re always changing the scenery and increasing the external stimulation.
You’re also experiencing what billionaire Zappos founder Tony Hsieh calls ‘people collisions’, where mixing with different people creates fresh conversations and new ideas. It’s the principle behind co-working.
This flexibility also means the freedom to take breaks or just walk the dog, which helped this screenwriter come up with the ending for his movie. Taking a walk has been shown to increase creative productivity by 60%
Just ask JK Rowling.
“I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head. [But] I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody … I simply sat and thought, for four [delayed train] hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”
Could Rowling have invented Harry in an office?
Remote or flexible work arrangements can liberate introverts — and that little introvert in most of us — to drop out of the office and find the time and space to do their best work.
The argument for remote work is persuasive. But it’s not for everyone. One in five remote workers experience pangs of loneliness and two in three say they’ve never had a team bonding session with colleagues.
Despite all the downsides of an office — the commuting, monotony and distractions — it can also be filled with amazing colleagues who provide a sense of belonging and shared mission. And when strong corporate cultures are shown to lift profit by over 20%, companies might be wary of letting their employees abandon the office.
Fortunately, progress is being made here as well. Let’s take a look at some innovative online solutions that are helping to bridge the emotional gaps between remote colleagues.
Gamers know this already. Studies have shown that multi-player video games can provide deeply immersive activity that forges strong emotional relationships. Even strong enough to get married, according to Jon Lai, a San Francisco-based partner at Andreessen Horowitz who says an online game was sophisticated enough to nurture a chance encounter in New York into a meaningful relationship with his future wife.
“We met on New Years Eve and I had to fly out two days later. We didn’t know each other that well but we started playing an online game called League of Legends. There were enough highs and lows and moments of tension and drama that we got to know each other better as we played together.”
This power to build emotional relationships online is gaining traction among companies that already have large virtual communities.
The messaging platform Slack has an app called Donut that matches strangers in the company for virtual meetings. They’re given questions to break the ice and encouraged to share virtual side-by-side photos of themselves along with funny blurbs for everyone else on the team to see.
Okay, drinking coffee with someone over Skype may not be quite the same as hugs and high-fives in a real office, but online team-building is in its infancy and improving quickly. One technology that might break this wide open is virtual reality. Despite years of false hopes and empty promises, VR and its virtual cousin — augmented reality — are finally entering the workplace.
Doctors are practicing surgery on holographic images while the construction industry has been using 3D models for a while.
Now startups like Mimesys and Spatial are promising to put you in the same room with colleagues for a remarkable virtual collaboration. Scan yourself to create a holographic copy, enter a virtual space with your scanned colleagues, and instead of just talking to each other, you can move around the room, gesture, smile and enjoy all the non-verbal cues we use to improve conversations and relationships.
This is just the beginning. The cultural shift to more flexible and meaningful life is unrelenting. So are the improvements in technology that makes it possible — and inevitable.
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