Since February, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, nearly 80% of white-collar employees in Europe have been forced to work remotely at some point, launching an unprecedented experiment in remote working. As our recent in-depth survey on the future of work shows, the results of this experiment have been predominantly positive. Our survey included thousands of European managers and employees as well as interviews with numerous business leaders at major European companies, and the consensus is clear—the benefits of remote working significantly outweigh any potential downsides.
Managers expect that in the future, almost half of their workforce will work in a hybrid model—partly remote and partly in the office—and two-thirds of white-collar workers expect to have remote-working options once the pandemic subsides.
The lasting success of remote working will depend largely on the ability of companies to provide the right vision, models, leadership style, operating practices, performance management mechanisms, and technological foundations. Our survey shows that few companies in Europe have yet to reach full maturity in all aspects of their remote-working efforts.
With so much to gain, how do managers and workers assess their remote-working experience thus far, and how can companies transition into a fully functioning hybrid working environment?
The results of our survey suggest that, overall, remote working offers many benefits—for companies, their employees, and society at large. More than 40% of managers surveyed say they expect a reduction in overhead costs, primarily through reductions in office space. Productivity, too, is expected to increase: more than half of managers believe their teams are even more productive working remotely, owing to increased focus, greater work-time flexibility, and reduced absenteeism.
Employees, too, appreciate the opportunity to work remotely, at least part of the time. More than 70% say that managing their work-life balance is easier or about the same, noting the greater flexibility and control they have over their work. And when working remotely, they can save on expenses, perhaps even by moving to locations with a lower cost of living.
Finally, more than 70% of managers believe their companies seek to create value for all stakeholders, including society at large. Remote working can make a real difference here, too, by helping companies achieve sustainability targets, promoting regional diversification, and unlocking new talent pools.
Our survey respondents are well aware that working remotely does carry risks, for both companies and employees. While the majority of managers say they expect gains in productivity, one-quarter worry that it can suffer when their teams are working remotely. Driving individual productivity can be a challenge, as can promoting collaboration among teams. Some employees say they struggle to manage their workload efficiently and that their companies do not provide them with the tools they need to work effectively in teams. This can also lead to a lack of team spirit and camaraderie. (See Exhibit 1.)
New employees are especially at risk when the onboarding must be conducted remotely. The spontaneous social interactions and casual coaching opportunities that are key to successful onboarding are far more difficult and can potentially weaken the company’s culture over time. And without co-location, opportunities for in-person ideation sessions, brainstorming, and whiteboarding decline, making innovation a real challenge, especially if employees don’t have the right tools and training.
What will it take for companies to best prepare for the new reality of remote working? In the course of our study, we have identified seven dimensions integral to the remote-working platform of the future.
Despite the inevitability of a new way of working, the results of our survey indicate that the great majority of European companies are not fully prepared to make the most of remote work. Analyzing the responses of surveyed managers, we rated their companies’ progress on the dimensions outlined above, dividing their companies into four categories: Leaders, Performers, Passives, and Reluctants. The results were not encouraging. (See Exhibit 2.)
Just 1% of the companies surveyed fall into the Leader category. These companies were encouraging hybrid ways of working even before the onset of COVID-19 and are leveraging the pandemic to accelerate the transition.
Performers have typically defined their remote-working vision and are taking steps to put in place the necessary models, processes, and tools. But they must continue to experiment with remote-working models and refine and scale their technology tools across the organization.
The majority of companies are Passives; they are only now beginning to implement the remote-working models needed to move beyond the remote work experiment forced on them by the pandemic. These companies must turn their remote-working ambition into clear and systematic models and continue building the practices and technology tools needed.
Trailing the pack are the Reluctants, which, despite the pandemic, have only limited experience of remote working and see little or no benefit in moving forward. These companies must first define their remote-working vision and then conduct pilots with specific functions and business units, while making sure they have the tools needed to succeed.
Forced out of the office by the coronavirus, the need to work remotely came as a shock to many companies. Having experienced its many benefits, companies must now work to overcome its challenges. It is critical to remember that remote-working models, practices, and technologies will continue to evolve and that those willing to pursue the path to remote-working maturity will be the first to gain further insights into the process and come out as leaders of the new reality.