Throughout the pandemic, employers all over the world have switched to remote working to ensure the survival of their businesses but with lockdown restrictions slowly easing, a withdrawal of remote work could be imminent.
Even though all employees already had the right to request flexible working, working from home pre-pandemic was often subjective and dependent on the organisation. However, as we all were required to stay home during lockdown, as we know remote working became the norm. That meant that employers were still responsible for ensuring their teams had a safe work environment even if that was in our living rooms rather than an open plan office.
In March 2020, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) published certain guidance to remind employers of their duty to protect staff. This included having access to safe working conditions at home and to relevant equipment including paying for wi-fi in the case of employees not possessing internet at home. To reduce mental health issues during isolation, bosses also needed to construct a clear methodology of what work employees are expected to do while ensuring regular breaks are maintained.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady says: “It’s essential for those people who can work from home to do so during the coronavirus outbreak. It’s important to have a safe place to work and to keep in regular contact with colleagues.”
As we start to emerge out of lockdown, there is a growing anxiety for those who have thrived from working remotely. Although almost all 50 of the biggest employers in the UK have said they do not plan on bringing staff back to the office full-time, the think-tank Centre of Cities believes the five-day work week in the office will be the norm again within two years. Plus, according to a TimeWise report, 80% of the six million jobs surveyed still do not advertise remote or flexible working, despite a meteoric increase in remote work during this past year.
It is true that many have struggled without access to office culture. In particular, the camaraderie of in-person conversations coupled with difficulties in creating a work/life balance while staying motivated has been a deterrent. Yet there have been plenty of people who’ve found a remote work environment rejuvenating.
How People Have Found Joy in Remote Working
“Remote working means that I can be entirely flexible with my family commitments,” says career and life coach Ayesha Murray. “I’m self-employed and have two daughters at primary school, so the school run combined with a commute meant a lot of time out of my day. Working remotely gives me complete flexibility, I can even work on my phone from the car if I’m early to pick them up.”
Freelance writer and student Francesca Hughes, who has cerebral palsy, found that the pandemic opened up a whole new world of opportunities for her. “I felt a sense of hope for remote work,” she says. “Maybe it will open up more jobs for disabled people or parents who need to work remotely, but now I just feel more gutted, knowing that it’s already shutting down again.”
I work with clients all around the UK, whereas before remote working that just wasn’t possible. My business network has grown exponentially as I’ve embraced virtual networking, and joined hundreds of online groups.
For disabled workers, who face a 28.8% disability employment gap, accessing the workplace is far more complicated than just having lift access or reasonable adjustments made. “I would consider working in an office, but if I had to move to another town or city, it would take a lot of planning,” adds Hughes. “I would need to find somewhere accessible and there’s a housing crisis, especially in accessible housing. I’d have to find a new care team and on top of that I’d have to find a fully accessible workplace, so it’s easier to work from home.”
Others with mental health conditions have found remote working to be a helpful tool for managing their symptoms. “I was working in the office for about eight or nine years and it just wasn’t the right environment for me,” explains copywriter and marketer Francesca Baker, who battles with anorexia. “I found it really difficult with diet talks in the office, there were always meetings over lunch time and stuff too. At home, I get up and start work and there’s always food in the cupboard, which means I can have more control over my diary and diet.”
What Are The Benefits For Businesses?
Along with saving money on renting office space, the benefits for businesses could be monumental if employers are willing to retain some flexibility in remote working. This is suggested in data collated by Forbes, which revealed that productivity and performance increased in lockdown alongside the retention of employees and overall profitability for companies.
Murray, who does want to return to face-to-face sessions eventually, found that working remotely expanded her list of clients and contacts. “I now have a potential worldwide client base,” she says. “I work with clients all around the UK, whereas before remote working that just wasn’t possible. My business network has grown exponentially as I’ve embraced virtual networking, and joined hundreds of online groups.”
I do sometimes feel limited in what I can do and how I can expand my portfolio because so many people work in offices
The intersectionality of staff is another benefit brought on by remote working, which has opened up work opportunities for neurodivergent people. “There are a lot of benefits to remote working for neurodivergent people,” says neurodiversity consultant Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, who has ADHD and autism. “The most obvious is minimal interruptions because people with ADHD, for example, find task switching really hard.”
Working from home also protects neurodivergent people from expending too much energy. “In the office you have to mask a lot when talking to people – for a neurotypical person this might not seem like a big deal, none of us are our relaxed selves at work, but for an autistic person that can be absolutely exhausting,” continues Morgan-Trimmer. “A lot of us can be more productive at home because we can actually concentrate on the job at hand.”
Although the world is now more accustomed to remote working, some who need to work from home to protect their health are concerned that it could limit the growth of their businesses. “I do sometimes feel limited in what I can do and how I can expand my portfolio because so many people work in offices,” says Baker. “I worry going forward with long-term clients that I’ll be pushed towards being in office more and at the moment, you can get around it because of the pandemic but going forward, I might have to explain my condition a bit more.”
What Does The Future of Remote Working Look Like?
Improving the availability of remote working positions will also give hope to those first entering the workforce with access needs. For Hughes, only 5-10% of positions she sees tend to advertise remote or flexible working, “it does deter me sometimes because I think it doesn’t take much to give clear information,” she says. “ At the same time, sometimes it makes me more determined to apply to them anyway.”
While many employers and employees are excited to return to the office now that the end of restrictions are in sight, by continuing to prioritise remote and flexible working and improve inclusion in the workplace, many more vulnerable workers will also feel excited about work and protected, instead of shut out of their industries.
With the government considering a law change to make it illegal for employers to force staff to attend the workplace unless proven to be essential, hopefully a complete exodus of remote work will not become a reality.