Working from Home Forever, or Just for Now?
Around this time last year, Future of Work and its ever-present party friends - automation, AI and robotics - dominated the talk in HR and Workplace forums. CHROs from every corner of the world were debating how to tackle workforce displacement, widening skill gaps and the horrifying prospect of technology-led dehumanisation of work. Suddenly, however, it wasn't the robots or the machines that burst into the party and took the stage, but a much smaller, uninvited intruder: the Coronavirus.
However, Coronavirus not only changed the way we work, it has also changed the way we train to work and the way we think about workplaces. Recent studies have estimated that the ongoing digitization process, and the acceleration to that process prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, will lead to a significant expansion of remote working, in some cases reaching 44% of an employee working hours.(3) However, while the globe "reacted" well and many of us settled into life in our new workplaces in our home offices (aka dining tables, lounges and/or impromptu bedroom corner offices), we now need to understand the longer-term viability of Remote Working. Organizations and HR leaders need to rethink their critical imperatives, their value chains and the very nature of the roles themselves. It is to address these mandates that eQ8 has created an approach to forecast the remotability of jobs. As the vaccine rollout gathers pace, companies have started shifting their sights to a return to the office. Initiatives are being spurred on to evaluate:
how many employees to allow back in the workplace,
who should be going back first, and
over what period.
At the same time, contingency plans are drafted to prepare for potential future waves of the virus. If history is any guide, we might expect to live with the Coronavirus for quite some time – England suffered another 14 plague outbreaks after the first episode in 1348. (1) Even in more recent pandemic events, viruses ran their course over a number of years. The Spanish Flu, for example, occurred in 3 waves and lasted from 1918 to the winter of 1920. (2)
It's not just the fear of another pandemic though that's prompting companies to consider the remotability of jobs. Statistics quoted in a recent article by Microsoft Work Lab relate that 73% of employees want flexible remote working options to stay. Another survey carried out by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics shows that workers are expecting to continue to work from home for at least 1 day a week after the pandemic, a figure 4 times higher than in pre-pandemic times. (2) This would be an opportunity for a company to improve employee engagement by allowing their staff to work from the coziness of their home and the comfiness of their leisurewear. What's even more attractive is that remote working could also widen the talent market an organization can tap into, removing barriers imposed by office geo-locations.
So, by now we all sort of know what jobs can be done from home. Office-based jobs, likely. Front-line jobs, not so much. But what are the jobs that can be done from home permanently? If a corporation allows an Information Security Analyst to work from home indefinitely, how much of that job is really remotable? And can that job be completely remotable so that a corporate can tap into a foreign market to look for skills not yet available in the location where it operates? What is the workforce's proportion that can be allowed to work remotely on a permanent basis without impacting productivity coming from in-person collaboration?
At eQ8, we've tried to answer these questions by building a Remote Working Index (RWI) that scores a comprehensive taxonomy of over 1,000 occupations for the likelihood of remotability. In contrast to methodologies adopted in early studies, we specifically looked at the degree of automation and digitization in a job and the amount of interaction with the public, in addition to other standard factors such as job location, use of specific equipment, exposure to dangers, etc. Our collective experience of the pandemic has shown us that interacting with peers and colleagues would not necessarily hinder us from working from home. We can still collaborate with others using a variety of technologies, although many still prefer some degree of face-to-face interaction with colleagues. It's coming into contact with the crowds that gets us into trouble – or limits our ability to carry out our job from our lounge. Again, how do organizations effectively balance these dynamics? They must ensure that employees can optimally achieve their objectives and maintain physical health and safety. Holistic planning across the internal and external dynamics is fundamental to successfully navigating this new world. That jobs with a larger digital component are more likely to be remotable than low automation jobs is not breaking news. But how much more remotable is technology making a job? Our index shows that, in some cases, that figure sits around a whopping 7 times. Let's take Marketing and Advertising, a relatively digitised sector, as an example. Our research shows that even within that group of professions, digital marketers are much more remotable than traditional marketers. Moreover, the remotability of jobs within that industry decreases as the level of required interaction with the public increases.
It is now also clear that COVID-19 contributed to jump-start processes and dynamics that were just not on the radar. Especially for occupations that naturally required dealing with the public, digitization allowed workers to still perform their functions when the world economy went into lockdown. The most remarkable example of this is education. No one in pre-COVID times would have thought that shifting a relatively mature workforce, accustomed to classroom-based teaching methods, to doing things digitally in the space of a few weeks would have been even remotely – pun intended – possible. Still, what was originally one of the least-digitized sectors has now been radically transformed as many advanced economies adjusted to deliver most of the teaching and training content virtually. And yes, training and upskilling via digital media might not always be as efficient as in-person training, but it is viable. Our research in fact indicates that amongst the occupations with high general public interaction, teachers are those more likely to be able to work from home. The eQ8 RWI also shows that postsecondary teachers are 2 times more likely to be able to work from home than kindergarten and primary teachers. Indeed, teachers interfacing with older students can leverage a variety of digital technologies to offer their services. Conversely, as human contact is a core element of early-stage education, digitizing those occupations would prove much harder.