27 Apr Is Remote Flexible Working the New Way for Malta?
By Josianne Camilleri
As soon as COVID-19 broke out locally, many businesses took rapid measures to enable their employees to work from home. As a result, many employees now find themselves working in their kitchens or bedrooms, some with young energetic children running around them, others with limited quiet space for concentration. Whether or not their work from home arrangements are adequate, they need to perform and deliver, relying purely on technology for carrying out their work and communicating with their colleagues, managers, or clients.
COVID–19 as a Wake-up Call for Change
The COVID crisis has led several business leaders to realise that they need to adapt fast for their business to survive. Effective leaders are making this new arrangement work by ensuring certain essential leadership practices. The following are a few examples.
- Maintaining regular contact with the people in their teams by meeting with them regularly online and getting feedback about how they are adapting to the new reality.
- Making work expectations clear to their people as well as providing them with consistent feedback about their performance.
- Appreciating the fact some people may find working from home to be quite easy while others may need more support to adapt.
- Dedicating time during online meetings, for everyone to share how they are tackling the challenge of working out of the office so that they can learn from and support each other
An opportunity to show trust towards employees
This time of upheaval and uncertainty is an opportunity for leaders to show trust in their employees. They need to move away from the false notion that the most productive employees are those that spend the most time at the office. Instead, they should ensure that robust and fair performance metrics are put in place that measure effort, output and results irrespective of when and where the work is carried out. With the right measures and clear expectations, employees will have direction and know what is expected of them.
The Benefits of Remote Working
The benefits of remote flexible working may be grouped in three main categories.
There is a reduction of cost for space and resources to have employees at the office. By reducing commuting, people will save time and use it more effectively.
A recent study for Forbes sourced statistics from the world’s leading research institutions studying the topic of flexible working, including Gallup, Harvard University, Global Workplace Analytics, and Stanford University. The world’s top researchers conclude that the remote work revolution has a case. They show how workplace flexibility will boost company’s bottom line in five categories:
- Productivity: Teleworkers are an average of 35-40% more productive than their office counterparts.
- Performance: With stronger autonomy due to location independence, employees produce results with 40% fewer quality defects.
- Engagement: Higher productivity and performance combine to create 41% lower absenteeism.
- Retention: 54% of employees say they would change jobs for one that offered them more flexibility, which results in an average of 12% turnover reduction after a remote work agreement is offered.
- Profitability: Companies reduce overhead expenses resulting in 21% higher profitability.
Increased flexibility and trust boosts employee engagement and motivation. Employees can organise their day to fit better with their family or personal needs and make full use of their prime time. Another benefit is reduced stress from the daily frustration caused by traffic.
Research shows that many employees view remote working as a work benefit, with more than half seeking the arrangement to improve work-life balance. Others choose to work remotely to avoid daily commutes, to reduce workplace distractions and to see to their family care responsibilities (Owl Labs, State of Remote Work, 2017)
Overall, remote working increased employees’ job satisfaction, their performance, and feelings of commitment to the organisation. People who teleworked also tended to experience less work stress or exhaustion. (Allen, T.D., et al., Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2015).
With fewer people stuck in traffic jams on the roads travelling to and from work, there will be less air and noise pollution and fewer accidents on the roads.
Speaking in Parliament, Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia announced that there has been a 40% drop in nitrogen oxide levels registered across Malta as a result of the decline in car usage in the last month due to measures to control the spread of COVID-19. Nitrogen oxide is produced by traffic and is linked to respiratory infections.
It is quite amazing how such a seemingly small–scale and short–term reduction in vehicles on the road is having such a significant impact on our air quality. If employers offer options for remote working even for few times a week, they would be contributing towards reducing the carbon footprint and employees would be spending less time sitting in idle cars stuck in traffic, using up fuel and emitting greenhouse gases.
Suitability of Purpose
Some jobs are more suited than others for remote working. Jobs where people carry out most of their work on a laptop on their own, such as software coding and report writing can easily be carried out from home. This is also the case for roles where productivity is easily monitored, such as call centres and sales workers.
Studies show that organisations often engage work psychologists to analyse the suitability of remote working for specific roles. One such study was carried out with 273 teleworkers from sales, marketing, accounting, engineering and other departments at one organisation. This study found that employees whose jobs were complex but did not require significant collaboration or social support performed better when telecommuting than when working at the office. “Employees whose jobs require concentration or significant problem-solving often need focused time to think deeply about the task at hand,” the researchers concluded that “In a shared office full of potential interruptions, that can be hard to do.” (Journal of Business and Psychology, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2019).
Mitigating the Challenges
Employers may feel discouraged to consider remote working due to several concerns about its effectiveness. The following are some challenges linked to remote working and how these may be addressed:
1. Monitoring Productivity: Employers may formalise policies with clear expectations for employees about productivity, reporting and communication while working remotely. They may also consider working on shifting the culture within the company to make remote working a success. Employers may need to guide employees in setting up effective routines, boundaries between work and personal life, and reporting about their work. Such guidance may be especially useful for employees who are teleworking for the first time.
2. Remote Working as a Right: Employers may consider offering remote work arrangements as part of their business strategy. They may set standards of performance and productivity for employees to be eligible. This would ensure that only employees that meet specific and fair criteria would be eligible to work remotely.
3. Remote Workers Feeling Isolated: A way for companies to ensure that all employees feel involved, may be to include remote workers in all team and company-wide events. Employers may also support remote workers by organising informal online meetings or virtual lunch dates. It is also important that opportunities for face to face contact with other employees are created on a regular basis.
As our country begins to emerge from this crisis, business leaders would do well to reassess the working arrangements of their organisations and consider the overall benefits of remote working. They also need to be very aware of the potential disadvantages and have the right strategy to prevent or address them. Authorities such as Malta Enterprise should consider providing further incentives to employers who take up this challenge of remote and flexible working conditions. Meanwhile, one welcomes the Environment Minister’s pledge to give incentives to encourage more people to work from home, for the benefit of the environment.
Allen, T.D., et al. 2015. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 16, No. 2
Farrer, L. 2020. 5 Proven Benefits of Remote Work for Companies. [online] Forbes.com
Golden, T.D., Gajendran, R.S. 2019. Unpacking the Role of a Telecommuter’s Job in Their Performance: Examining Job Complexity, Problem Solving, Interdependence, and Social Support. J Bus Psychol 34, 55–69
Greenbaum, Z., 2019. The Future of Remote Working. Monitor on Psychology, 50 (9), 54-56
Owl Labs, 2017. State of Remote Working. [online] Owlabs.com.