Flexible working expert warns that changes to workplace culture could get messy unless employers start thinking about the issue now
There may be a post Covid backlash against remote working if employers are not ready for change.
A leading US expert on flexible working has warned that where businesses don’t anticipate what’s needed to support remote working they tend to bin it. And if employers’ lack of preparation makes it hard for employees they are liable to turn their back on it too.
Laurel Farrer is founder of Distribute Consulting and the Remote Work Association. She’s flagged up potential problems with large scale remote working going forward. The sudden switch to working from home last year gave rise to unforeseen mental health issues and problems such as Zoom fatigue.
“Some employers are not doing things the right way,” she says. She points out that remote working in a pandemic is not comparable to normal remote working where folk can go out and meet people. She says that a lot of the work she is doing now with employers is “repair work”.
Laurel, who is known as Mrs Remote, has been working remotely for 15 years. She says that having children – she has two, aged 12 and eight – made her prioritise remote working. She had always worked in operations management. In 2005 she was Vice President of a small business in the events industry which was looking to grow. The company needed to make some savings and hire new people. They decided to close their office for a summer and work remotely. After four months it worked so well they went 100% virtual. Over the next years as she worked for other companies, Laurel made a point of negotiating remote working and teaching other employers how to do it effectively – as she says – “before it was cool”.
Laurel’s consultancy works with many companies in the US and internationally and advises them on how to get the most from remote working. Before Covid, Laurel says she worked a lot with Government and business to convince them to think about supporting more remote working. “We were begging them to try it out,” she says. “Then Covid happened and in a week everyone was doing it. But with hypergrowth comes a lot of growing pains. Remote working is more successful if it has been properly planned. We now have the entire world going through change management with no preparation and missing a lot of information that they need to make it work.”
She thinks that, despite political pressures for a ‘swift return to the office’ after Covid employers will move more towards hybrid working. She also anticipates that not many will move to 100% remote working since that requires a lot of time and preparation. Her company has been helping employers with change management so they can adapt to ‘the new normal’ of hybrid working and she says each will have different issues to address. That is why the company begins its work by doing a “virtual health analysis” to assess what needs to be done to prepare for hybrid or remote working. “For some it will be about compliance and information security, for others about management training and tools, for others it will be about building the digital structures they will need,” says Laurel.
She states that, while some employers may be worried that their competitors who have already announced remote working changes may be ahead of the game, many of these are only in the early stages of preparation and making the infrastructure changes they will need. “There is a lot of work to do,” she says.