Remote working is not a novel phenomenon - at least not among academics and those in managerial positions who have often grabbed the opportunity to rather work flexi-time, in solitude, away from the office, to manage their workload. Coined "e-working", the idea of working away from the office has become customary for those who can optimise the latest technology to work while traveling, and/or to conduct their business on clients' premises rather than to be tied to their office desks. Remote working or "teleworking" encompasses the trend "to work here, there, or anywhere" - an idea that originated in the 1980s in the US to deal with employees' frustrations in dealing with the traffic congestion on route to work. Companies thereafter also soon realised that remote working could save them considerable amounts on rentals and maintenance of expensive office space.
The idea that more people could work remotely, at least for certain periods, was steadily ignited by cultural changes. Over time, employees increasingly demanded some flexibility in terms of formal office hours for the sake of a better work-life balance. Inevitably, major advances in digital technology largely supported the idea that business not necessarily had to be conducted during formal office hours from a particular office. However, the swift, rather radical shift of entire companies and institutions to adopt remote working for all operational levels during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, probably caught everybody off-guard! Notwithstanding any argument raised before to keep certain parts of the workforce on a 9-5 schedule in their offices, remote working for an entire workforce became the only viable solution to keep most companies and institutions going.
Certainly, many lessons were learned concerning remote working in 2020. On the positive side, employees pulled their weight, even devoting extra hours and more effort, producing tangible evidence of increased productivity. The fact that employees could retain their positions during very trying times certainly contributed to lower stress levels as we all witnessed the demise of many companies, and many losing their jobs. Remote working certainly made it easier for parents to accommodate the needs of family members during these trying times when schools and tertiary institutions also had to close. Another positive off-spin, was that, having to implement various technological tools in order to collaborate remotely, certainly resulted in a technologically more empowered and confident workforce that will reshape how things are done when all return to the office. Unavoidably, remote working resulted in a multidimensional fragmentation of work whereby colleagues with similar challenges and needs spontaneously started cooperating in smaller work units that were easier to manage.
On the downside, not all were necessarily fortunate enough to have a suitable, designated office space at home. Neither were all fortunate enough to have the same level of access to resources such as suitable computers with relevant software, data, and Internet connectivity at home. This required some urgent, last-minute measures to ensure that all would be able to do their work away from the office. Admittedly, not all people are equally suited to work remotely, simply because they perform better when among colleagues or team members where one can discuss matters and clear issues on the spot. Reflecting on the sudden switch to remote working, colleagues admit that increased organisational commitment and work intensification made it very difficult for them "to switch off". Those in managerial positions, whether academic or administrative, had to deal with concerned colleagues who struggled to cope: juggling their work and home life with all family members at home amid interruption of electrical power supply and unreliable Internet connections, were often very difficult to deal with. In addition, short-notice, "after hours" meetings had to be carefully managed to prevent a collapse of boundaries between work and private lives. Many started .working around the clock, seven days a week, which meant that family members perceived them to be absent, even though they were at home.
Within the bigger scheme of things, the fact that a person's location does not matter at all in terms of the opportunity to collaborate and cooperate has opened up a conversation .to involve a larger pool of people in certain projects in the future, to improve productivity and the quality of outputs. In times to come, a larger contingency of colleagues may therefore be located all over the world and relocation may no longer be a prerequisite to join a particular company or institution. As they say "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" and the Covid-19 lockdown period has fast-forwarded many decisions that companies may still have pondered on for months in the years to come. One thing that we all agree on is that meetings need not be held in person, in boardrooms any more, and it seems illogical to waste time in traffic if work can be done successfully remotely.
Managers' responsibility in terms of the implementation and success of remote working should however not be underestimated. The following questions are worth attending to:
- Do workers on all levels have clear expectations concerning their duties and what can be done to boost the confidence of junior workers and to instill trust?
- Are the available resources, including technology, software, and Internet access conducive for all in terms of what they are expected to produce while working remotely?
- How can colleagues be protected, to prevent a commodification of their contributions and ensure that workers' personal circumstances are not swept under the carpet?
- How can video- or teleconferencing meetings be optimised to keep all informed and to retain a sense of belonging?
- Have colleagues been sensitised concerning "normal office rules" to respect others' privacy?
- Do all employees have equal opportunity to share their experiences concerning on-going projects, their workload, general well-being, and performance with their manager from time to time?
- Have any measures been put in place to ensure that all workers are comfortable with a "work from home" scenario, or do we assume that all are in favour of doing so?
The way forward
Are we now so content that we would rather never go back to the office again, and never offer face-to-face classes? The answer is no. Many admit that prolonged remote working may become psychologically unbearable. Colleagues across all levels of seniority generally benefit from networking at the office and appreciate personal interaction and the stimulation that they get from being around one another at the office. Also, remote working has consequences across multiple disciplines, such as a need for the recontextualisation of the basic principles of human resource management, and a critical review of what is perceived as ethical organisational practice to allow for an unperturbed balance of work and family responsibilities. Certainly, the traditional idea of office space might be a thing of the past, probably being replaced with space that is available on an "as needed" basis.
Undoubtedly, 2020 has brought radical changes in the work-place and a so-called "spatial revolution" during which the traditional workplace/ office/ classroom has lost its spatial fixity. The strategic planning of all companies and institutions will certainly include contemplation of the way we would want to work in the future. Evidence from companies that reverted to on-site working indicates that a balance between on-site and remote working needs to be struck to build a stronger culture of engagement within organisations. At an institution such as GIBS, the networking among students, their lecturers and supervisors are invaluable and have produced innumerable positive outcomes that have led to many "good news stories" in terms of appointments, growth in companies, et cetera that can not be ignored. To date, GiBS has earned itself a strong reputation based on its scientific contributions and engagement, locally and globally, securing relationships and countless worthy ties across multiple disciplines. Any decision on remote working for the future and all the associated consequences are therefore bound to undergo the scrutiny that it deserves, taking into account the first-hand experience of what we have all encountered during 2020.