Innovation That Matters

How innovation is making it even easier to work from home

Better Business

Two years into the pandemic, successful businesses are the ones ensuring a better remote working environment – both for their employees and their bottom line

Remote working was already on people’s minds before COVID-19 swept the globe. In October 2019, a month before reports of mysterious pneumonia cases began trickling out of China, the American Psychological Association delved into the future of remote work. It argued that, when done right, working from home could improve employee productivity, creativity, and morale. At that time, only 16 per cent of the American workforce worked remotely at least part of the time.

Two years and multiple unprecedented lockdowns later, and those figures seem like the relic of a bygone era. Or at least, that’s what many might think. It’s true that COVID-19 boosted remote working – at least temporarily. The US Bureau of Labour Statistics reported that the proportion of workers remote working peaked at 35 per cent in May 2020. And other countries saw a similar increase. Figures from the OECD show that remote working increased by 25 percentage points in France, and there were significant increases in other rich nations too.

But, as an article in The Atlantic points out, perceptions of the level of remote working today have outstripped the reality. And analysis from Pew Research Centre stresses that a majority of American workers say their jobs can’t be done from home, while also underlining that lower-income workers are less likely to have remote work as an option.

Remote working: a first world problem? 

As remote working makes headlines, it’s important to remember that the trend is not accelerating uniformly across the world.  

Research into ten developing nations concluded that only 13 per cent of workers in the surveyed countries could work from home. And household surveys from Latin America and the Caribbean found that the proportion of workers for whom remote working was a possibility varied from seven per cent to 16 per cent – far lower than the equivalent figures for rich countries, including Germany and the US.

Variations in the type of jobs prevalent in different economies partly explain this discrepancy. But other factors also play a part. Researchers from Tufts University’s Fletcher School, as the Harvard Business Review reports, have developed a ‘social distance readiness’ score. They found that advanced countries were more prepared for remote working thanks to their robust digital platforms, stronger digital payments systems, and more resilient internet infrastructure. And the informal sector—which often has poor access to technology—makes up a large proportion of the economy in many developing countries.

Is home working better business? 

These qualifications aside, remote working is a phenomenon that will come of age in the coming years. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reports that remote working is set to more than double compared with pre-pandemic levels once the crisis is over.

It appears that most employees want to work remotely at least part of the time. A global Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum, found that two-thirds of people want to work flexibly when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. More dramatically, 30 per cent of respondents said they would think about looking for another job if they were made to work in the office full-time.

Another survey from Statista found that the three biggest employee benefits of remote working are the ability to have a flexible schedule, the flexibility to work from any location, and the lack of a commute. The last point could have a positive environmental impact. In a meta-study, of 39 reviewed research studies, 26 concluded that remote working reduced energy use.

Despite the benefits, there are also downsides to remote working. A worldwide Statista survey found that 27 per cent of respondents struggled to unplug when working at home. Loneliness and difficulties collaborating are also commonly cited as challenges, as are more practical considerations. Consultancy UK reports that 86 per cent of employees think their employer could do more to aid remote working by providing newer hardware and covering WiFi expenses.

Home working innovations 

At Springwise, we’ve spotted numerous innovations that aim to make remote working easier while tackling its downsides.  

To address the problem of switching off, British design consultancy Ekkist has designed installations that provide home workers with a designated workspace. These consist of work surfaces that drop down from the ceiling alongside acoustic absorption panels that decrease noise distraction and stress. At the end of the day these can be retracted hiding workstations and displays, thereby allowing workers to unplug.

To further reduce distractions, home workers can also use Krisp, an AI-powered app that cancels unwanted background noise – from barking dogs to crying babies.

The challenge of remote collaboration is tackled by a suite of apps. For example, short-form video app Popcorn makes work chats more personal and efficient. And virtual office platform Tangle is designed to foster spontaneous collaboration and more human interactions in addition to making communication between remote team members easier.

Taking the idea of the virtual office even further, global communications company WPP has created a world in Minecraft to be used for employee interactions. Employees from around the world will be able to ‘visit’ any of the virtual offices to attend events, launch new projects or meet with other WPP employees. 

By embracing innovations like these, companies can ensure that the increase in home working creates a better business environment.

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Words: Matthew Hempstead