The new and urgent need for normalising remote and flexible work

The new and urgent need for normalising remote and flexible work

Collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack are expected to generate plenty of interest from investors over the coming weeks who are looking to pick stocks that may actually benefit from coronavirus fears.

For investors, these are the ‘stay at home stocks’, the businesses that may experience an uptick as employees are urged to stay home in order to try and halt the spread of coronavirus across the world.

Flexible and remote working is still far from ‘normalised’ in many office-based businesses across Australia, but we could be about to witness a sudden (and urgent) shift, depending on what happens next with the spread of the virus.

That could be individual employers urging staff to stay home due to direct scares – as advertising agency OMD did in Sydney last Friday, after a staff member traveling from Sydney through Singapore arrived in their London office with flu-like symptoms.

It could be employers quickly cancelling major in-person customer events (as Salesforce and Cisco have done in Australia) and halting business-related travel, which numerous large businesses have already done across the world.

It could be a sudden closure of schools and childcare facilities, meaning many working parents have no choice but to stay home (as has been the case for weeks in other parts of the world). And/or if could mean a sudden need for large sections of the population to avoid all forms of public transport and even to self isolate for a period, precautions that must be taken seriously in order to protect the most vulnerable members of the community (and may even be achieved through enforcement).

This will be a testing time for flexible and remote working policies. It may be the point where employers suddenly need to take advantage of the collaboration tools and technology that is readily available, and quickly get staff up to speed with new workflow procedures. It may be the point that policies are suddenly overhauled – or at least utilised effectively for the first time. A time when managers need to simply figure out how to effectively work with staff in ways that don’t require them to be physically present in front of them, or even dropping in for regular face-to-face meetings.

It could be the point that employers, particularly in professional services, finally turn to output over time as a measure of employee success, and realise that one of the most fundamental priorities in any job hire is the ability to trust the individual who’s coming into your team.

This may also be a turning point on work-related domestic and international travel, one that will not only be beneficial to slowing the march of this virus but also for addressing our wider contribution to climate change – not to mention employee wellbeing. There’s money, emissions and employee health to be saved through better using the readily available and extremely affordable technology that can enable meetings that once required domestic and international travel, to simply happen virtually instead.

None of this will be easy. When it comes to long periods of school closures, for example, we may have to get particularly creative in how we manage workloads alongside caring responsibilities. Parents will encounter varying difficulties and challenges in being able to sustain this.

The above is written in the context of office work — and notably in knowledge-based industries — which should be one of the first segments of the workforce to take the  pressure off our health services by promoting remote work options.

In the coming days, weeks and months, changes in how we work may no longer be dependent on workplace culture, but rather on community necessity. Regardless, these are changes that will carry lessons that we must take well into the years ahead.


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