How COVID-19 is transforming remote work.

Julie Stich is one of millions of employees who has suddenly found herself working from her kitchen table instead of at the office due to the COVID-19 crisis. “I never expected to be doing this,” says the vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. “The first few days I was in total disarray.”

Suddenly, what used to be a coveted work option has turned into a necessity as employers are being forced to trial remote work policies during this rapidly growing outbreak to ensure employees in non-essential services maintain physical distancing for the foreseeable future. As the pandemic intensifies, workers have set up home offices, are adapting to new technology that allows them to stay in contact with managers and colleagues, and are trying to maintain productivity in the face of all the distractions of home.

Many experts predict that this work-from-home experiment borne of necessity will become the new normal in the future. “I think what’s going to happen is that employers and managers who might have had misgivings about remote work in the past—perhaps they thought employees wouldn’t be as productive or as engaged at home—well, this social experiment will make them change their perspective,” says Stich.

Jason Kennedy, director of health business consulting at TELUS Health, agrees. “I see the face-to-face economy being drastically changed,” he says. “COVID-19 will force a change in the mindset of companies. This idea that meetings have to be conducted in person to be productive or that we have to get on a plane to go to a meeting… in three months’ time we will be able to prove we have continued business without doing any of that.”

What employees really want.

Remote work was already exploding before COVID-19. Over 50% of global employees work remotely at least 2.5 days a week, according to a 2019 IWG survey of 15,000 business people across 80 countries. In Canada, 43% of professionals say their company provides options to work-off site and more than 60% take advantage of this perk.

“Flexible work policies rank high among employees as a sought-after benefit,” says Stich. Remote work allows employees to improve work-life balance by cutting out their commute, avoiding office politics, having more time to prepare healthy meals from home, exercise and do errands in the middle of the day in addition to spending more time with their families. The time and cost savings employees can realize from working at home are considerable—the equivalent of 11 days and up to $4,000 annually, according to the research firm Global Workplace Analytics. Given all this, it’s not surprising that Indeed Canada reports an 111% increase in work-from-home job searches since 2017.

In fact, employees are so keen to work from home that 36% of Canadian employees say they’d be willing to consider a pay cut to be able to do so.

For their part, employers who embrace remote work reap the benefits of cost savings on office space and reduced absenteeism (The Global Workplace Analytics survey estimates a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year). Other benefits include improved morale, increased productivity, reduced employee turnover and reduced health insurance costs.

Another bonus for employers is that remote work allows them to hire top talent without limiting themselves to geographical restrictions. “I think this is going to change the way we work in the future,” says Angie Ng, director of human resources at Novo Nordisk, a Mississauga-based firm with 346 employees across the country, all of whom have been working from home since mid-March. “This is certainly going to support development opportunities for employees—if you live in B.C. and have an opportunity to do a job in Ontario, you won’t have to physically move. Virtual work will be the new normal.”

In order to ensure effective at-home work arrangements, employees require access to technology, effective ways to keep in touch with head office and tools to keep them motivated and productive. Employers, for their part, need to set out productivity expectations and ensure continual communication. “It’s not enough to just give people laptops and VPN tokens,” says Kennedy. “We need to provide everything else that team members need to feel comfortable and supported to ensure engagement and collaboration in a virtual world.”

Digital wellness programs on the rise.

The upswing in remote work is expected to correspond with an upswing in digital wellness programs and virtual care initiatives such as virtual care. Matthew Gaudry, director of group customer product support and management for Canada Life, says that while there hasn’t yet been any significant drive from employers to amend their benefit plans as a result of implementing work-from home arrangements, there is a broad interest in services that can be delivered remotely. “Virtual health care delivery aligns very nicely with remote working environments and we expect that the demand for these services will likely increase alongside remote work arrangements.”

“The core purpose of offering a benefit plan is to ensure that employees are happy, healthy and productive in the workplace. That doesn’t change significantly as a result of having flexible work arrangements,” says Gaudry. “The need for employees to be engaged in their health remains the same but the challenges may be different and employees may need to find ways to stay active.”

At Novo Nordisk, a number of wellness benefits have been implemented to enhance employee productivity and address potential mental health issues  during this uncertain time. The same week workers were told to work from home they were offered free online consultation sessions with an ergonomics expert on how best to set up their at-home work stations as well as a free six-week twice-weekly online mindfulness program to manage stress and build resilience. In addition, virtual work-out sessions with a trainer are offered three times a week at various times of the day to accommodate employees in different time zones across the country. In the first week it was offered, more than one-third of employees signed up for the fitness training sessions, notes Ng. “We are in uncharted territory right now and this is how we are making sure our employees stay mentally, physically and emotionally healthy during this time.”

Work-from-home, the new normal.

“The global health crisis has changed our perception of work-from-home: pre-pandemic, it was believed that not every role, or person, was suited to this arrangement. By necessity, COVID-19 has changed that,” says Kennedy.

For employers, maintaining good communication, accountability and collaboration, as well as addressing technology issues in a timely manner will remain a priority moving forward.

One thing is for certain: remote work—which has increased by 159% between 2005 and 2017 (U.S. figures)—is here to stay.

“Employers will have to find new ways to monitor productivity and output while also working to ensure that there are still opportunities for social interactions with coworkers and peers,” says Gaudry at Canada Life. “Having the right tools in place to ensure employees feel supported is essential to successful implementation of these types of flexible work arrangements.”

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