Powering a new world of remote working

  • 23 December 2020
  • Blog | Career Development | Managing People | Coronavirus Resource

Due to ongoing COVID-related restrictions, most office workers expect to be working from home well into 2021. With just 11.6% wanting to return to full-time office work, we talk to professionals from across the industry about their experience of the advantages and challenges of the new ways of working. 

For some people, the opportunity to avoid a long commute or excess travelling has been a welcome respite, leading to improved productivity and a better work-life balance. For financial services professionals, though, it can be harder to build a trusted relationship with a client remotely, explains John Aves, Chief Executive, cp2experience. 

“The challenge of technology and the fact that reading clients’ body language and listening to their anxieties and concerns is more difficult when you’re not face to face, means additional skills are required,” he says. “Bringing colleagues together to create solutions, and training our people is important, particularly those on the frontline who are best-placed to inform the organisation about changing customer expectations, and that requires innovation.” 

Appreciating the value of communication 

While saving travel time and being able to deliver more events to smaller niche audiences has been a positive for Trevor Williams, Former Chief Economist for Lloyds Bank Corporate Markets and Visiting Professor at the University of Derby, it’s proved a poor substitute for the interaction that engagement with an audience provides. “You can only pick up the expressions of people when you’re actually there, in the room with them,” he says. “You can get a lot from signals, from pauses or inflections in conversation, a raised eyebrow, a smile or a frown, particularly when discussions are complex, and that disappears even with the most sophisticated online meeting tools.” 

Practical considerations, such as managing a remote team, have also proved a steep learning curve. The rise in so called ‘surveillance software’ shows how many organisations are struggling with this, but as John points out, “Successful leaders have recognised that increased clarity of expectations and an ability to lean in and support through more one to one virtual contact is more effective.” 

Organisations as well as individuals stand to benefit from getting this right. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recently found that engagement with flexible working can potentially generate 43% more revenue and 20% better performance1. 

Levelling up or fuelling inequality? 

Joanna Finlay, Sustainable Banking Manager at Virgin Money, says that her experience of the positive way people and organisations have engaged with the whole idea of flexible working as a result of the pandemic offers real opportunity to address some of the big issues in the industry, for example, the gender pay gap and a London-centricity. “The focus on productivity over presenteeism is a big positive,” she says. “If that flexible approach enables all the people who are talented to rise to the top, regardless of gender, where you live or whether you can physically come into the office five days a week, it will become more about having the most capable person in a role.” 

Additionally, Finlay notes that she has found it easier to grow her external network and collaborate while working remotely. "An email introduction can now lead to a fruitful video conversation in a matter of days, whereas previously, as someone living outside London, that may have stalled until I was next due to travel."

While flexibility over when and where we work may create opportunity, the remote working forced on many people as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown has served to highlight and exacerbate inequality, says Williams. “Remote working favours those employees who are older and more established, skilled and more educated,” he says. “Low skilled employees tend to be in roles where that’s not possible, while those starting out in their careers, or the low paid may have issues connected to their living conditions (shared houses, for example), or access to technology or broadband connectivity, that can make the imposition of remote working really difficult.” 

The answer may be choice. As we return to a world where the size of social gatherings is no longer mandated, providing employees with the choice of remote or office-based work, or a combination of the two may be the best solution to boost wellbeing and to manage cost and productivity most effectively.