This is the second post on the piece of research on digital remote working.
At Essex County Council, we want to make the most of the new ways of working lockdown presented us with. Like many organisations, we had to move to remote working overnight. Keen to understand how we can sustain this and what would make it successful, Gavin Jones, CEO, commissioned research into what works best for remote working in the long term. He wants to be able to give his managers and staff the right advice. We, therefore, took a combined academic research, business design and user research approach.
The evidence recommends a hybrid approach as the most successful model for remote working in the long term.
What we found
Working remotely works best when it’s by choice and not everyday.
There are many terms for ‘remote working’. It is often paired with ‘flexible working’. 80% of our workers feel they’re able to effectively work from home. This is, however, based on:
- reduced capacity for some services
- is subjective (based on feeling and this way of working being new)
- not fully understanding the impact on residents
Managers lead by example to either help or hinder remote working:
- managers who are resistant tend to measure time over task
- managers who trust their team get more out of them
The right technology can reduce stress and frustration amongst employees.
In current circumstances, staff have responded positively to using Microsoft Teams. However, we have found that there is a need to be able to use other online collaboration tools, for example Miro, Mural or Zoom whilst working remotely as they offer additional features.
Companies that adopt remote working see an increase in efficiencies in business process.
This leads to lower organisational costs, travel costs, estates' costs.
Women spend more time on childcare responsibilities at home.
75% of our staff identify as women.
The higher the income, the more time they spend on childcare. Working from home leads to more home conflict, especially for women.
Our research, however, did not find anything conclusive. This could be due to the current circumstances where staff are all at home at the same time as other people in their households, and schools are closed.
Reduced social interaction can lead to social isolation and impact job satisfaction:
- impact is more evident when people work from home full-time
- high levels of emotional intelligence is needed to work successfully in remote teams
- when technology supports your working practices our stress levels are reduced
- it takes more mental capacity to work on a digital device as opposed to in person
- some staff have reported giving their travel to the organisation and are now working longer hours
A hybrid approach to remote working
Our main recommendation is to adopt a hybrid approach that includes remote and flexible working practices. We:
- recognise ‘remote’ and ‘flexible’ working are often paired, but they’re not interchangeable
- accept there are similar terms but agree to adopt 'remote’ and ‘flexible’ as clear definitions
- define a set of guidelines and standards for remote working and flexible working practices that reflect our employees
- agree a clear definition and a socialisation of the two terms within the Council as:
- remote working, this is from a place that is not within the Council’s physical estate for part or all your time
- flexible working, this is working hours which are not fixed. They differ from core business hours. It can be remote working or working at the Council’s physical estate
COVID-19 presents additional challenges for designing and implementing the right hybrid approach but nothing that can’t be overcome.
Assessing our work
There are many areas that need to be assessed as part of the move to the hybrid approach. We need to agree the right way to measure:
- productivity and trust
- impact on service users/residents
- organisation wellbeing
- financial impact for the council and staff
- implement a service assessment on the prioritised areas highlighted in the report:
- technology, access to the right systems
- mental wellbeing, work/life balance, loneliness, stress management
- environment, the physical space and equipment, for example, “have I got the right things for me to do my job”
- training, setting people up to be able to work and enabling management to be able to support their team
- social, finding ways to keep social interaction
- Provide traditional and non traditional training and, learning development for managers, starting with our leadership.
- Agree on a measurement of how effective this training is.
- Look at contracts, culture, policies and organisational behaviours and strategies, visions may need to change to adopt new working practices.
- Take into account the review and recommendations on the use of non-standard apps, such as Miro and Zoom (value over cost and consider making more holistic decisions).
- Support the organisation's recovery groups in assessing what that means for each service from a personal need, role, team and business requirement.
- Do more research into the reasons, length and purpose of meetings happening to understand the needs of our staff as well as the partners they engage with.
- Do an in depth business analysis to assess our spending/saving against what our estates cost us against what we’re saving, travel subsidies to our staff.
- Engage with staff to measure where there are costs/savings to understand if the working model works for them.
- Do more research with our staff around gender and how different working practices can have an impact.
- This should be conducted over time as it may change.
- Introduce and/or investigate a wellbeing index.
- Support and monitor wellbeing and work/life balance.
- Ensure that technology works and is accessible and serves the needs of all working practices seamlessly. This fits into our draft ’Wellbeing Strategy 2020 – 2023'.
Due to the timescales for discovery, further research with service users and business partners was out of scope. We don’t yet fully understand the impact changing our working practices would have on service users/residents, our staff, partners and businesses.
- Conduct more research directly with residents and business and partners, as well as, additional research into how we adapt our current physical estate to support this new way of working.
- Agree user centred metrics and how to monitor impacts on residents, businesses, economic growth, the environment, especially where services are being redefined to support our aims.
- Engage with our employees further to understand how we can balance their personal needs, needs of their role and needs of the team.