Choosing the ‘high road’: major employer study reveals remote working challenges and opportunities

Jennifer Johns at the School of Management has been working with a major UK employer during the last year to examine how their working practices have responded to COVID-19 challenges. What does blended working mean and how does this continue to impact on day to day business decisions?  Here she explains discoveries so far and implications for the world of human resources.

Within organisations and across media channels there is currently much discussion about the ways in which we work. Terms like ‘remote’, ‘hybrid’ and ‘blended’ learning are used to describe changing patterns of work, breaking the traditional assumption that we should work in an office location.  This is not a new trend.  Since the 1990s, increased use of communication technologies, particularly the Internet, has facilitated significant changes in the ways in which work is conducted.  Digital technology enables the multidimensional fragmentation of work – one form of fragmentation is spatial as work can take place across smaller and more isolated work units.  What IS new is the degree to which more flexible form of work are now taking place since the COVID global pandemic.

Before COVID, we saw a rise in the number of people working away from the office, typically from home.  This included full remote work (for example data processing, professional services) and part remote work (e.g. senior executives working from home two days a week). Academic work charted the rise of this work, but its increase was considered to be limited to a narrow range of job roles, predominately low skilled routine work that can be conducted online or, conversely, high skilled ‘white collar’ professional work.  We recently argued that existing academic understandings of remote work were overly simplistic and that the relationship between employees and employers could take a ‘high road’ in which employee wellbeing increases, or a ‘low road’ in which working conditions deteriorate over time.

During COVID, the national lockdowns introduced by national governments required organisations to make working from home mandatory for as many job roles as possible.  This meant questioning some old assumptions about what work had to be based in the office.  Many organisations realised that the move to paperless offices had decoupled some forms of work from the office (receptionists, salespeople now using electronic brochures etc). In some sectors, this left a relatively narrow number of job roles that were required to physically be present in the office, typically those involving the maintenance of critical business infrastructure.

Following the move of many employees to home working, organisations have had to respond with modified working practices, policies around the return to work and debates around how much flexibility to continue to offer employees when/if they return to work.  On one hand, organisations can make cost savings by reducing their office space. On the other, many are discussing what types of activities must be co-located, acknowledging that some employees want to return to the office, and working out which functions could remain at home.

Alongside collaborator Rory Donnelly (University of Liverpool), I have been working with a major UK employer  since April 2021 on their blended working practices. The initial introduction to this company was made by Bristol Digital Futures Institute. This employer will remain anonymous in the research findings, once published. We have interviewed over fifty employees across three different sectors, highlighting the different needs of individual divisions in relation to flexible work. This employer has much to share with other organisations about their ongoing experience of flexible working, particularly as their group ranges from customer-facing contact centres to maintaining critical infrastructure.  The notion of having contact centre agents working from home would have been inconceivable to many organisations pre-COVID (and many academics too).  Yet, their contact centre agents have been working from home effectively, generating higher customer feedback scores during COVID.  This has been incredibly illuminating about how organisations can support staff to work flexibly and how they can adapt to dramatic shifts in the business environment. Retail staff, who typically worked in physical shop locations, were trained to work from home as contact centre staff.  This demonstrates an agility not typically seen in large multinational companies.  Our findings are being fed back to the company via company-wide seminars and workshops.  Our work will continue with this company and extend to include others from different industry sectors. We will be generating wider impact through policy recommendations and industry briefings.

Challenges remain, as for most businesses, around how to embed flexible working within organisational cultures and how to maintain innovation and employee wellbeing with staff working in the office and from home.  Here the role of human resources professionals becomes especially important within organisations. So too is the role of academics in offering guidance on how businesses can achieve a ‘high road’ approach which values employee well-being and job satisfaction. These lessons will be valuable as we seek to understand now work might further change as a result of digitalisation.

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