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Grappling with Decisions About the Future of Remote Work and Telework?

Posted on: June 29, 2020

Dr Sarah Norgate - Author  

Professor Cary Cooper – 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology & Health, Alliance Manchester Business School

To pin or not to pin remote work and telecommuting to the mast is one contentious issue currently faced by both HR and organisational leaders in considering the future of work. And although big ships like Twitter and Facebook have already chosen to express their commitment to this form of flexible working outright, giving workers the right to work at home for the foreseeable future, leaders of other organisations may understandably not necessarily yet feel able to publicly assert their own position so resolutely. Yet, the versatility to work remotely, either under extreme conditions - maybe whilst continuing home caring responsibilities under lockdown due to a pandemic or climatic adversity - or under less duress, maybe as part of an organisational drive to promote productivity - is one telling indicator of a ‘future proofed’ organisation.

Unsurprisingly, during COVID-19 and lockdown, much of the discourse around future decisions about the locality of work has naturally been concerned with fundamental critical issues like worker safety as well as navigating the pros and cons of tech and security capability, worker productivity, trust, the ‘always on’ culture and worker isolation. And whilst the element of risk of work ‘isolation’ during telecommuting or remote work neatly captures one of the key mental health angles associated with working out of the office, the questions raised about this issue have tended to be have been taken in isolation. For instance, in claiming whether some workers experience isolation while working out of the traditional office setting tends to be considered ‘stand-alone’ rather than remembering the diverse sources of stress also routinely associated with working in the office, and how these may impact differentially on individual workers and their needs. This is particularly relevant on the grounds that the estimates of mental health at cost the UK economy £34.9 billion (Centre for Mental Health, 2019), with the largest form of business cost attributed to reduced productivity in the form of presenteeism, where people turn up at the office but are unwell. It is relevant to say that these estimates were produced at around a time when only around half of workers worked flexibly (CIPD, 2019).

On these grounds, to be of service to organisations facing these decisions, it is time to harness research evidence from social science, together with insights from industry leaders to support organisations to make decisions big challenges in productivity and mental health to impact positively on the future of healthy work, and specifically to make flexible working work. This is salient at a time when many workers are requesting to work flexibly, and the voices of different generations need to be heard.

References

Centre for Mental Health (2019). Mental health problems at work cost the UK economy £34.9 bn, says Centre for Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/news/mental-health-problems-work-cost-uk-economy-ps349bn-last-year-says-centre-mental-health
CIPD., (2019). Survey report 2019: UK working lives [online]. London: CIPD. Available from: https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/uk-working-lives-2019-v1_tcm18-58585.pdf

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