Why hasn’t remote working taken off yet?

The difference between flexible work and remote work is crucial to understand if the UK is to solve its productivity crisis, according to one business leader

Why hasn’t remote working taken off yet?

Preben Fjeld, UK MD of Lenovo (until recently, the world’s largest maker of PCs), isn’t the type to make big, sweeping media-friendly statements. The cool Norwegian gives short, clipped answers to most questions he’s asked, but maybe he doesn’t need to say much when it’s the numbers he has that do the real talking.

Independent research released this week, carried out for Lenovo by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, makes for interesting reading when it comes to current working patterns. Among the findings is the fact that a staggering 15.2 million people in the UK are right now in roles that are ‘sufficiently non-physical’ to allow for remote working (20 per cent of these are in London alone), but the simple fact is, he argues, remote working just isn’t being talked about in the same accepting way as flexible working – the latter of which employers have mostly become accustomed to.

“Businesses largely ‘get’ flexible working,” he says. “Our research also suggests 10 per cent of workers are more productive outside traditional 9-5 hours, and flexible working allows this.” But he adds: “Remote working seems to be lagging behind. I think there’s still a stigma here. There’s still the assumption that being productive means physically showing your face, and I think a transition period is still needed before this last element of technology-enhanced working style will be really embraced.”

The gains that he argues could be unlocked are staggering. “We found UK plc could see £20 billion in increased productivity alone if employees spent their current commuting time working from home instead This doesn’t include gains to employee engagement, and the benefits to the employer brand for having a reputation as a modern employer.”

Obviously, Lenovo hopes employers buy its products to allow greater remote working to happen – but while technology is clearly the enabler, Fjeld argues it’s management that first needs to update itself. “It actually takes people a while to get up to speed with working remotely – that is, getting used to not being in the office, and having the discipline to maintain a work rate required by employers.”

This is a factor that is often overlooked. It’s also the case line managers need better training in managing remote workforces. But what this research clearly calls for is for organisations to better audit which roles could become remote in the first place if that’s what staff want and if it suits employers too.”

Lenovo is – for obvious reasons – one company that walks the talk. Last September, the firm redesigned its Basingstoke HQ to create more drop-in-and-go and collaboration areas to reflect the fact staff needed to be in a ‘office’ less. Fjeld estimates around 70 per cent of his UK workforce already works remotely, and will increasingly do so. “The future is not whether there is or is not an office anymore,” he argues. “The future is about what type of work gets done in offices, and what type of work can be done elsewhere. If I don’t have a specific schedule, I like being in the office, because I accept we are all still social creatures. But if I want to do a deep dive into a particular piece of work, I much prefer being at home.”

According to the Lenovo research, an experiment at a Chinese call centre to allow staff to work remotely not only suited individuals, but it cut their attrition rates by half – a clear ROI if ever there was one. Fjeld adds: “Our data finds the top reason staff currently give for working at the company they do is because the office is located close to their home. Why should this be the case when staff can and should work anywhere? Companies nowadays need to present themselves in such a way that they attract talent better than their rivals. Not letting staff work remotely will not help this.”

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