2020 has been a year in which great change has been thrust upon us. Rapid adaptation in the use of digital technology has been critical in enabling us to continue to earn a living at the same time as tackling the spread of Covid19. In particular, for those shielding for health reasons it has provided a lifeline for continued engagement with work. Without the ability to work remotely, these people would have been given a hard choice between their health or their income.
But what are we learning from the rise of remote working? Digital is the great enabler, levelling access for all, and finally bringing companies (whether willing or reluctant) into the 21st century. The ability to work remotely creates an almost infinite world of possibility for any business and employee with a laptop, software and data allowance.
In the past I’ve blogged of the difficulties that rural businesses face in recruiting staff, and those organisations working in sectors with significant skills shortages. Remote working structures enable a much wider recruitment net. The organisation becomes much more accessible to potential employees, not just geographically, but to a range of people who experience barriers to employment. Those with physical disabilities are no longer challenged by office infrastructure, and informal carers can now stay close to those in their care. With an aging population and rise in the prevalence of dementia, we’ll see more and more employees juggling caring for older family members and maintaining employment.
Not having to commute into work, and importantly, travel between meetings and clients saves everyone’s time and money. Many businesses are starting to have conversations about long term downsizing of office space. Less traffic on the road sees better air quality and fewer road accidents. The negotiation of international meetings by zoom, rather than in person, saves significant time, money and carbon.
So all in all, great for inclusion? Yes and no. Like most things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We need to be mindful of how we develop our remote working practices. Remote working must not become another barrier which further widens the gap between the haves and the have nots. In other words, remote working must provide everyone, regardless of age, income or ability the same opportunities.
By what are the barriers to inclusion that remote working presents? We’ve just talked about how great it is, and for the majority of people, it is. But when making business decisions about remote working policy, it will be helpful to bear the following in mind.
Whilst the organisation usually provides an employee with the hard and software they need to perform their role, do think of the costs of connectivity. Don’t assume that an employee has an internet connection at home or phone data allowance. In fact, financial hardship raises its ugly head here, as it does everywhere else. Don’t unwittingly stigmatise employees by assuming they have the funds available for digital engagement. A company policy (maybe in the form of a questionnaire given to all employees) should outline the remote working plans of the organisation and ensure that all employees have the support they need to perform their role.
In the past year we’ve seen kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and even the stairs on zoom calls. Some people simply don’t have a suitable and quiet space at home to work from. This is particularly relevant for younger employees, who may still be living with parents, or in homes where a number of individuals are concurrently home working, vying for the best space and connectivity. Again, make sure that the employee has the space they need, and if not, perhaps home working isn’t the best solution for them.
We must not assume that all employees live in an environment where they are supported to work. For some people, working from home will be undermined by those around them. It’s important to ask employees how enabled they feel to work from home.
Don’t assume that just because an employee is great at their job, that they’ll be great at doing their job digitally or remotely. Talk to staff members, ask them if they need training on software and ask them to think about how business processes will continue virtually. A mix of virtual and in person team working can be planned to ensure everyone is included.
Isolation and Engagement
For everyone who loves remote working, there’ll be someone who hates it, and we need to be mindful of the support needs of employees. It’s easy for Introverts to attend whole digital meetings without speaking, whilst Extroverts can dominate the conversation. How can systems be created to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and people’s wellbeing supported?
Remote working should be embraced as an enabler of change and inclusion. As we develop digitally as a society, we must be mindful to develop our systems and processes in an inclusive manner. By considering barriers to digital inclusion, we move a long way towards overcoming them.
Claire Louise Chapman is Director of Social Impact consultancy The Shared Value Business. Previously she worked at senior level within the Charity sector and within Corporate Responsibility.
Claire Louise is a qualified business mentor, a Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs and a Social Value UK Associate Practitioner.
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