The Impact of Virtual Work on UK Businesses
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, an incredible 47% of employed adults were working from home. Whilst this figure decreased slightly when the country reopened post-lockdown, the shift to virtual working has been permanent for many. With millions of workers now set to be working from home full-time or part time for the foreseeable future, what does this mean for businesses, and their employees, across the UK?
The Impact of Virtual Work on Employees
Whilst many employees have welcomed the move towards a more flexible way of working, it does come with its disadvantages. This is particularly true for new recruits. Those applying for new roles that are now remote will lose out on the opportunity to visit a physical office, meet their potential new team mates and get a true sense of what it might be like to work at a company. This increases the risk of employees joining a business that isn’t the right cultural fit for them which can, in turn, lead to higher fail rates for new starters.
For those entering the workplace for the first time, the prospect of home working can add further uncertainty to an already daunting experience. Young people in particular may face practical concerns about their set up at home, including privacy and broadband issues, along with emotional worries, like whether they will have the opportunity to bond with their colleagues. Our research shows that belonging is vital in order to successfully recruit and retain great talent, and building this sense of belonging is far harder amongst new starters who are working virtually.
Maintaining a strong sense of belonging amongst existing employees is also more challenging when working remotely, and businesses must work harder to engage with their employees and ensure they feel valued and motivated.
What’s more, virtual working can lead to employees missing out on valuable opportunities to learn through osmosis. Working in a busy office naturally presents opportunities for staff to overhear conversations, listen to colleagues dealing with problems they may not have encountered before, and pick up new ideas. These day-to-day, unplanned interactions can be easily lost when working virtually, so it’s essential for employers to create strategies to mitigate against this.
Of course, there are many advantages to virtual work. This is demonstrated by the huge employee demand for remote working, either full time or via a ‘hybrid’ working model, with time split between home and the office.
Virtual working saves time and money for employees, reducing their commute and reliance on other services, such as a childcare. It can also improve employees’ work-life-balance, providing much-needed flexibility to those with other commitments, such as collecting children from school, which fall within traditional working hours.
Remote working also helps remove the artificial barriers that talented individuals from underrepresented groups have historically faced when it comes to entering the workplace. For example, those who are unable to be physically present in an office from 9-5 every day, such as individuals with a disability or caring responsibilities, can now apply for roles that were previously inaccessible to them. Similarly, virtual working opens opportunities to those who previously faced geographical barriers because they are not based near the big cities where the majority of large firms are located.
As a result, virtual and hybrid working are inherently more inclusive than a traditional office-based working pattern. Virtual working offers employers the opportunity to acknowledge that each member of staff is an individual with a life and commitments outside of the workplace and offer the flexibility to accommodate this. This is effective in helping to foster a strong employee-employer relationship and counter the challenges that physical distance can have on employees’ sense of belonging.
Online engagement platforms can also be incredibly effective in fostering a feeling of belonging amongst remote staff, helping businesses to ensure that they don’t lose the positive aspects of office-based working. For example, our digital employee engagement platform, Connectr, offers employees access to mentoring, learning modules, and forums designed specifically to build a sense of belonging. This offers employers who have switched to virtual or hybrid working the best of both worlds.
The Impact of Virtual Work on Employers
Like all big changes, the shift towards virtual work comes with both its advantages and disadvantages for businesses.
Many of the negative elements felt by employees will inevitably have a knock-on effect on their employers. For example, if employers fail to build a sense of belonging amongst their remote staff, they will likely see a lower rate of job satisfaction. This, in turn, will lead to lower productivity and higher staff churn, which will have a direct impact on the company’s bottom line.
Employers are also faced with the challenge of keeping everyone happy in a new era where employees are expecting to be offered more choice and flexibility than ever before. Hybrid work is the obvious compromise to keep both employees who want to work from home and those who prefer the office happy. However, businesses must work carefully to ensure that they don’t devise a compromise that leaves nobody satisfied.
A hybrid style of working also presents logistical issues. If employees are expected in the office on a part-time basis, how do businesses reap the financial rewards of needing less office-space, whilst ensuring they can still facilitate everyone coming together to benefit from face-to-face interaction regularly? This is a new challenge for most businesses, with no blueprint to follow.
Despite these challenges, virtual work offers so many advantages to businesses. These include commercial benefits. Even for those businesses that do still need a full-size office for their ‘office-working days’, their utility bills are cut significantly, leading to a cost saving. This reduction in energy usage, combined with less commuting, also has an incredibly positive impact on the environment, helping businesses to achieve their increasingly ambitious ESG targets.
If managed well, virtual working can also help to boost employees’ health and wellbeing. It offers a greater work-life balance, removing the unnecessary stress that can come with traditional working patterns. It also frees up hours of time that would otherwise be spent travelling to and from work. As a result, employees are happier, more motivated, and more productive during their working hours.
Perhaps the most seismic benefit of virtual working to employers is the opportunity to reach a far broader pool of talent. For those who are happy for staff to work remotely most of the time, geographical barriers are almost entirely removed when it comes to the hunt for talent. This means that businesses have a far bigger collection of candidates to choose from than ever before. With more and more employers now able to recruit in this way, virtual working offers a real opportunity for businesses to help ‘level up’ the country by hiring talent from right across the UK. This will ensure businesses become less London-centric and allow for wealth to be better distributed.
What will be the long-term effect?
Virtual work is not without its challenges and employers must work hard to counter these. However, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages and, if businesses across the UK remain committed to creating sustainable virtual working practices, we strongly believe that it could have huge long-term benefits for both talent and employers. What’s more, the rise of remote working also has the potential to bring strong societal and economic benefits, helping to remove the north-south divide and offer more equal opportunities to talented individuals across the country. If this is achieved, remote working could become an incredibly positive side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic after a challenging time.