Why many firms are adopting a Work From Anywhere strategy

Paul Briggs
improve productivity

Improve productivity, retain more staff, hire the best talent and reduce office and energy costs.

This month’s Knowledge Exchange will examine why more firms are not only adopting a work from home strategy (WFH) but also a WFA strategy, and what effects this is having on technology purchasing decisions, productivity, staff collaboration, corporate culture, and staff wellness including mental health. It will also examine what potential pitfalls to avoid, when looking to adopt a WFH policy. 

Introduction

According to the United States Bureau of Labour and Statistics, remote work has risen by 31% in the US in the last couple of years. While many associate this trend as a by-product Covid, allowing staff to work from home has been experimented with since another energy emergency gripped the world back in the 1970s, the Oil Crisis1.

During this time, which scarily mirrors the current energy crisis, rising inflation, the pressure on cost of living and energy, as well as the soaring costs for commuting forced the hand of some companies to allow its knowledge workers, to work from home.

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While these experiments were primarily aimed at supporting employees working from home, the proliferation of the Internet, email and other communications technology was making it easier for people to work from other places too such as customer sites, airports, and other places with reliable internet connection. Remember those Internet Cafes in the ‘90s?

Even before the Covid pandemic, around 20% of US workers were already working at home, according to the Pew Research Center. And this trend looked likely to grow, especially in the IT sector. The rapid and widespread onset of Covid naturally accelerated this adoption with office closures and lock downs, in another mass human experiment, this time on how businesses could continue to operate, and workers could effectively work remotely. After three years of WFH experimentation, the genie seems to be truly out of the bottle for a lot of workers with 54% of workers surveyed by Pew expressing a wish to continue to WFH now the pandemic has been declared over.


More recently, WFH has expanded the ability to work from anywhere (WFA) for cohorts of workers and especially Millennials and Gen Z who are attracted to being ‘digital nomads’, living in different parts of the world and working for companies that encourage remote, hybrid, WFH and WFA environments.

Technology, security, and infrastructure considerations

As we examined in last month’s Knowledge Exchange, the move to hybrid cloud is somewhat making it easier for organisations to adopt more WFH and WFA practices as a lot of the concerns of distributed computing can be managed in the cloud and with water-tight IT policies. Of course, the endpoint devices must be secure and have the right anti-virus and anti-malware detection on them as well as virtual private networks (VPNs) to encrypt traffic between the end point and the company environment, but with collaborative cloud-based office platforms, CRMs and video calling and instant messaging tools, the consistent threat to IT managers are the employees themselves and the email inbox!

Despite spam, malware and other malicious software screening, the level of sophistication of hackers and bad actors is constantly putting networks and infrastructures at risk either in a centralised office or in a distributed environment. Throw Artificial intelligence (AI) into the mix and IT Managers have another headache. AI can be immensely helpful in detecting suspicious activity and patterns, but also extremely tricky at the same time to detect as we examined in our recent cybersecurity articles.

Making sure remote workers are regularly trained in IT policy and best practice as a mandatory policy to be able to WFA is a prudent step to take when adopting a WFH/WFA strategy. And in a distributed cloud environment looking at a unified security solution should also be part of the strategy, according to Lloyd Tanaka of Checkpoint Software who thinks:

“Traditionally, organizations have established security protocols in conjunction with internet gateways. However, this approach only works when the number of access points are minimal and controlled, such as in a company’s office building,”

“When it comes to securing a WFA environment, making remote access work for all your employees requires must-haves, including, VPNs, real-time threat intelligence, a Zero-Trust approach to access management, and mobile and Internet of Things (IoT) device security.”

Tanaka also suggests IT Managers think about a unified approach to security in a distributed cloud environment and adopting Secure Access at the Service Edge (SASE) instead of managing point solutions. This, Tanaka suggests allows organisations to protect remote users and offices, consolidate networking and provide security-as-a-service.

“With SASE, organizations can lower OpEx and increase security at scale. Protect your distributed workforce with security that’s simple to implement, easily scalable and offers optimal management controls,” Tanaka said.

87% of employers said they anticipate prioritizing tech and digital infrastructure investments that support sustained remote work, according to the Boston Consulting Group

Lloyd tanaka

Productivity

Before Covid forced those that could work at home to do so, one of the main concerns companies had around WFH was largely centered around declines in staff productivity and staff collaboration, but in an in-depth study of the U.S. Patent & Trade Office (USPTO) started in 2012 by Harvard Business Review of working from home revealed that productivity actually increased by 4.4% without any loss in quality of work or work having to be redone. 

Whereas a study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) of 12,662 workers in the US, Germany and India found that during the Covid pandemic, 75% of employees said they had maintained or improved productivity levels by WFH. Although, the number was lower for collaborative tasks and cooperation,. Over 50% said they were able to maintain high levels of collaboration with co-workers including across geographical boundaries, which is encouraging for employers who have had concerns over how collaboration can work without in-person meetings and increasing requests from employees to WFA. 

In a separate study the BCG estimates using its analysis, as well as data from Forbes and Global Workplace Alliance estimates, that productivity can increase between 15-40%, a massive 40% reduction in absenteeism, can reduce staff churn by 15-20% and reduce real estate and associated costs by 20%.

Many commentators have attributed the increased productivity of WFA to the reduction in commuting to places of work. Traditionally businesses have looked to locate offices in large cities or towns that often have very high retail and renting prices, meaning the majority of the workers have had to commute into work from surrounding areas because they can’t afford to live near the office location. In addition, the quality of life in the suburbs or further away is usually much better than living in overcrowded city centres. So, workers have traditionally had to balance the stress and unproductiveness of the commute with the benefits of where they live even if it means that days are usually longer and there is less time at home and family during the working week. 

Cities and towns have built vast networks of public transport to ferry thousands of people into them every day, these networks are often unsuitable for the increasing numbers of people who wish to use them leading to uncomfortable overcrowding.  There is also a loss of productivity due to the dead time involved, where working whilst commuting is rarely possible despite advances in smart phones, WiFi connectivity and high-speed transit. 

For places with high retail and rental prices such as London, two- and three-hour commutes are not uncommon.  Now with the introduction of HS2 rail, the UK is rather questionably looking to transport even more commuters from the north of the country into London in addition to the traditional south and southeastern commuter belt. Perhaps now after three years of people working remotely and wanting to continue to do so, providing high speed internet connectivity rather than high speed rail would be a better solution for rural areas and areas where there are fewer job opportunities. Just getting to work can be an extremely stressful and energy zapping experience that can also affect people’s productivity when they arrive, which in turn can lead to more sick days as employees have to juggle the usual pressures with work, with commuting, school schedules and other factors. 

For those that can drive to work the pressures are similar with overcrowding on public highways and perpetual roadworks to fix the infrastructure from too many vehicles. In addition, with the increases in tolls and low emission zones to enter cities and towns over a long period of time the extra costs combined with the current high fuel costs, are influencing many workers to look for WFA options to save costs, decrease carbon footprints in favour of increases in productivity. 

And in terms of collaboration, the advancements in platforms such as Teams or Zoom has shown during the pandemic that staff can be just as, if not more collaborative by the ability to have video calls, instant message, and share files in the cloud. However, some employees have noted that even with collaboration tools, the ability to approach someone in an office at their desk, or in a communal eating space or even for a coffee, is something that they miss about WFH. 

Cost of living savings 

Combined with the high costs of commuting, in addition to high housing and rental prices in urban and suburban areas, the appeal to work in cheaper rural areas or in warmer climates can be beneficial for both younger and more senior employees. Inc. notes that for employees on a starting wage, WFA gives them the chance to reduce costs which would be the equivalent of a pay rise without their employer having to raise salaries. For more senior or longer tenured workers, WFA can offer the ability to relocate at more retirement friendly locations that would encourage them to remain in employment longer and retain their skills and experience in the organisation. 

Or in other instances, employees could locate nearer family members that may have already retired and may welcome being closer together for support and well-being. 

Environmental benefits, sustainability, and savings 

With less commuting, there are naturally positive knock-on effects to public transport and infrastructure and potentially less cars on the roads. Not only will this help employees save money on commuting charges but will also help reduce emissions on roads and for those that need to commute by public transport, more space on the trains and buses! 

Since the pandemic, many employers have also made savings on the physical size of workplaces and therefore rent and other costs to heat and cool employees as hybrid, WFH and WFA policies have continued. According to research by the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics: 

“Telework is also related to changes in the physical size of workplaces. Among the 6 percent (of its study) of establishments that reduced the square footage of their workplaces since the start of the pandemic, 63 percent increased telework. 

“By contrast, among establishments that either kept their square footage the same or increased it, 31 percent increased telework. Relatedly, among the 4 percent of establishments planning to decrease their square footage in the next 12 months (as of the time of the survey), 52 percent increased telework since the start of the pandemic. Of the remaining establishments, 32 percent increased telework.” 

And considering the current energy crisis which has mandated several countries in Europe to have set climate controls in term of maximum and minimum temperature for summer and winter months for public and working environments, WFA can allow employees to work from cooler spaces in the summer and hotter areas in the winter, while organisations can save on overall energy costs. 

Health and Well Being 

Many companies have encouraged staff to join gyms by giving discounted incentives or participate in sporting activities such as yoga or have things like bicycle subsidies in place to encourage staff to cycle to work. Why? Because it has long been considered that a worker’s physical health directly correlates to good productivity and less sick days. In its survey, the Boston Consulting Group found: 

“Employees who have experienced better physical health during the pandemic than before it is about twice as likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks as those with worse physical health. This highlights the importance of building time for sleep, exercise, and nutrition into the new work routines.” 

And with the increasing awareness of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, employers need to be mindful of how to support remote workers with the same schemes as the physical office to ensure that remoteness does not become isolation or feeling out of the loop with what is going on. Again, there’s a distinct correlation between productivity and collaborative tasks and good mental health. 

KX Spotlight 

Moving forward, WFA will not be for all organizations, but the future of work looks increasingly hybrid with many companies surveyed by BCS expecting 40% of employees will be remote workers. To this end, employers will increasingly introduce or refine WFA and hybrid models to allow staff to switch seamlessly between spending time in the office, interacting with colleagues and managers and experiencing the company culture and general buzz of in-person interactions, with the ability to WFH and WFA. 

With technology and cloud increasingly making WFA a reality for a lot of workers just as long as end point devices are managed and secured in the same way application data is managed and secured in the cloud, companies can attract and work with the best talent anywhere in the world whilst offering more local staff the flexibility of hybrid working, that will in turn lead to improved productivity, a happy and healthier workforce and significant reductions in building and energy costs. 

Advantages of WFA policies: 

1. Childcare is more flexible during holidays and school pick-ups times 

2. Less sick days as people have a better work/life balance and tend to be healthier 

3. Better productivity 

4. Better flexibility for staff to keep physically fit 

5. Improved mental well-being for those that are comfortable in working remotely 

6. Lower living costs  

7. More time with family or closer proximity to family and friends. 

8. Reduction in physical office space and associated costs 

9. Improved ESG goals 

10. Attract the best staff from anywhere in the world 

Disadvantages of Remote Work: 

1. Online security: Humans tend to be the weakest link in the security chain. Managing point solutions can lead to overcomplex environments. 

2. There is some concern the effect that pervasive WiFi and more recently 5G is having on the environment, especially for bees and migratory birds. 

3. Worry that a company’s culture and values can be lost in a 100% WFH scenario. 

4. Social connectivity enables us to be collaboratively productive which is more present in an office environment 

5. Not all work and functions are suited from WFA 

6. Reduced physical fitness as more workers become sedentary 

7. Increased chance of mental health issues due to lack of interpersonal interaction 

Knowledge Exchange Further Reading: 

Harvard Business Review – Our Work-from-Anywhere Future  

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics  

Flexjobs – Top 30 Companies That Hire Work-from-Anywhere Jobs  

Indeed – 23 Jobs You Can Do From Anywhere in the World  

Newsweek – Radiation From Cellphones, Wi-Fi Is Hurting the Birds and the Bees; 5G May Make It Worse 

Digital Nomad World – Live Everywhere, Work Anywhere 

Tech Journal – Work From Anywhere: Concept or Reality  

BCG – What 12,000 Employees Have to Say About the Future of Remote Work  

BCG -Remote Work Works—Where Do We Go from Here?  

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*The images in this post were created using AI.
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