It has been more than seven months since the pandemic changed the world forever. While lockdown restrictions have begun to ease in some places, the crisis has left an indelible mark in its wake. These consequences serve as a reminder that a new normal has set in, one that has shuffled the deck for employers and employees alike. In fact, some experts believe that remote work is here to stay, even once the pandemic has run its course.
In the interim, family living rooms have become classrooms while parents learn to juggle working from home with homeschooling. Restaurants have come to resemble museums as people increasingly choose to dine from home. Technology has become the hero for both home and work life. Zoom has redefined meetings and conferences alike, while FaceTime has taken on a whole new meaning as loved ones look to connect from afar.
Perhaps one of the greatest signs that the pandemic has disrupted society is the fact that many offices remain empty, or at least sparsely populated, as the global workforce continues to do their jobs remotely. Budding stars are no longer under the direct influence of their office mentors, while networking and bonding have taken the form of online happy hours and virtual movie nights on Netflix.
Whether abandoning the office model altogether or drumming up a hybrid approach between home and the office, companies have been forced to come up with a plan. As a result, the workplace has undergone a transformation the likes of which might happen once a century.
In Europe, the changes are being felt from Spain to the Baltics and everywhere in between. Fintech companies have had an advantage because of their inherent tech-savvy. It’s not unusual for them to already have the systems in place to accommodate remote working or to already have moved their workforces to remote situations before the pandemic even hit.
Companies and employees alike have had to adapt without much warning as homes were transformed into workspaces and offices were all but abandoned. All of a sudden, employers and employees alike have had to navigate a completely new environment in which company culture has become elusive. Meanwhile, employees may have shorter commutes these days, but they have learned all too quickly that the lines between work life and home life have become blurred.
A report in the Inquirer.net entitled “In work-from-home era, who pays for toilet paper?” encapsulates the dilemma that the many employees and companies alike are facing right now. Incidentally, the Dutch have provided an answer to this specific question, and it’s the employer.
The cap on daily essentials for Dutch workers is EUR 2 per day, give or take. In addition to toilet paper, it covers coffee, tea, utilities and even office furniture depreciation. The accounting model was derived by family finances institution NIBUD, and it appears to be catching on. It was this method that the Dutch authorities used to direct a bonus of EUR 363 to lawmakers who have been working remotely, a model they’ve relied on since March.
Incidentally, LinkedIn polled its users about whether or not employers should pay for incidental workday expenses. So far the yesses have it, with 60% of those polled saying that the employer should cover working-from-home expenses including power, coffee/tea and toilet paper for their staff.
And it is not just the Dutch. The euro zone is coping with a new reality in which employees have gotten a taste of more freedom and often have no desire to return to the traditional workday in the office even when the coast is clear.
In Spain, employers are now required to foot the bill for the maintenance of office equipment in employees’ homes. Germany is exploring a potential piece of legislation that would address the rights of remote workers, perhaps so they don’t fall into the same trap that Uber has with its independent contractors. In France, a new law has already passed that prevents employers from taking advantage of employees with after-hours emails. And in the UK, a break in the tax laws might give employees who purchased office equipment during COVID more leeway on making deductions.
The report predicts that 50% of the UK’s workforce will be working from home over the cold winter months, which means their boilers will be kept running at full steam during the day when they might otherwise be on low. The average energy bill could see an increase of GBP 107, or 18%, during the winter months in households that are being used for the full workweek. Worse, under the existing laws, these employees are only promised tax relief of between GBP 1.20-2.40 per week.
The counterargument to workers having to dole out more of their own cash for coffee during the workday is that they have more flexibility in their schedule — including free time — than they did before the pandemic. In addition, any extra padding or bonuses in a paycheck to cover a company car or travel expenses will undoubtedly disappear. As for the Dutch Interior Ministry, they are deciding which expenses the employer should shoulder on a case-by-case basis.
After the pandemic hit, close to 3,000 office employees participated in a Global Work From Home Experience Survey. Of those polled over a six-week period, 88% said they were working from home regularly during the pandemic. Slightly less than one-third said that they were already working from home before COVID-19 hit.
More than two-thirds of employees polled felt they were successful at working from home. On a regional basis, the breakdown for a successful work-at-home experience was:
- Americas = 73%
- Asia Pacific = 51%
- Europe, ME and Africa = 63%
Less than three quarters, or 72%, of those surveyed were confident they had the right equipment to work from home, such as a proper desk, monitor and chair. In this instance, the Americas, as well as the Europe/ME/Africa region, were nearly tied at 77% and 75%, respectively, while the Asia Pacific region trailed at 59%.
Where there was a bit of a downturn was in collaboration and corporate culture. Roughly two-thirds of office workers polled felt they were experiencing high-quality collaboration with colleagues, while only 56% felt connected to their teammates.
Meanwhile, working from home has taken a toll on the corporate culture. Only 37% of survey participants felt that working from home had a positive impact on their career opportunities and being recognized for accomplishments. Three-quarters of those surveyed said their employers trusted them to work remotely.
Technology was a bright spot, with 81% of office workers revealing that they are satisfied with the tech they have in place at home. Most felt proficient in web and video-conferencing tools such as Zoom, teleconference tools and electronic document management. More than three-quarters of those polled felt confident about the level of their data security at home.
In terms of productivity, employees are overwhelmingly more satisfied with their performance working from home vs in the office. For instance, when it comes to managing distractions and interruptions, which can happen no matter where one is working from, 72% felt they can do a better job at this working from home vs. only 40% who prefer the office environment. The results were also overwhelmingly in favor of working at home for creativity and innovation, at 80% vs. only 63% in the office.
Not surprisingly, office workers felt they had better collaboration with others at the office vs. working from home at 86% vs. 60%, respectively. Also, younger workers who would otherwise be influenced by mentors are missing out. More than 80% of those polled had a more positive experience coaching, mentoring or managing others at the office vs. just over 51% at home.
Major banks have been among the sectors of the economy to be in the eye of the COVID-19 storm. Not only was the day-to-day routine disrupted, but the global economy has been in recession, which means that their own profits have tumbled. They’ve had to protect themselves from loan defaults as individuals and corporations have struggled to pay their debts amid high unemployment, travel bans and lockdown measures.
Early on in the pandemic, some of the global banks, such as JPMorgan, were reporting cases of COVID on the trading floor. That sent millions of employees including trading desks out of the office and into the remote working lifestyle. And while management teams have seemingly been anxious to return their workers to the office, not everybody is as eager to go.
Fortunately, European banks appear to be willing to bend. For instance, firms like ING, UBS and Deutsche Bank are reportedly planning to put some of the things they have learned during the pandemic into practice for the long term, which could involve some hybrid version of the work-from-home experience and the office. For the banks, it means that they will have lower overhead costs, as they won’t need to use as much electricity and they won’t have to stock as much coffee in the breakroom. Employees, meanwhile, should be able to achieve a greater work/life balance.
Once again, the Dutch are out front, with some of their biggest banks forecasting that 50% of their employees will continue with remote working even after COVID-19 has been eradicated. Rabobank, for instance, expects that employees will continue to work remotely 40-50% of the time, although it depends on the specific function that they perform for the bank.
Italy’s UniCredit expects that 40% of employee tasks can be done from home. Swiss bank UBS believes that employees can continue to work remotely 33% of the time.
Deutsche Bank polled its employees in the spring and found that nearly 80% of them wanted to work remotely at least one time each week.
In the United States, firms such as JPMorgan and BlackRock have expressed concerns that the future of corporate culture could be in jeopardy if the work-from-home phenomenon persists. For this reason, it is not likely that financial services firms will abandon their office space altogether. Banks in particular rely on the office setting for newer staff members to learn from senior employees under the same roof.
Fintech Out Front: how VIAINVEST went remote
If there’s one segment of the economy that’s been out front of the work from home trend it’s fintech. It is not uncommon for fintech plays to have already set the wheels in motion for working from home parameters before the pandemic hit. They already run high-tech operations and therefore it has been a natural extension for them to support their staff remotely.
As there was a state of emergency introduced in Latvia in March, 2020, VIAINVEST also experienced a challenge of shifting to fully remote work. Luckily, none of business operations required constant presence in the office, so with a help of IT department we managed to establish safe home offices for all employees in terms of investor data protection.
While working remotely, we also observed some challenges on the individual level, which is completely understandable, as it was not typical for VIAINVEST and its mother company VIA SMS Group to work from home. When working fully remotely people can easily fall into the trap of feeling isolated since they are no longer seeing colleagues to socialize and collaborate. The conversations that were happening over the coffee machine are difficult to translate in a virtual way. As a result, people aren’t building the same camaraderie that they otherwise would in the office setting.
One way that employers can help is to have some trust in their employees and allow them the flexibility to get the job done. For instance, they can put less of a focus on the hours of the day one works as long as their employees deliver the goods.
Another challenge is ensuring that mental health and morale are positive, which can be hard to do when there is no face-to-face interaction. While many people have embraced the freedom that working from home offers, there is a segment of the population that struggles with feelings of isolation. It is a virtuous cycle in which these individuals are longing for social contact, a need that when left unmet could lead to lower productivity as a result of declines in their mental health. Here at VIAINVEST we organize regular team calls when working remotely to keep the good spirit and exchange experiences of working with different kind of colleagues – pets, kids, parents etc.
A New Normal
As the fourth quarter begins, many people are glad to soon be waving 2020 goodbye. While there is still a great deal of uncertainty, one thing that is clear is that the workforce no longer resembles the structure that was in place at the beginning of the year.
Now with the threat of a second wave of COVID-19 looming, the lockdown measures that had previously been eased are being enforced once again. It appears that working-from-home is not just a short-term phenomenon for many sectors of the economy.
A key difference this time around is that nobody is being blindsided by the pandemic. Employers and employees have had time to prepare and plan. It appears that at least a percentage of the global workforce will continue to work from home once the dust settles, which means that workplace norms are still in flux and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.