Working remotely is seeing many of us actually working longer hours, but will it remain part of the business mix once social-distancing and isolation restrictions are lifted?

1 April, 2020

In many countries now public health experts are urging anyone who can to work from home. Of course, not all roles permit this, but on the whole technology now means that a significant number of jobs can be performed from the comforts of our own homes. For many during this public health crisis 'comfort' translates to being squashed onto the dinning table alongside the kids, but still, in the current circumstances it is the best solution.

Even before the emergence of COVID-19 There has been an increasingly supportive stance from many businesses to remote working by staff, where applicable. With the environment an increasingly important topic in boardrooms, this was also seen as a way to support sustainability goals by reducing unnecessary twice daily commutes to and from the office.

This obviously has varied significantly by role, and remains a big issue for some employers who find it difficult to trust staff. But, flexible working arrangements were becoming the new normal across many countries and industries. In fact, across the globe, working from home and remote locations has grown 159% since 2005, more than 11x faster than the rest of the workforce, an updated survey from business analyst Merchant Savvy shows.

The Blue Swan Daily highlighted late last year that a survey had found 61% of global companies were at that time allowing their staff to have some sort of remote working policy, but that this differed dramatically across the world. Interestingly Germany was found to have one of the most flexible workspace policies, but a low desire for flexible working among employees. Meanwhile, Japanese employees had the highest desire to work remotely, yet the most restrictive flexible workspace policy.

In the UK, official data from the Office for National Statistics showed that ahead of the COVID-19 outbreak over 4% of the country's workforce declared they worked from home fully with nearly 10% doing so for a day or so frequently. However, as the chart below illustrates, the extent to which people can and do work from home varies by industrial sector.

From a business perspective the 'value' of remote working is notable, assuming you discount the current special circumstances and the constraints of households being isolated together. Stanford University has claimed 13% of remote employees are more productive overall, and also take fewer breaks and sick days, but a IWG Global Workplace Survey earlier this year showed that the majority of businesses surveyed were seeing a more than 40% increase in productivity.

A new study by virtual private network service provider NordVPN Teams has revealed that people are working a longer day when at home. This varies by country, but on the whole highlights that extra efforts are being put into adapting to the revised working methods that are now part of our daily lives.

With the commute to and from work taking mere few seconds it appears more people are logging onto work servers early and logging out later. On average the working day is lasting more than an hour longer than it had prior to government work from home guidance. Across Austria, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands that is the case, according to the data, but in the case of Canada, France, Spain and the United Kingdom the working day extends by around two hours on average.

A couple of key exceptions are in the two countries with the highest number of current COVID-19 cases. In the United States of America (USA), the data shows that working days are being extended by around three hours, while in Italy there is no change from the eight hour average seen prior to the changes in working policy, driven by state mobility restrictions.

NordVPN also record that mass remote working in the UK had contributed towards an increase in the use of both desktops (43%) and mobile apps (20%). Across other areas, desktop use in Austria has grown the most, soaring by as much as 161.15%. Even though mobile app use in the Netherlands has climbed steeply by 44%, across the border in Belgium there has been a 17% decline in mobile apps usage. That said, desktop usage there has almost doubled, rising 97%.

A US study has suggested USD4.5 trillion estimated savings per year in the US alone as a direct result of remote working by 2030 due to improving productivity, reducing fixed overheads and increasing agility. It has also been estimated that around 54 million tonnes of greenhouse gas could be reduced each year if those with remote compatible jobs worked at home half the time, that is the equivalent of taking 10 million cars off the road.

With a huge number of people currently working remotely we are already hearing of the benefits to the environment and particularly the improvement of air quality in industrial and corporate business cities that are now on lockdown.

But, there are new problems, especially the need for companies to maintain the huge challenge of securing a suddenly remote workforce. According to Google Trends, the search term "VPN" has surged in the past weeks. In the US, it grew by 25%, the UK 20%, Germany 30%, Spain 40%, and Italy, which has suffered the largest coronavirus outbreak in Europe, 55%.

These numbers are also reflected in VPN sales. NordVPN says it has recorded 165% growth in users due to more and more people working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Netherlands has seen one of the biggest growth in employee business VPN usage, with the number of users surging by 240%.

The big question now is: Will remote working remain part of the business mix once social-distancing and isolation restrictions are lifted? When we don't even now what we will be doing next week or next month it is impossible to say. But it is clear that whether remote working is working from home or working locally, we have proved during the current crisis that it is manageable and will be more widely appreciated as a working practice. The implications for corporate travel could be significant.