Working from home will become ‘the new norm’

Companies are being forced to speed up their digital transformation processes. The pandemic has made even the most resistant companies realise that the labour market will never be the same again

The option of working from home is nothing new in the job market. However, never before have so many people and companies simultaneously adopted this way of keeping businesses running. The pandemic that is ravaging the world has forced organisations to send their employees home, striving to adjust processes, adapt communication networks and find new ways of ensuring teams are in contact with each other. All in record time.

However, even before covid-19 several global studies suggested distance working as a tool to enable productivity to be increased by more than 40% and, in parallel, to reduce operating costs by percentages that can exceed 50%. Nevertheless, cultural barriers and low levels of digital readiness at many businesses are still the main obstacles to the more widespread use of this option. “Distance working has gained a foothold and is becoming increasingly popular as a work tool”, says Pedro Pessoa, Lead HR Development Specialist at Kelly Services, a company specialising in human resources. Moreover, he stresses, "it´s natural that in the wake of the crisis distance working will move into the mainstream of tools available to companies, to be implemented in certain scenarios and subject to certain rules".

An opinion that is partly shared by António Costa, an associate manager at Michael Page Engineering & Property, who works in the area of human resources management. “I believe that distance working can be considered, and probably will be, in terms of its form”. This situation “enables companies, in some sectors at least, to make profound changes in the way they design their offices”. We can imagine a situation in which a company starts using its offices for only 50% of its resources, operating on a rotation basis with distance working. Such a scenario could lead to the organisation seeing immediate reductions in office costs arising from surface area, electricity and consumables. If a company has its own fleet of vehicles, significant savings would result from the reduction in their use and their environmental impact would also diminish.

More employees at home? Human resources experts believe that many companies will now be able to choose to use their offices for only half their resources

Maria da Glória Ribeiro, a managing partner at Amrop, an executive headhunting company, doesn't believe in a sudden change in the work paradigm. “I don´t regard this as the beginning of a new era, as the most attentive companies, particularly in the field of technology, and some in the retail sector, have been making an effort to create pleasant, recreational areas with no fixed work stations as a means of providing their employees with a more laid-back and comfortable environment, more likely to produce good performance, for the last ten years”. Furthermore, Maria da Glória Ribeiro believes that the future of work will not consist of people having a job, but of working on different missions/contracts over the course of their lives, capable of performing one or more functions simultaneously in the same phase of their professional life. “And this is where distance working will play a major role".

From a more immediate perspective, she doesn't see the situation we are currently going through as a facilitator or accelerator of a “new era”, as “it will result in an economic downturn, the effects of which are already evident, and we don´t know to what extent and for how long this is going to delay companies´ ability to bounce back”.

More digital companies... now

The transition or digital transformation of which so much has been said in the past few years is now a priority for an increasing number of companies. Forced to adapt or close down and to interrupt the flow of their business, many organisations have realised it´s time to take the first, or another step towards the digital world.

Indeed, according to a study conducted by IDC Portugal in the last week of March, around 55% of a total of 531 respondents have invested in the immediate reinforcement of their technological infrastructure and respective security, in addition to an increase in the availability of digital channels to ensure their business can be conducted and managed from home. The same study also reveals that 30% of these companies have created new digital channels and 20% have found alternative ways of communicating and dealing with their clients.

However, creating the technological conditions and providing employees with the most advanced tools on the market is not enough if there are no other internal changes. Rui Reis, an executive director at Mind Source, a consultancy firm in the field of information technology, points out that “it is of paramount importance that organisations know how to manage the processes of cultural change in order to successfully implement their digital transformation strategies, more specifically the changes brought about by these processes and which are occurring more rapidly due to the current situation". The executive also reminds us that many companies will undergo difficulties such as a lack of access to documents, applications and work tools, as well as the absence of suitable equipment with which to conduct their duties, which will prevent employees from continuing to produce at the desired rate. “Routine and responsibility are key factors in successful distance working, as are the sharing of knowledge and effective task management", he underlines.

Despite the difficulties involved in companies having to adapt, the pros and cons of distance working need to be analysed. In the opinion of António Costa, in a normal scenario, unlike this one, “there are benefits for companies and their employees in distance working, even if only for one day a week, namely cost reduction, greater flexibility, personal/professional equilibrium, motivational factors, among others ...”. However, Maria da Glória Ribeiro stresses that certain functions benefit more from this type of work than others. “Highly individualised jobs that require high levels of concentration, such as, for example, developing and accounting and even written production will obviously benefit from a more isolated environment". Furthermore, she believes that all functions benefit from sharing and working in an area with other people, “specifically with regard to creative thinking and the added motivation contact with others brings to problem solving and task performance”.

From a more practical point of view, Jil Ribeiro, a senior consultant from the Multipessoal recruitment and specialised selection department, highlights three essential issues, which may be positive or negative in accordance with the situation. First of all, distance and proximity. If, on the one hand, the distance factor can weaken personal relationships and render the fulfilment of tasks more difficult, on the other, it creates proximity among teams that, in a normal situation, would already be geographically dispersed. The issue of distractions and interruptions can also be viewed in these two perspectives. “Distance working involves fewer distractions and interruptions are easier to control. At the office, we are more aware of what's going on around us, which causes us to put work to one side more often”, he explains. And she adds: “When working from home, we can decide when we want to be interrupted by arranging scheduled meetings and conference calls. On the other hand, when we're at home, we're more exposed to other distractions such as the radio, TV, children and pets. "Finally, the balance between professional and personal life. “We've saved time by not commuting and made the most of that time to carry out other, more useful activities. However, there is a tendency to put in longer hours when we're working at home”.

Pedro Pessoa adds another important factor. “Distance working facilitates the hiring of handicapped and disabled people due to the fact the demands involved in adapting to the job are not so great, enhancing an environment of greater integration and diversity”. On the other hand, the situation we're going through, António Costa points out, brings with it an associated psychological burden that can lead to disequilibrium. “We're not working from home by choice. It's a forced situation that requires us to stay at home 24/7. It's vital to keep focusing on what is important and on the future, and a positive attitude is required to overcome any more negative factors. Only then will we be able to view this experience as productive for companies and their employees”.