“Don’t be afraid of remote work,” said Carolina Rendeiro, founder and CEO of Connect2Global, as she opened the Remote stage on the final day of Web Summit in Lisbon last week. That day’s panels were devoted to the discussion of the future office and the possibilities for building community while working from home. “Remote work is what many of us have always wanted – and now we’ve got it.” But what exactly does that mean?
Commenting on the impact of Covid-19 and attitudes to remote working, Jeremy Johnson, co-founder and CEO at tech talent company Andela, said: “It’s been a dramatic acceleration. We now see much more willingness on the part of employers to be open to remote work. The genie isn’t going back in the bottle.”
“The more traditional way of working is a broken way of working,” agreed Kristin Luck, president of ESOMAR and founder of ScaleHouse. “Specifically this is the case for knowledge workers, not people who manufacture things for a living.”
Amidst what some are calling “the great resignation” and widespread reevaluation of traditional working practices, those companies that refuse to be flexible in the future may find themselves struggling to attract talent, many speakers warned at Web Summit. Yet at the same time, organisations that embrace a fully remote office will have issues of their own to iron out.
Gender inequality “a material challenge to remote work”
Flexible working arrangements are often seen as partial solutions for reducing gender equality by providing women – who still provide the overwhelming majority of care to children and the elderly, as well as doing much more than their fair share of domestic duties even when both parents work full time – with opportunities to shape their own working hours.
However, throughout government-mandated lockdowns, the effect was rather to increase the burden on women, leading them to do even more household chores and forcing them to leave their jobs by the millions across the world due to the added pressure, said Luck. “Women on average do 75 per cent of unpaid care work – elderly, children, homeschooling, cleaning, cooking – this was huge even before the pandemic.”
According to one McKinsey study, this effect has been noticeable in three major groups of women in particular: working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women, and is more stark when those women have children under the age of ten.
The McKinsey study also found that 79 per cent of men said they had a positive experience working from home during the pandemic, while for women this was just 37 per cent. “Fatigue, depression, anxiety; managing children, homeschooling, domestic work. For these reasons, 54m women around the world left the workforce in the first year of the pandemic,” explained Luck.
“Far more women than men left the workplace entirely, rather than temporarily, due to the pandemic – and it’s much worse in emerging economies than richer ones. We’re now getting to grips with the enormous impact this mass exodus of women from the workplace will have.”
Reducing the on-screen pressure
The McKinsey study also found that – unsurprisingly – there’s extra pressure on women to look “presentable” even on screen, and to be seen to be acting and looking professional at all times.
One way of easing this burden, Luck recommends, is significantly reducing the number of online meetings employees must attend – and encouraging them to turn off their cameras. Johnson agreed: “There’s going to be a massive debate about how we establish video norms in the coming months. Staring into a screen all day is exhausting, whoever you are, and companies need to be more conscious about what they are asking people to do.”
79 per cent of men said they had a positive experience working from home during the pandemic, while for women this was just 37 per cent.Kristin Luck, ESOMAR & ScaleHouse
The pandemic generated uniquely challenging conditions which we all hope never to see again. “With vaccination rates, we hope things will get easier for women,” said Luck. “Children are going back to school, things are looking more ‘normal’ again. Longer term, better parental leave is essential, especially in the US [one of just eight countries in the world without national paid parental leave] – we need employer policies that benefit women. And all these things benefit men too, allowing them to be equal partners in the family.”
Johnson agreed that the pandemic’s impact on women has been a massive challenge in his work too. “In our talent network, it’s been harder to find female software developers, for example. Genuine gender balance creates a better environment for everyone. The lack of it represents a material challenge to remote work.”
A truly global talent pool
The panellists also discussed the way the pandemic has reinvigorated the hunt for talent – with an eye on the global population now, too. “We’ve got this extreme focus on quality and talent,” said Johnson. “This is partly a function of the macro climate – people want to move quickly and attract talent ASAP. Companies are thinking: I want to find the best possible talent I can, and I’m open to going much more broad than I would have before.”
One side effect of this, he said, is that it’s pushing up wages in emerging markets: “Salaries for those with particular skillsets are inching closer to those in Europe and the US thanks to this trend in remote work.”
Remote-first offices having “a Darwinian effect on business”
One thing almost every panellist at Web Summit agreed upon that day is that remote-first offices are the future. Vanessa Stock, co-founder and VP of People’s Pitch, thinks that there won’t be any going back. “I know it’s hard for bigger companies especially to adopt remote-first offices, but that’s how you attract the best talent,” she said.
This sentiment was shared by Luck and Johnson: “Amidst the war for talent and the great resignation, offering remote-first is essential.”
“When you look at office-first culture vs remote-first culture, the talent pool is much more limited in the former,” Luck explained. “In the latter, I can hire the best people around the world, no matter their location, and that can create a Darwinian effect for many businesses. Compared to office-first competitors, I have fewer overheads and I have the best people. I’ll be number one in my space if this cycle repeats enough times.”
Johnson agreed: “You can fight against it, but it’s going to get you eventually. Office-first cultures will have to adapt and become more like remote-first or they’ll lose competitive advantage.”
The genie isn’t going back in the bottle.Jeremy Johnson, Andela
The hybrid model is emerging as a step towards embracing remote-first. Significantly, this shouldn’t mean some employees work in an office, and some do not – rather, it is most successful when everyone works remotely, but with occasional physical meetings an important part of company culture.
“It depends on definitions,” said Johnson. “Remote-first companies can be ‘hybrid’ in the sense that they get their team together quarterly, for instance, but it could also be where you have calls with some team members in person and some in the room. The latter is an issue because people obviously gravitate towards each other in person, creating unequal dynamics.”
“The solution to this is to make sure everyone is WFH when having Teams or Zoom meetings, so it levels the playing field,” said Luck.
Three things that need to change in the current remote work model
Johnson and Luck outlined their wish list of three things that they would like to see change about the way remote work is currently handled.
- Make sure there is time to meet in person to encourage team bonding
- Reduce amount of time with compulsory video
- Consider time zone overlaps – try to make sure people aren’t working at 6am or 9pm.
- Think about introverts and extroverts: allow people to opt out of team-building exercises, for instance, especially if they’re online
- Gender equal workplace policies: think about the extra workload on women at this stage
- Global hiring practices: how can you hire a more global, diverse and more representative workforce?
Half the world’s population still doesn’t have access to internet
At the same time, much of the hand-wringing over remote work is primarily the preserve of wealthier countries with widespread access to fast internet. Almost half the world’s population still doesn’t have this, and the global internet freedom index has gone down for the 11th year in a row.
Picking up on this in another panel were Stefano Scarpetta, director for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs at the OECD, along with Sonia Jorge, executive director at the World Wide Web Foundation and Sohail Rahman, senior news anchor and correspondent at Al Jazeera News International (English).
For Jorge, it’s nothing new that “half the world is excluded from connectivity and engagement with technology”, but it’s only recently gained wider recognition. “Before Covid, we struggled to get the attention of policymakers about this issue,” she said. “But this lack of access is a massive problem.
“In 2020 alone, we lost billions in potential GDP and revenues because of the exclusion of women and girls from digital skills-building and education. We need to remember how lucky we are to have all this access that we do, to be here at Web Summit – I hope we all know how much we benefit from being here and from having this access. Not only do we have access to tech, but we can then use it to share knowledge, build skills, access other people across the world. Covid exposed the fact that people either have no connection, or have poor quality connection to the internet and all its riches.
“Low- and middle-income countries have the majority of the world’s population that is unconnected. It would only cost US$428bn from now to 2030, to bring most people online and give them access to a quality internet connection – that’s how much we spend on soda annually! If we can’t make that happen, it makes me sad for humanity.”
Scarpetta said: “The digital divide is internal, within countries and between different parts of the world. Aside from the healthcare divide, there’s those with low level skills, women, migrants – it’s always worse for them. There’s a big digital divide too, between those who have access to high speed internet and fully functioning devices.”
Sohail added that when he has travelled to places like India and the Philippines, he sees that “life revolves around a mobile phone”, adding: “The relation to the internet and devices is different. People aren’t working from home on laptops. This too could represent an opportunity for business, but it needs help from national governments too.”
Scarpetta added: “Many people lack access to even a computer, a room, a space where they can work in private. I hate to say that Covid can provide an opportunity, but in both in advanced and developing economies, significant resources should be invested in green and digital transitions – if governments choose to make it a priority.”
Jorge agreed: “Wherever I go, leaders want to change the picture of digital development in their countries. From Mozambique to the Dominican Republic, it’s the same story.”