Remote work became a part of many people’s lives since the beginning of the lockdown in March 2020.
As restrictions were lifted, hybrid work became a part of the work landscape and is now firmly a part of South African corporate life.
Offices have not yet returned to pre-covid occupancy levels and it has been noted that smaller towns now have new residents taking advantage of avoiding the daily commute and working remotely.
However, Linda Trim, director at Giant Leap, a workplace design consultancy, says while the work from anywhere experiment could arguably be successful for veteran employees in defined roles with trusted colleagues, remote work remains a big problem to be solved for many employees, as well as for certain objectives.
The three biggest problems with remote working according to research are that younger employees are prejudiced, innovation is hampered, and new disruptive ideas are not acted on quickly enough.
Remote working bad news for newbies
“Firstly, remote work is bad for new workers,” says Trim.
“Many inexperienced employees who join a remote virtual company realise they have not joined much of a company at all. They have joined little more than a group video chat.”
Many of the perks of flexible work, such as managing your own time, can work against younger employees in companies with entrenched mentorship programmes.
“This is partially true of South Africa where we have such a skills shortage and an urgent need to transfer skills to younger workers.”
Secondly, Trim says, remote or hybrid work is bad for building new teams to take on new tasks.
In a 2021 Microsoft survey, where researchers at Berkeley University’s studio in California analysed 60 000 anonymised employee messages and chats, it was found that the number of messages within teams grew significantly as workers tried to keep up with their colleagues, but information sharing actually plummeted.
“Remote working made people more likely to hunker down with their pre-existing teams and far less likely to have unexpected conversations that could lead to knowledge sharing.
“The study showed that while people could still manage the ‘hard work’ of emailing and making spreadsheets from anywhere, the most important part of the office is the ‘soft work’, the chat and informal interactions that build long-term trust and is fundamental to company innovation.”
Innovation does not happen with remote work
Other studies reached a similar conclusion.
Earlier this year, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UCLA used smartphone geolocation data and matched it to patent citations for individual firms.
“They concluded that the firms with the most face-to-face interactions also had the most patent citations, clearly showing that innovation happens in person,” Trim says.
No new ideas
Thirdly, remote work is bad for generating disruptive new ideas.
Research by Columbia Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Management among 1 500 engineers analysed whether virtual teams could brainstorm as creatively as in-person teams.
“Engineers who worked virtually created fewer total ideas and external assessors ranked their ideas significantly less creative than those of in-person teams. Successful collaboration requires trust and a kind of intimacy that is hard to build on a Zoom call,” Trim notes.
“The remote work debate has become deeply polarising between those who consider it a necessity beyond criticism and those who consider it a culture and innovation killer, but it is definitely worth noting what the research says,” Trim says.