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Remote work: The new “normal”?

Remote work

The pandemic has led to several changes in our working lives, including new digital tools, new kinds of offices and more work-life balance. But it has also meant loss of creativity and lack of motivation, and has shed light on a global problem of burnout.

For more than a year now, the world has been turned upside down and our work practices have also been turned upside down. The virus has affected how we conduct meetings, how we discuss things with colleagues, how we network,  absorb new knowledge – it has basically affected our daily work tasks, which are a huge part of our lives.

According to Fredrik Anjou, CEO of consulting and recruitment advisory company PharmaRelations, there are variations in how the life sciences community has experienced the change in work practices, but he emphasizes the importance of gathering facts about the impacts.

“We envisage that many companies will adopt a hybrid model. It will be key to find the balance between the upsides of remote work whilst mitigating against risks associated with a loss of organization culture by offering opportunities for relationship-building at the office.”

“To ignore the opinions of employees, especially given we already have a skill shortage in this industry, is potentially risky both from a retention perspective but also from the employer value proposition to the external market,” he says. “Companies must take the time to assess the impacts of remote work and how their employees really feel about the experience, and perhaps more importantly their expectations post-Corona. We envisage that many companies will adopt a hybrid model. It will be key to find the balance between the upsides of remote work whilst mitigating against risks associated with a loss of organization culture by offering opportunities for relationship-building at the office.”

 

Fredrik Anjou

Fredrik Anjou, CEO, PharmaRelations

 

Digital tools on the rise

Slowly but surely, after the first shock of quickly shutting down offices, temporary workstations at dinner tables at home has become the new normal. This has led to a fast breakthrough of collaborative, digital tools.

“A global survey of executives by McKinsey shows for example that the share of digital or digitally enabled products has accelerated by as much as seven years!”

A global survey of executives by McKinsey (”How COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point – and transformed business forever”) shows for example that the share of digital or digitally enabled products has accelerated by as much as seven years! The executives also stated that funding for digital initiatives has increased more than anything else – more than increases in costs, the number of people in technology roles, and the number of customers. The report summarizes that respondents recognize technology’s strategic importance as a critical component of the business, not just a source of cost efficiencies. When the respondents were asked why their organizations didn’t implement these changes before the crisis, just over half said that this wasn’t a top business priority. The crisis removed this barrier.

As another, very concrete, example, the video communication tool Zoom increased its daily participants from 10 million to over 200 million in just three months during the pandemic, according to VentureBeat.

Work-life balance vs. loss of creativity

A recent survey conducted by PharmaRelations of professionals working in the life sciences industry in the Nordics showed that participants are mostly satisfied regarding the ways in which their company and manager have enabled remote working.

“Perhaps the most notable results relate to the future of remote work, with 91.4% of people indicating that the balance of working from both home and office will be important for them in the future. Furthermore, 62.7% of those surveyed believed that the existence of a remote work policy would impact their decision to join a new company in the future. Last, but by no means least, 42.4% of those surveyed would consider leaving their company post-COVID if not allowed to continue to work remotely,” says Claire Wharton, Senior Recruitment Manager at PharmaRelations.

“Last, but by no means least, 42.4% of those surveyed would consider leaving their company post-COVID if not allowed to continue to work remotely.”

Evris Michalopoulos, Director, Strategy & Operations, EU Cluster, Bristol Myers Squibb, participated in the survey, and he believes that working from home, or for that matter flexible hours, is a valid employee benefit for those who might want it.

”I used to work from home some days a week even before COVID-19. The different environments offer different opportunities. At home you can have a day full of meetings with colleagues based abroad as well as allocate time to think and design. On the flip side, the office gives you access to ideation with colleagues, informal catch ups and spare of the moment discussions that many times reduce the need for more formal meetings. I simply feel better having the option of working from home even if I do not use it. To take advantage of it, however, one must keep some principles in place, most of all that working from home should not come at the consequence of team work or cultural and company norms,” he says.

“I simply feel better having the option of working from home even if I do not use it.”

Another survey, conducted by the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers, and with around 18 000 engineers participating (”Coronakrisen – hemarbetets potential prövas”), showed that the majority, and especially engineers in the middle of their careers, believed that it is easier to solve the life puzzle when working from home. This was especially  pronounced among women aged between 40-44 years, 48% of whom had experienced a great improvement.

However, many engineers also bore witness to experiencing a loss of community with colleagues and 60% believed that it harder to collaborate when you cannot meet each other face to face. Remote work also affected their creativity, reports Ulrika Lindstrand, Chair of the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers.

“The modern working life that bears the stamp of the possibilities of digitalization places high demands on the individual’s cognitive abilities (knowledge and skills). There are clear challenges at these times, where creativity is threatened. The focus on problem-solving thrives in creative work environments. In the work of problem-solving technology, the organization and the environment should be adapted to the engineer’s cognitive ability,” she explains.

 

Ulrika Lindstrand

Ulrika Lindstrand, Chair of the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers

 

Evris Michalopoulos is witnesses to this and says he misses the human connection with his colleagues.

”I have mentally struggled with the lack of stimuli from meeting other people and discussing ideas informally. The quick chat or advice you would get in an office has disappeared. You have also grown a fear of cold calling, knowing everyone is in meetings and you will disturb,” he says.

“Finding new methods for these kinds of interactions when there is no possibilities to meet physically is a challenge for the employer. More of what you could call an innovation-oriented work environment development is needed.”

Ulrika Lindstrand emphasizes among other things that we need environments where engineers can meet each other, discuss problems, and encounter other competencies in order to find new solutions and innovative approaches to technical problems.

“Finding new methods for these kinds of interactions when there is no possibilities to meet physically is a challenge for the employer. More of what you could call an innovation-oriented work environment development is needed,” she says.

Shaping the home office

Ulrika Lindstrand also worries that working form home will lead to physical problems and ergonomic injuries, as only 30% were completely content with the shape of their home offices. She would like to see a concrete legal framework to clearly identify the employers responsibility to make sure that we have an optimal workplace at home if we must work from home, not least if if the remote work will continue even after the pandemic.

“Right now [March 16th 2021] we are facing some sort of regulatory vacuum. The Swedish Work Environment Authority has removed clear regulations when it comes to workplaces that the employer is not in control of, like the remote workplace at home,” she explains.

In addition, the Swedish Work Environment Authority has made a proposal for changes in the legislation. The proposal runs the risk of affecting the employer’s responsibility in the preventative work environment efforts, says Lindstrand.

“In its new work environment strategy, the Swedish government has made clear that in the future, working life regulations are needed for workplaces that the employer has no control over. This is welcomed, but it is urgent.”

“We believe that the timing for these regulations changes is badly chosen. Clearer regulations are needed in issues concerning the employer’s responsibility for the workplace at home. There should be no uncertainties in the fact that it is the employer that is responsible for the home office. In its new work environment strategy, the Swedish government has made clear that in the future, working life regulations are needed for workplaces that the employer has no control over. This is welcomed, but it is urgent.”

A lack of motivation and burnouts

The physiological stresses must also be taken into consideration when looking at the change in peoples working life during the pandemic. In the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers survey, a large proportion of respondents said that they felt down and had decreased motivation levels, especially among engineers under 30 years of age (57%).

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Moss, a workplace expert, journalist and author, describes the physiological effects of our working conditions during the pandemic in more detail. Together with colleagues she created a survey that analyzed the state of burnout and well-being during COVID-19. The authors gathered feedback from more than 1500 respondents in 46 countries, in various sectors, roles, and seniority levels, in the fall of 2020. As many as 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse and 85% said their well-being had declined. As many as 57% of employees felt that the pandemic had a “large effect on” or “completely dominated” their work. Only 21% rated their well-being as “good,” and a mere 2% rated it as “excellent”. Moss summarizes in the article that what they learned from the survey was that burnout is a global problem, and we are in the middle of a burnout epidemic.

“Melissa Ross notes in her article that during the pandemic we didn’t adjust workloads, we didn’t give people control and flexibility, we allowed more meetings and unhealthy levels of screen time, and we didn’t recognize the extent of people’s struggles.”

In 2019 the World Health Organization included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, describing it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This acknowledges that burnout is more than just an employee problem. According to Moss, burnout is an organizational problem that requires an organizational solution.

Burnout is usually described as having six main causes (Maslach et al., Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2012); unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, lack of a supportive community, lack of fairness and mismatched values and skills. Melissa Ross notes in her article that during the pandemic we didn’t adjust workloads, we didn’t give people control and flexibility, we allowed more meetings and unhealthy levels of screen time, and we didn’t recognize the extent of people’s struggles.

Just as the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers showed, Ross’ survey showed that millennials are experiencing the worst decline in well-being. Much of this is due to having less autonomy at work, lower seniority, and greater financial stressors and feelings of loneliness.

An ongoing trend

Lets not forget that the workplaces and the way we work had begun to change before the pandemic hit us. For example, repetitive tasks have  decreased and tasks that require creativity and the ability to think out of the box have increased. More advanced digital tools, such as AI-supported decisions, chatbots and cloud based collective knowledge have accelerated this development. What we do and produce at the office has started to change. We also see a growth in management models where task-focused, project-based agile teams work very differently from earlier rigid organization bureaucracy. This is stated in the article “What’s NXT: Arbetslivet och kontoren bortom pandemin” by Kairos Future.

The same can be said for burnouts. The seeds were planted before COVID-19 hit, and even then many workers were already experiencing high levels of it, writes Moss. The pandemic was simply an accelerant.

“Factors to change this includes feeling a sense of purpose, having a manageable workload, feeling that you can discuss your mental health at work, having an empathic manager and having a strong sense of connection to family and friends.”

“If we can identify organizational signals of stress then there is hope for the future. The best moment to make a move is when everything is up for grabs. It’s time to turn the change that was inevitable into the change that was always possible,” she writes.

Factors to change this includes feeling a sense of purpose, having a manageable workload, feeling that you can discuss your mental health at work, having an empathic manager and having a strong sense of connection to family and friends.

The office of the future

Kairos Future has in its article suggested that our offices will become more flexible, magnetic and extended in the future. They will not stand empty but people will come in a few days a week instead of every day.

”COVID-19 has proven to many that it is possible to work from home, but it has also shown me that the ideal is a balance of working from home and coming into the office. Isolated at home, I am very eager to finally be able to spend time at the office with my amazing colleagues, in meetings, workshops, ideating and sparring – with a fika once in a while,” says Evris Michalopoulos.

“Isolated at home, I am very eager to finally be able to spend time at the office with my amazing colleagues, in meetings, workshops, ideating and sparring – with a fika once in a while.”

The Kairos Future article also stated that the offices of tomorrow must be able to attract people in a new way, they must provide light, ventilation etc., but also flexibility and smart working solutions. The authors of the article also believe that co-working spaces will also probably be extended to suburbs, smaller cities etc.

In order for employers to create an attractive workplace for engineers in the future Ulrika Lindstrand believes that it will take responsiveness and clarity in the systematic work environment development.

“The employer needs to be adaptable and adopt new ways of organizing work tasks so that it is possible to combine a good and sustainable work environment with increased flexibility for the individual. One condition in order to succeed in this transition is a good cooperation with local union representatives and safety officers,” she says.

Finding balance will be key

There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to the remote work discussion, believes Claire Wharton.

“A continued dialogue with employees must take place to find the optimal solution for everyone. Tech organizations made this transition some time ago, for numerous reasons including, but not limited to, cost savings and reduced environmental impact,” she says.

“There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to the remote work discussion. A continued dialogue with employees must take place to find the optimal solution for everyone.”

“Whilst we wait anxiously by the sidelines for vaccines to take effect, for economies to reopen and for life to return to some form of normality, the structural shift in terms of where work takes place has already happened and is probably here to stay – companies acknowledgement of this and the ability to find balance between the former and the new ”normal” will be key,” says Wharton.

Claire Wharton

Claire Wharton, Senior Recruitment Manager, PharmaRelations