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Collaboration

Moving beyond remote: Workplace transformation in the wake of Covid-19

New data from a global survey of more than 9,000 knowledge workers shows how to step forward despite an uncertain future

By the team at Slack7th October 2020Illustration by Chris Gash

Introduction

Covid-19 upended office work as we all knew it. Once bustling buildings were reduced to rows of empty desks. Workers converted their couches and spare rooms to offices and companies did their best to keep the figurative lights on for the first few months.

After that initial swirl, we discovered that office life had been stuck in a 9-to-5 rut for decades, one that was no longer serving workers or companies. This came through loud and clear in Slack’s latest research, which shows that people worldwide want more flexibility in where and how they work.

Rather than simply returning to the old routine, companies must radically rethink the way teams work. Slack’s latest survey shows us how to do that.

The evolution of remote work in 2020

As the novel coronavirus spread across the globe, companies dove headlong into remote work. With stay-at-home orders taking effect worldwide, organizations had little choice. But now that the dust has settled, it’s time to reassess the strategy of taking the old office culture and trying to retrofit it for distance and our modern digital reality. It doesn’t work. Simply giving workers a laptop and moving meetings to video is not a successful long-term strategy.

The intent of this report is to more deeply understand what makes remote work (or even hybrid office-remote work) successful so that organizations can deliver the broader transformation that’s so plainly required.

Like many companies, Slack conducted the majority of its operations in the office prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. But as makers—and users—of a collaboration tool that facilitates remote work, we’re invested in empowering teams no matter where they work. Over the summer, we partnered with market research firm GlobalWebIndex to survey more than 9,000 knowledge workers across six countries about their experience. We wanted to understand what was going well, where current practices were falling short and how employers could improve the well-being of their employees.

We’ve captured our top insights for you here so that you too can adopt the tools and strategies to support a dramatically different workplace.

Magnifying glasses on a pink background

Definition-at-a-glance: A knowledge worker is anyone who holds an office position and/or works with data, analyzes information or thinks creatively in a typical workweek.

The hybrid workplace is here

Earlier this year, in late March 2020, Slack surveyed nearly 3,000 U.S. knowledge workers on the heels of a flurry of shelter-in-place orders. The results of that early study revealed the magnitude of the shift to remote work: At the time, 27% of those surveyed were primarily working from home. By August, that number had jumped to 44% in the U.S.

The U.S. experience is not an isolated one. Our latest survey, conducted between June and August of 2020, shows that more than one-third of global knowledge workers are working from home. The vast majority (83%) of those currently working from home do not expect to go back to the office in the next three months. What’s more, we see little evidence that a migration back to the office is even desirable, with only 12% saying they would like to always work at the office and over half of all knowledge workers (72%) expressing a preference for a hybrid remote-office model.

Rather than asking when workers will return to the office, companies should be asking what the office of the future will look like. By understanding what workers love (and hate) about remote work and how the experience varies across populations, companies can create environments that improve not only productivity but also employee well-being.

Understanding the global remote work wave

While the exodus from the office has occurred on a global scale, it’s been far from homogenous, with some countries far outpacing others in their move to remote work. By breaking down the data on a national level, we can glean insights into the new workplace equilibrium for each country.

By late summer 2020, more workers in the U.S. (44%) and U.K. (45%) were primarily working from home than in the office. Interestingly, the reverse was true in Japan (52%), France (58%), Germany (51%), and AUS (39%) where more workers reported going into the office than work from home.

The office-versus-home differences across the world are likely influenced by several factors, including each country’s effectiveness at containing the Covid-19 outbreak and cultural attitudes toward remote work. For example, employees in Japan are more than twice as likely to say that their job cannot be done remotely at all when compared with employees in the U.S. or the U.K., and they’re also more likely to say that working from home is worse for their productivity than any other country. Suffice it to say, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, which is especially important for companies with a global footprint to consider.

Slack infographic showing the impact of remote work

The bright spots of working from home

People’s experience of remote work is highly nuanced, with both perks and pitfalls. To identify the bright spots, we asked those working from home to choose the top three benefits of their arrangement. Only 3% of respondents reported no benefit. Others cited time and money savings, a less stressful working environment and more leisure time. The most popular benefits included no commuting, saving money and improved work-life balance.

Time and money

Prior to the pandemic, U.S. workers spent an average of 54 minutes commuting each day. Commute times in other surveyed countries extended over an hour per day. For those now working from home, travel time to and from work has been reduced to zero—or the few minutes it takes to walk from one room to another.

Rather than relishing the commute, workers worldwide seem relieved to cross it off their daily routine. While the commute might offer a mental transition period for some, it’s clear that many workers prefer the extra time that a commute-free workday affords. Skipping the daily commute also comes with cost savings, the second most-cited benefit, and allows for more time with family, another plus for many of those surveyed.

Quality of life

Beyond time and money, those working remotely also highlighted improved work-life balance and a less stressful working environment as perks of working from home. With more time and fewer office stressors, on average, those working from home seem to experience a boost in their quality of life.

Most workers prefer a hybrid office-home model

The work-from-home experiment has given many former office workers the opportunity to try a new way of working, and the data shows they (mostly) like it. In fact, the vast majority of global knowledge workers (72%) prefer a hybrid arrangement that combines the home and the office. Workers are far less enthusiastic about going all in on one environment: Only 12% would prefer working from the office all the time, and 13% want to work from home full-time.

Slack infographic showing the impact of remote work

Companies would do well to keep the preference for a hybrid working environment top of mind, even as they plan for more months of remote work. The data reveals that 83% of those already working from home expect to keep doing so for at least the next three months. Given that most knowledge workers aren’t interested in returning to the office full-time, companies can start investing now in the hybrid environments employees prefer.

Introducing the Remote Employee Experience Index

It’s clear that remote work is here to stay. So how can companies assess its impact on employees’ well-being and adjust their systems and strategies accordingly? To address this need, the Future Forum, a new consortium launched by Slack to help companies reimagine work in the digital-first world, developed the Remote Employee Experience Index (REEI). The index is a quarterly report providing the insights needed to navigate this new world of work. It measures five key elements of the remote work experience: productivity, work-life balance, stress and anxiety, sense of belonging and satisfaction with one’s working environment.

The index scores each element on a scale ranging from “much better” to “much worse” than working in the office, with the midpoint being “about the same as working in the office.” It provides a global composite score as well as country-specific scores for the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia, giving organizations a global snapshot of remote worker sentiment. The survey was fielded between June 30 and August 11, 2020, via GlobalWebIndex, a third-party online panel provider, and commissioned by Slack. Results were weighted based on sector and population.

The Remote Employee Experience Index is based on data from a survey of 9,032 knowledge workers who identify as “skilled office workers” in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia. It analyzes the experience of 4,700 survey respondents who primarily work remotely across five key perceptual elements: Productivity: ability to complete tasks efficiently while delivering high-quality workWork-life balance: ability to achieve a satisfactory equilibrium between priorities in work and personal lifeStress and anxiety: ability to manage pressure and worry in the virtual workplaceSense of belonging: a measure of whether knowledge workers feel accepted and valued by others on their work teamSatisfaction with working arrangement: knowledge workers’ perception of the infrastructure and support that underpins their remote work experience

The REEI represents a composite score of how much better or worse remote working is to working in the office across each of the attributes above. Each attribute is equally weighted in the total index score.Each element is scored on an equidistant five-point scale, from “much better” to “much worse” than working in the office, with the midpoint being “about the same as working in the office.”The highest possible score of +100 would indicate that all employees feel much better about all aspects of their remote work experience. A neutral score of 0 would indicate no change relative to working in the office. And a score of -100 would indicate that all employees feel working remotely is much worse than working in the office.This simplification helps us make relative comparisons between specific populations in aggregate. Given this, we advise making within-category comparisons (e.g., households with children vs. households without) rather than multiple or cross-category comparisons (e.g., households with children vs. people managers in the U.S.).

Findings from the Remote Employee Experience Index

Remote work can be a mixed bag

The results from our inaugural index show that globally knowledge workers feel, in aggregate, that remote working is better than working in the office (+14). In particular, remote work seems to have a positive impact on their work-life balance (+26), lead to satisfaction with their working arrangement (+20) and reduce their work-related stress (+17).

However, remote working comes with drawbacks: Workers’ sense of belonging (-5) appears to be worse when working from home. This is the one area where most knowledge workers are less satisfied with remote work. By investing in strategies and technology that deepen employee connections, organizations can help improve the remote work experience.

Slack infographic showing the impact of remote work

The remote work experience varies across populations

The work life of every employee at every level has been affected by the move to remote work. Executives, middle managers and individual contributors alike have had to balance the challenges of finding quiet time to work, suitable places to hold meetings, and strategies to keep children and other family members occupied.

Despite these commonalities, workers face unique challenges and advantages that color their experience. We wanted to better understand how remote work affects different populations and to answer questions such as: To what degree does having does having children affect one’s experience of remote work? Do senior managers feel differently than individual contributors? How do new employees fare in a remote workplace?

Senior leaders, middle managers and individual contributors

A crisis naturally puts additional pressure on leaders. Their reports—and shareholders—look to them to make decisions that benefit the company while taking employee needs into account. It’s no surprise then that senior and middle managers have had a harder time maintaining work-life balance than individual contributors.

Of the three groups, senior managers report the least improvement to work-life balance (+20) when compared with middle managers (+22) and individual contributors (+26). At the same time, senior leaders, whose roles generally require them to remain ultra-connected to colleagues, reported positive impacts on their sense of belonging (+6), whereas the other two groups reported negative impacts.

When it comes to stress management and productivity, middle managers feel the squeeze more acutely than individual contributors or senior managers. They reported the lowest scores for stress reduction (+15) when compared with senior managers (+19) and individual contributors (+19). Given their role as the middlemen between leaders planning the strategy and the ground troops executing it, it’s easy to see how a shift from in-office to remote communication could create added stress.

Slack infographic showing the impact of remote work

The power of existing relationships

The higher satisfaction levels of both tenured employees and senior managers lead us to the hypothesis that remote work is running on existing relationships. New employees find it more difficult to keep up with what others are working on and stay motivated. They’re also more likely than more experienced employees to report feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Transitioning to remote is tough

Our earlier U.S. survey, conducted in late March, found that remote workers with more than three months’ experience working from home prior to the pandemic were less affected by the shift to remote work.

The same holds true in our most recent survey, which assessed the impact of remote work experience on a global scale. Those with only a few months’ experience working from home were twice as likely as more experienced remote workers to say it negatively affected their productivity. Those with less remote-work experience also reported lower overall satisfaction and work-life-balance levels as well as more stress.

Working from home is a learned skill. It takes time for knowledge workers to adapt to new ways of maintaining relationships and managing their physical environments. Companies can help speed up this learning curve by providing support, training and tools to help newly remote workers adapt.

Slack infographic showing the impact of remote work

Gender and household composition

After lockdown orders were issued, previously empty homes were suddenly filled with people. Roommates, housemates and partners found themselves working in close proximity, and parents found themselves balancing workplace responsibilities with childcare. These changes were well-received by some and introduced new challenges for others. Whether positive or negative, they undoubtedly influenced people’s experience of working remotely.

Slack infographic showing the impact of remote work

Women with children face distinct challenges

While parents reported positive REEI scores overall—including ratings for belonging—women in households with children reported lower overall ratings (+10) compared with women without children (+13). With women often bearing a disproportionate share of childcare responsibilities, it’s no surprise that those with children score lowest on work-life balance (+14), 6 points lower than women without children (+20). This divide carried over into ratings for productivity, stress and overall satisfaction.

Women with and those without children also confront different challenges. For women with children, the top challenges of remote work included feeling overwhelmed by non-work related things as well as difficulty staying focused and avoiding distractions. By contrast, the biggest challenges for women without children included finding stable Wi-Fi and maintaining working relationships.

The work-life balance discrepancy was less pronounced for men. Those with children scored +15 for work-life balance compared with +18 for those without. Men with and without children also registered closer scores for overall satisfaction with their working arrangement and productivity.

Remote work remains a net positive

Both men and women with children reported overall positive impacts to belonging, suggesting that perhaps that a sense of belonging at work may be less top of mind for parents, or that they are finding camaraderie with other colleagues facing similar challenges.

Given the variation among home situations—such as the presence of another parent, the age and number of children and other caregiving demands—the fact that remote work has had a net positive effect on productivity, stress and overall work satisfaction across all groups is a testament to two things: the resilience of individual workers and the widespread appeal of remote work.

While uncertainty about the returning to the office remains, leaders can leverage these insights to develop a new workplace “normal” that better supports working women, men and parents.

Staying connected in the world of remote work

Remote work instantly put the kibosh on physical gatherings and serendipitous in-person interactions. Coffee breaks, lunches, meetings, birthday celebrations, volunteer events and happy hours either stopped or moved online. But virtual events often fall short when it comes to fostering a sense of belonging, developing new relationships and gaining insight into the work of others. It’s no wonder then that four of the five top challenges reported by global knowledge workers were related to connection.

Interestingly, the biggest challenge for remote workers is logistical. When the internet is the lifeline to your colleagues, reliable access is critical. Given its importance, it’s no wonder that remote workers cited unstable Wi-Fi or internet as the biggest challenge to remote work. In fact, nearly 1 in 4 respondents (24%) reported unstable connectivity as a challenge. The other frequently cited challenges are more relational, including: difficulty building/maintaining relationships, increased feelings of loneliness or isolation, and more difficulty staying aware of what others are working on.

Difficulty staying focused and avoiding distractions was reported by 22% of global knowledge workers and was a top concern for both those with and without children. It seems that sitting in front of a computer in a global health crisis, along with political turmoil and environmental disasters in some countries has overtaxed people’s ability to focus.

The data is clear: Overall, remote work has been a net positive for many knowledge workers, but for many others, there is still significant room for improvement. To move the needle, we need to reimagine many of the cultural practices that we’ve carried from the office into our homes. It’s time to focus on new solutions.

Take action: How to improve remote work for everyone

It’s tempting to think of digital solutions as a silver bullet, but many of the challenges presented by remote work are less of a technology problem and more of a people problem. Over a quarter of global knowledge workers report that their company provided new communication tools as a result of the shift to remote work. While this single intervention can have a positive effect on productivity (+3) and workers’ sense of belonging (+4), we have found that what matters more is the work culture these tools can support.

Changing working culture is a shared responsibility that falls on no one role or team. Everyone from senior leaders to individual contributors to the people orgs that support them has a role to play in making remote work successful.

As an individual

Take breaks: Perhaps one of the more obvious and simple practices those working remotely can adopt to boost productivity, mitigate work stress and improve work-life balance is taking daily (or more frequent) breaks. Stepping back from work and engaging with friends or family, exercising or taking a proper lunch can have a remarkable impact on work-life balance (+11), productivity (+7) and work-related stress (+7).

Surprisingly, only two-thirds of knowledge workers report talking daily breaks. This might be due to back-to-back meetings, caregiving responsibilities or an “always on” workplace culture. Management can really help here by either encouraging meaningful break taking or helping employees make more time for themselves throughout the day.

Plan the day: Only 35% of knowledge workers report planning their workday before they start working, but those who do see a significant improvement to their productivity (+7). Given challenges with avoiding distractions and staying motivated, setting a plan or goal for what you would like to accomplish in the day can help focus attention.

As a team

Say no to status meetings: Status meetings commonly clog up employee calendars. Over half of all workers report attending weekly meetings to share updates with their team, but rather than improving workers’ connection and camaraderie, they tend to do the opposite. Workers who attend status meetings report a lower sense of belonging (-3) compared with those who receive status updates in writing (+6). Moving updates out of meetings and into asynchronous digital channels can help free up time for more meaningful team conversations and rapport building.

Give kudos: Feeling valued and dedicating time to recognizing the contributions of others at least once every two weeks had the largest effect on workers’ sense of belonging (+10). However, only 1 out 3 workers reported having these types of celebrations at work. Not every celebration needs to involve cake. Teams should place more emphasis on ensuring that others know their contributions are valued, whether that’s acknowledging their efforts in a team meeting or sharing accomplishments via a company communication platform.

Don’t underestimate team building: Workers who participate in dedicated monthly team-building activities like retros, brainstorms or even games feel their sense of belonging improve significantly (+10). In remote work environments, these activities take on an added importance. They give newer employees an opportunity to build relationships and trust with colleagues, while strengthening existing team connections.

As an organization

Stay flexible: Workers who enjoy the option of a flexible schedule score higher across every element of the index than those stuck in a rigid 9-to-5 routine. The positive effect on elements such as work-life balance (+23) is not surprising. What is surprising is that those with flexible schedules scored nearly twice as high on productivity (+13) compared with those adhering to a standard 9-to-5 workday (+7) and significantly better for sense of belonging (–0.2 compared with –6).

Methodology

The Remote Employee Experience Index is based on data from a survey of 9,032 knowledge workers who identify as “skilled office workers” in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia. It analyzes the key perceptual elements of the working experience for 4,700 of the workers surveyed who are primarily working remotely. The survey was fielded between June 30 and August 11, 2020, via GlobalWebIndex, a third-party online panel provider, and commissioned by Slack. Results were weighted based on sector and population.

Footnotes

  1. U.S. Census Bureau, Average Commute Time, 2014-2018

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