Coronavirus compels companies to embrace remote working

As the working week got under way in the UK, executives were typically answering calls from home as they and their teams shifted to remote working.

Several of the world’s largest companies have already told office workers around the globe to stay home, including Ford, General Motors and Unilever. Royal Bank of Scotland advised office staffto work from home “to greatly reduce the number of people in our office locations, which will in turn limit the potential spread of infection”, said a spokesperson.

Others are testing their ability to move to wholesale remote working: on Friday, all 8,000 staff from KPMG’s London office worked from home and Lloyd’s of London closed down its underwriting room for the first time in its 330-year history.

Many of Britain’s businesses are going beyond government guidance on the pandemic, with flexible or full “working from home” policies becoming standard as they try to prevent large numbers of employees from contracting coronavirus.

“This is unprecedented,” said Ann Francke, head of the Chartered Management Institute. “It may change the workplace forever. Everyone will need to embrace a different sort of workplace behaviour.”

With the expectation that sustained efforts will be needed to deal with the pandemic, companies are preparing for months without their staff in offices, with meetings being cancelled or shifted to video conferencing. 

“I am acutely aware that these changes to our working arrangements will have a big impact on our lives,” Alan Jope, chief executive of Unilever, wrote in an email telling office staff to work from home. “These are unprecedented times . . . Stay safe, stay well, and take care.”

Some companies have started subsidising broadband costs and there is a shortage of laptops as firms bulk buy in preparation for homeworking among employees who normally work on desktop computers. Banks such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Barclays are installing teams at disaster recovery sites and trading facilities at workers’ homes.

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But the shift has not been without problems, as bankers worry about how they will be able to meet their clients and managers fret about how they keep staff motivated and productive at home.

Some see an upside to home working, admitting that coronavirus was pushing technophobe colleagues to embrace more digital working. One City executive said the outbreak had shifted a two-day meeting in Asia next month to an all day video call — something that made sense under any conditions. 

But she added that not all of her clients around the world had the right facilities to manage video conferencing, while less technologically-able colleagues were struggling to get to grips with their remote working platforms.

Ms Francke said that workers will need time to adapt to new routines away from day to day direct contact with their managers. She warned that working from home can become isolating and suggested that companies introduce new working patterns, such as daily checks with colleagues.

The CMI recommends picking up the phone rather than using email to stay in touch, for example, as well as setting boundaries between work and home by scheduling the time for breaks and deciding when the work day ends. “Get up and get dressed — don’t lie in your PJs all day,” advised Ms Francke.

Peter Harrison, chief executive of London-headquartered Schroders, the fund manager, said his company’s shift to home working had been made easier by measures already in place to encourage flexible working. 

He said Schroders had divided its 5,000 employees in 34 locations into two teams, alternately working from home and in the office — and set up the arrangement within three days last week.

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“Our staff can continue working in this new way with negligible disruption,” he said. “[Staff] decide if they are in a coronavirus vulnerable category, they decide whether they need to work from home or work. It helps protect our business operations but, most importantly, it keeps our staff safe and also helps control the spread of the virus.”

Bosses at smaller firms warn they do not all have the infrastructure that larger companies typically have in place, with one partner at a smaller London law firm saying that their company’s IT systems may not be able to support all employees working from home.

For many companies, sending staff home is not an option — with the retail, hospitality and manufacturing sectors facing a particular challenge from the coronavirus outbreak. Although manufacturers have yet to shut their production lines in the UK, some factories have closed in Italy, Germany and France. One senior manufacturing executive said that as well as the risk of workers catching the virus, there were worries about the pandemic’s disruption to the global supply chain. 

Retailers are now considering whether to shut shops that might anyway have fewer customers. “It’s a very challenging situation at the moment,” said a chief executive of a national high-street chain, who added that he expected to find out in the coming days “whether all of our shops will stay open, and whether enough of our colleagues will be in work to keep the show on the road”.

Additional reporting by Robert Wright


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