1.1 Research Background
The idea of remote working has been around for decades (see Felstead & Jewson, 2000; Bailey & Kurland, 2002). However hurdles around technology (i.e. IT, Internet Connectivity) coupled with worries over lower productivity stopped remote working from gaining significant traction. Though Bailey and Kurland (2002) who questioned employees at IBM found that 87% of employees who had been offered WFH arrangements felt that their productivity had increased. Though with this study there are several caveats to this positive result. Firstly, the sample size was those IBM employees who had WFH arrangements, only a small fraction of the total workplace, while the outcome on productivity was based on the employees own perception of their productivity which could differ significantly against what their managers believed. Later studies though did support the IMB conclusions, showing that an option to Work from Home (hereafter WFH) improved worker satisfaction and well-being which then linked in with better productivity and business success (see Aboelmaged & Subbaugh, 2012; Khin & Ho, 2018).
Remote work gained importance in 2020 given Covid-19 and the lockdown restrictions which were placed on the UK and other countries around the world. Part of the lockdown dictated those employees must WFH were possible. Prior to Covid-19, EU data showed that around 5.4% of workers WFH on a regular basis in 2019, with the number lower at 4.8% in the UK (Eurostat, 2020). UK data showed that by April 2020, 46.6% of the working population was WFH (ONS, 2020). This rose to 57.2% of workers in London given the higher percentage of business services (i.e. finance), roles which could be achieved in the home as opposed to others such as manufacturing in which WFH is not possible. Some smaller studies estimated up to 60% of UK workers WFH during the Covid-19 pandemic; also estimating that 26% of UK workers plan to incorporate some level of WFH permanently (Lilly, 2021). It is estimated that on average an employee WFH saves £44.78 per week in transport costs which shows the real benefits to the employee (Lilly, 2021). Many businesses will seek to become more accommodating to remote work options to appease employees and boost employee satisfaction. Some businesses have also cited that WFH allows them to reduce their office space requirements, and thus business costs as recently announced by Nationwide (see BBC, 2021). However the opposite argument is that workers work better in the office, and that remote work impacts negatively on collaboration and creativity, a reason why Goldman Sachs plans to demand all UK workers return to the office (Neate, 2021). Some businesses have made significant investment into their offices to boost morale and satisfaction and so allowing employees to WFH potentially puts employees in a worse environment; a more chaotic environment which overtime would reduce productivity.
The NHS has also become more flexible with remote working practices in a bid to improve the well-being of those employees whose role allows for remote work. This research will focus on the experience of Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust to better understand the opportunities and challenges faced by employees who have moved onto remote work.
Though there is growing consensus that long-term there will be a significantly higher number of workers in the UK choosing to WFH to some extent, much higher than the 4.8% estimated pre-Covid. Thus updated research must be undertaken to diagnose the opportunities and challenges faced by those who have moved to a remote working model.
1.2 Research Objectives
The research aim is to understand the main opportunities posed by the remote working model, and diagnose the challenges which will then allow businesses to make an informed decision on their WFH policies as Covid-19 restrictions are ended. This aim can be split into several research objectives, namely:
- Understand the main drivers of a remote working model from the perspective of the employee and employer.
- Evaluate the main opportunities to come from a remote working model.
- Diagnose the main challenges to come from the remote working model.
- Determine how this has affected staff morale and the relationship between line managers, direct reports and teams.
2.0 Literature Review
Given the context of the extraordinary Covid-19 pandemic, existing knowledge on remote working can be questioned. Given Covid-19 there has been a significant expansion of research into remote work practices. Wang et al (2020) has been one such study, focused on China with a semi-structured questionnaire completed by 522 employees who at the time were WFH. This mixed-method investigation identified four challenges (namely work-home interference, ineffective communication, procrastination, and loneliness), coupled with four workplace characteristics which impacted on these challenges (social support, job autonomy, monitoring, and workload) and finally one key individual difference factor which impacted on the success of WFH (being workers’ self-discipline) (Wang et al, 2020). It is important to mention this study here as the breakdown of results suggests that challenges to remote working practices can be overcome through a combination of efforts by both the employee and managers. Central to the success of WFH is not only efforts by the business, but also the workers self-discipline. Thus, the structure of this chapter will be split based on the perspectives of (1) employees and (2) managers.
2.1 The Employee Perspective
Remote working offers the greatest opportunities for employees given the flexibility it presents to a work/ life balance. The opportunity is greatest for those employees who currently have the greatest commute to reach their place of work (Boselie, 2014), though flexibility would also be appreciated by those employees who have a difficult work/life balance to maintain with childcare and other family commitments. Shin et al (2000) commented that the catalyst for WFH has been the desire to give employees a true work/life balance which boosts productivity. This has proved elusive in the past due to insufficient technology. The issue of technology, or lack of technology features less in more recent studies, with many studies conducted during Covid-19 positive over the ability of technological innovations ability to replicate the office experience at home (Jallow et al, 2020; Shareena & Shahid, 2020).
Back in 1999 Bailey and Kurland commented that WFH could be detrimental for businesses as employees become too informal, with the researchers suggesting that the daily commute serves as a “Warm-Up” period in the morning and a “Cool-Down” period in the evening which creates this differentiation between work and homelife (Bailey & Kurland, 1999: 53). A few years later Berke (2003) concluded that the home “is not a peaceful environment” and so the productivity levels would suffer. De Cieri et al (2005) agreed with a study conducted in Australia between 1997-2000, showing that while Australian businesses were failing to provide employees with a work/life balance the opportunity for remote work, or WFH was not considered acceptable by many organisations. Partly this was because many roles cannot be conducted at home, such as service industries/ construction among others, while the second reason was because businesses had invested heavily into the office environment and into equipment such as IT which at the time couldn’t easily be taken home. The commonality between these earlier studies is that remote work was not seen as a viable option.
Spurred by globalisation, the attraction of virtual teams grew with businesses able to grow teams with less attention placed on geographical location, ensuring that the top talent was recruited to ensure business success (Gilson et al, 2015). Though this expansion of virtual teams required new focus on leadership. The viewpoint on WFH has changed in later studies, aided mainly be technological innovations. Remote working can remove this daily commute and give workers more time at home (Barrero et al, 2021), though this goes against the comment made by Bailey and Kurland (1999) that the commute was essential to split work from homelife and create a change in attitude from workers from the informal to formal. Thus there is a direct link between remote working and wellbeing. To Krekel et al (2019), increased employee wellbeing has a positive link with employee satisfaction and productivity. Crane (2017) also reports a positive link between wellbeing and revenue, thus businesses which have a happier workforce are more profitable than peers. Both Bloom et al (2015) and Fonner and Roloff (2010) reported improved work satisfaction in employees who WFH, leading to considerably lower attrition levels which ensures better performance. Troup and Rose (2012) questioned 856 telesales workers in Queensland, Australia. What was interesting in this study was how the outcomes of WFH differed widely between employees based on individual circumstances. Thus there is no blanket outcome which is optimal for all, and thus WFH arrangements must be considered on an individual basis. Deshpande et al (2016) also identified that the challenges faced by remote workers can differ based on the type of role. Specifically, Deshpande et al (2016) focused on agile teams whose success can be based more on the speed at which innovation and creativity is funnelled through the business into products/ services. Remote working increases the distance between workers and hinders communication. Thus this level of collaboration is more at risk from WFH as opposed to other industries such as telesales where the worker may spend a large portion of their day working alone.
Kylili et al (2020) has recently presented several opportunities for remote work within European cities, specifically around labour mobility. Having the option to WFH allows the business to consider a wider pool of talent not restricted by geographical location. For the employee WFH also means that they are not forced into relocation for a job role, pushed into urban centres such as London which have become unaffordable due to rent increases. They have the option to live in a better location, improving their mental health and wellbeing. A similar argument can be that WFH gives the employee more choice over living arrangements which best suit them, rather than best suit their job (Chimote & Srivastava, 2013).
Flores (2019) undertook research into remote work, with 43 surveys sent out within Pearson Peoples Services. The results uncovered that the main challenge was the separation of work and home life, followed by the development of colleague relationships, being fairly evaluated and being updated on corporate developments. Flores (2019) linked these challenges to the reliance of home workers on emails for communication, creating more isolation when compared with a traditional office environment. Earlier results from Abdelkader (2014), who studied in Egypt, concluded on similar challenges, namely issues related to proper supervision and evaluation followed by the development of workplace relationships. Abdelkader (2014) also noted the challenges related insufficient ICT within Egypt and poor Internet connections, however later studies do not feature similar challenges with ICT given advancements in technology. Covid-19 has prompted a mass improvement in ICT, Internet Speeds and virtual systems which has benefitted remote working.
Remote work indeed provides employees with more flexibility to match their work commitments with life commitments and family-related needs (i.e. childcare). Bernstein et al (2020) concluded that WFH reduces stress, allowing for mental wellbeing to be prioritised. However there has been a growing number of studies who have identified how WFH can have detrimental impacts on three key elements; namely work/life balance, health and performance (see Allen et al., 2015; Beauregard & Basile, 2016; Boell et al., 2016; Eurofund., 2020). Each element is connected to each other. While WFH provides employees the opportunity to improve their work/life balance, not all employees are successful. Chesley (2014) cites how WFH can lead to an intensification of work, pushing employees to work more hours which encroaches into their homelife, creating irregular and unpredictable working time patterns, thus accentuating precisely the opposite of work-life balance. The intense use of communication and information technologies can have a detrimental impact on employee health. This may be from too much ‘Screen Time’ which could lead to eyestrain, or it could be seen with higher levels of anxiety, fatigue and burnout which can be linked with the unpredictable work hours and an intensification of work encroaching onto homelife (Eurofund, 2020). The third element is performance. Given the possibilities related to a deterioration in health mentioned by Boell et al (2016), it would be expected that employee performance would fall over time. WFH may also push employees to work even when they are sick and would in the past have taken a ‘sick day’ from the office, being more detrimental to health and seeing a reduction in performance (Eurofund, 2020).
Loneliness is also a common theme in many previous studies which have considered the negatives of remote working (see Koehne et al, 2012). Again personal circumstances may determine the actual outcomes for individual workers; however it is plausible to consider a single worker who lives alone suffering from heightened loneliness due to WFH arrangements (Moss, 2018). Kłopotek (2017) surveyed young workers in Poland and found social isolation to be a challenge. Dery and Hafermalz (2016: 109) was another researcher who commented on the loss of social connections with WFH, saying “they struggle with maintaining those ‘informal’ connections with the organisation that are typically associated with building a sense of belonging.” A common theme is evident here around loneliness and loss of social connections, one which would be expected given that remote working removes the worker from the office environment.
A key point to infer from this section is that remote work has both positive and negative outcome for the employees, cited by Chi et al (2021). Their study demonstrated WFH to be a double-edged blade with a positive being higher levels of vigor, while the negative being that WFH magnifies burnout given that WFH interferes with homelife. Furthermore, WFH suppresses the positive effect of dedication and amplifies the negative effect of burnout on turnover intentions (Chi et al, 2021). To overcome some of these challenges’ management intervention is required, touched upon in the next section.
2.2 The Managerial Perspective
Above the main benefit for the employees has been the opportunity to achieve a better work/life balance and boost their wellbeing. This benefit feeds through into a benefit for the business due to better productivity. The recent boon in WFH has been driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, government restrictions and the desire by businesses to reduce worker contacts and stem a rise in Covid-19 infections among the workforce. However earlier studies have identified other benefits to WFH, some of which have been mentioned in the previous section. It can be argued that WFH employees can be more productive because they can choose to work during their most productive times, not being distracted by office socialising and co-workers, and endure a reduce commute time (Golden & Veiga, 2008; Martinez-Sanchez et al., 2006; Tremblay & Genin, 2007).
Bloom et al. (2015) report on a Work from Home (hereafter WFH) experiment undertaken at a Chinese company of 16,000 employees, with the WFH opportunity leading to a 13% increase in performance. Khotimah et al (2021) also replicated similar results with a study which questioned employees of an Islamic school. However there is always a counterargument to consider. When Purwanto et al (2020) studied the performance of Indonesian teachers when asked to WFH during Covid-19 it was seen that some saw a severe reduction in performance given poor access to Internet plus reduced levels of motivation due to being in the home environment. Downes and Koekemoer (2011) conducted 15 semi-structured interviews with professionals from the financial sector. While it was reported that the opportunity to have flexitime work practices benefitted employee loyalty and commitment, and with that productivity, it was also seen in the responses that there were challenges for management around maintaining productivity in the long-term, overcoming a shortage of critical resources (i.e. IT equipment) and ensuring that employees understand flexitime.
However Peters et al (2016) cited a challenge around workplace culture, specifically the loss of workplace culture in those employees who WFH. This loss of workplace culture also featured as a central conclusion in research from Phillips (2020). A survey conducted by the CIPD (see Houghton, 2020) touched upon a similar issue when concluding that increased levels of WFH required managers to quickly set new boundaries around working practices for their employees. If not, then employees can slip into their own routine which becomes out of sync with the business. The CIPD cited that the adoption of collaborative technology had improved team dynamics, boosting communication and ensuring a concise team culture is retained even with remote working (Houghton, 2020). Howard-Grenville (2020) matched Houghton (2020) in showing how businesses needed to become better at regular digital communication with all employees to ensure that all followed the same workplace culture.
Both Golden and Raghuram (2010) plus Taskin and Bridoux (2010) studied remote work practices, finding that the business suffers as employees being more disengaged from the business culture, and less sociable with colleagues which specifically impacts on collaboration and creativity internally. Charlampous et al (2019) cited the risk that those WFH can become isolated which over time impacts on their mental health and satisfaction within work. Earlier work from Leslie et al (2012) noted how isolation can be driven be less exposure to business development and training opportunities, making employees fell disconnected from the business and unappreciated and uncared for. Over a period of time this leads to lower employee satisfaction as they miss out on chances for growth. Back to the CIPD survey, Houghton (2020) found that while collaborative technology boosts communication, louder individuals can still dominate online meetings, while less vocal members of the team tend not to contribute. Over a prolonged period of time, these less vocal members of the team can become disengaged and dissatisfied.
Another major issue for businesses is that remote work creates the need for VPN’s and other external connections to be used which opens up the business to risks around cybercrimes and cybersecurity (Ahmad, 2020). Malecki (2020) also commented on cybersecurity, though noted how businesses can take actions to quickly overcome this challenge through better virus protection and better communication with employees to avoid scam emails.
3.3 Literature Summary
The reality of remote working practices can be summed up in the following statement from Bick et al (2020: 2) “done right, remote working can boost productivity and morale; done badly, it can breed inefficiency, damage work relationships, and demotivate employees.” There is no optimal approach with fits all employees. During Covid-19 many people have been forced to WFH due to restrictions, however this doesn’t necessarily mean that remote work is the best solution for all in the long-term. However what previous studies have shown is that changes can be implemented to overcome challenges. Early issues with ICT have been overcome due to innovation in the marketplace, with recent developments of Zoom and Microsoft Teams vital to support the recent surge in WFH due to Covid-19. It shows that once highlighted, challenges can be overcome. Table 1 below details the key opportunities and challenges of remote working which have been cited in previous studies:
Table 1 – Summary of key themes from previous studies.
|Save time through less commuting||Maintaining workplace culture|
|Better work/life balance||Separation of work and homelife|
|Reduced stress||Development of Colleague Relationships and Collaboration|
|Higher employee commitment and trust||Reduction in employee motivation|
|Higher employee satisfaction||Workplace security (i.e. Internet/ Email security)|
|Hire workers without geographical location being seen as a constraint. Hire the best talent.||Mental health issues around isolation|
|Maintaining workplace collaboration and creativity|
Alone, the sample size of each study is too small to have generalised results for the whole of the NHS. However by presenting these studies with each other commonalities can clearly be seen. Issues related to technology, noted more in older studies could have been solved given recent developments (i.e. faster Internet connectivity, Zoom, Microsoft Teams). Though challenges remain on workplace relationships, supervision, evaluation as noted within several studies over a prolonged period of time. Given that the same themes are evident in studies taken place over different time periods, as well as different countries the expectation is that similar results would be replicated in this study. However one limitation of previous work is that it is bias towards telework, an industry which has been heavily featured in previous studies given that it could be largely completed at home with limited technology. However since Covid-19 the types of roles which can be conducted at home has increased, aided by IT and other innovations, meaning that the current body of work is overly focused on one sector and thus making it difficult to assume that the same results would be present in other sectors such as the NHS in the case of this research.
The methodology chapter will be structured around Saunders et al (2009) ‘Research Onion’ as shown in Figure 1 below. Figure 1 details the choices made for this research.
Figure 1 – Research Onion – Developed from Saunders et al (2011)
3.1 Research Philosophy
The term research philosophy refers to a system of assumptions related to the development of knowledge, with the choice here between positivism and interpretivism. Positivism is focused on scientific enquiry, with knowledge determined though tests (Saunders et al, 2009). Interpretivism is the opposite, based on the assumption that actors all have their own, individual experience; thus react to an event differently (Bell et al, 2018). These actors are seen as complex and so the main argument from interpretivists is that research must gain opinions and subjective viewpoints from a large enough segment of the total population to be able to make generalisations for the whole population. This can sometimes be a limitation of studies, being that the sample is too small to capture the total population. However the overcome this limitation the researcher has focused their study into Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, a subset of the total NHS population. Interpretivism is the chosen philosophical approach.
3.2 Research Approach
Next, attention is on the research approach. The choice is between deductive or inductive (Patten & Newhart, 2017). The deductive approach is where the research initially uses past studies to develop a hypothesis(es) which can then be tested (Walliman, 2019). Thus a deductive approach is more suited when there is sufficient past literature on the topic to help form a hypothesis. It is true there is sufficient past studies on the topic of remote work, however the researcher felt that Covid-19 has been a seismic change in the topic, leading to improved innovation around technology (i.e. Zoom/ Microsoft Teams) as well as a shift in the mentality around WFH practices, making them more acceptable. With these previous studies could be outdated, making it difficult to form hypothesis(es) to test. Instead an inductive approach is chosen, whereby the research initially focuses on the collection and interpretation of data which can then be used to formulate conclusions (Walliman, 2019).
3.3 Research Strategy
The research strategy can now be considered which Bell et al (2018) refers to as a ‘plan of action’. The researcher understands that primary data needs to be collected to understand the behaviour and opinions of actors. The target has been chosen in Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust. Focus in this organisation is on roles which can be completed remotely, more towards the office-based employees and senior management. This reduces the total population to sample. The choice is then over how the data collection would be administered; either self-administered by the participant or completed with the researcher as the lead (Bryman, 2016). Given time constraints, the fact that many of these employees may still be working from home, plus Covid-19 the researcher decided the best approach would be a self-administered questionnaire which the participant could complete at a time and place best suited to them. Table 2 provides the rationale to choose questionnaires over interviews.
Table 2 – Choice between interviews and questionnaires.
Within the questionnaires there will be a mix of closed and open-ended questions, meaning that the collected data will be both qualitative and quantitative, thus mixed as written in Figure 1. Quantitative answers will come in the form of YES/NO or Likert Scale answers (Hennink et al, 2020), with the researcher able to present these answers in graphs to show the average score. Open-ended questions will allow the participants to provide more details over the HOW/WHY, thus collecting qualitative responses. The researcher will use thematic coding as a technique to find commonalities between the responses which can help form conclusions (Hennink et al, 2020). Once the researcher has become familiar with the data collected the process will move to search keywords and patterns. This will form the codes which can then be grouped further together to determine key themes.
3.4 Research Ethics
Ethics must be considered in all research, even research when there is no participation or primary data collection. Firstly the researcher must still ensure that they meet the robust ethical standards set out by the University. The researcher does not want to be presenting misleading or false statements and so when it comes to the literature review the researcher is focused on using peer-reviewed journals and trusted online sources which have provenance (Oliver, 2010).
Ethics must also be considered with the data collection process. Firstly, while personal data needs to be collected to communicate with the participant and facilitate the questionnaire process (i.e. names and email addresses), none of this personal data was held afterwards, immediately deleted by the researcher in accordance with GDPR regulation. No personal data needs to be input into the questionnaire, while the results within the work will be combined into key themes meaning it would be impossible for anyone other than the participant to identify a single person (Oliver, 2010). Questionnaires were sent well in advance with two-weeks to complete allowing participants the chance to complete at a time best suited for them. The researcher was contactable allowing participants to ask any questions needed.
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