The Post-Pandemic Business World: Practices and Disparities

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by Chris Richardson, April 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an explosive growth in remote working around the world, from Beijing to Buenos Aires. Global business practice has had to change with the times. Yet rather than being temporary phenomena, the transformations that the epidemic brought with it would appear to be more permanent than could have ever been imagined. Since the onset of the pandemic one year ago, companies have found that much of their business activity can be conducted at home. They have also discovered that many of their employees are happy for this to continue. A recent survey indicated that 74% of business leaders are planning to retain large numbers of their previously on-site workforce in remote positions. Another study showed that only 50% of people in five big European countries will be spending every weekday in the office from now on. It is thought that a quarter of the corporate workforce in Europe will remain at home on a full-time basis. For business leaders, responding equitably to this new reality - across diverse locations - is an immediate challenge. This article considers the ongoing issues and open questions of this new era of remote working and looks at possible solutions.

 

Practical Terms

Working from home appears to go a long way in making employees happier, which is good for any business. One global study showed that meetings conducted virtually tended to be shorter in length, and more focused on the matters being discussed. Which would imply an increase in productivity. A survey in the United States suggested that employees were even willing to accept a pay cut in order to work from home. It was found that remote employees could make annual savings of up to $4,000, by not having the cost of their commute, their lunches and the other expenses that are incurred with being in the office every day. The employees surveyed were thus preferring work/life balance over money.

Pre-pandemic studies can corroborate this. A study in 2015 found that call center employees who worked from home were happier and more productive than those in the office. Due to having a quieter environment, they processed more calls and worked more hours. The number of sick days taken among remote workers was lower than those in the office. All that said, the same survey also found that most remote workers still wanted to go to the office every now and then. Mainly because they were in need of some face to face interaction with colleagues. The solution for business leaders would therefore appear to be some sort of hybrid working practice, with employees coming into the office on a pre-arranged schedule. Thus the time colleagues spend together becomes valuable to them, and may actually be more productive than before. An early example of this came in 2009, when the French/American telecommunications equipment company Alcatel-Lucent moved to a new corporate HQ in Paris. The new premises were considerably smaller than the previous building and were operated on a "hot desk" principle. Ultimately it was a cost-saving exercise, as much of the office space at the previous location was not being used due to employees being out of the office for long periods of time. This solution proved to be practical for employees and beneficial for the company's bottom line.

It would seem at first glance that the seemingly permanent trend towards remote working can bring benefits and satisfaction to both the C-Suite and their employees alike.

Known in French as “le télétravail”, in Spanish as “el teletrabajo” and in Japanese as "rimooto waaku", the practice of working remotely therefore appears to be the "new normal". Yet the business world is still coming to terms with this being a routine practice. The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies in every corner of the planet to operationally adapt, in a far quicker way than such decisions are usually made. This has left a number of ongoing key issues - the world over - that still need to be addressed moving forward.

First and foremost is the nature of the "duty of care" that the remote-working era brings with it. Clear policy needs to be created. It should cover everything from paying for an employee's internet connection and air-conditioning/heating, to the insurance liability of the employer should an accident happen in a home office location. At the macro level, it is not yet known how companies will uniformly monitor performance among remote workers, especially in contractual working situations. It is too soon in the cycle for remote procedures to be in place that address salary bargaining and discussions about working conditions between employers and employees. Some fear that it is easier for companies to fire remote workers than it is those in the office. Indeed, Governments in Europe are already being asked to draft specific workers' rights provisions for remote employees.

As already mentioned, regularly scheduled collaboration can be the perfect partner to remote working. This brings about challenges for large international companies, due to the disparity in the speed and roll-out of the various COVID-19 vaccination programs around the world. Companies do not usually have any control over vaccine access, as it is handled at the national Governmental level. No manager wants to put an employee at risk by unknowingly and unnecessarily exposing them to an infected colleague. In addition, it is not yet clear if an employer can or should mandate that employees must have been vaccinated in order to attend scheduled in-person team meetings.

At the same time, stark differences exist between countries and continents in terms of the level of vaccination. At the time of publishing this article, 83% of the COVID-19 vaccinations so far administered on Planet Earth have been in high and upper-middle-income countries. Only 0.2% of worldwide vaccine doses have been administered in low-income countries. Africa has the slowest vaccination rate of any continent, with many countries yet to start a vaccination program at all. This is frustrating for a regional manager based - for instance - in Paris, who has responsibility for company operations in multiple countries in West Africa. For it makes it impossible to apply harmonized measures and practices among employees in the region. The uncertainty regarding vaccine roll-out - seen even in a country such as Australia - makes for obstacles in global decision-making.

 

A More Nomadic Business World

Concurrent with the surge in remote-working is the increase in popularity - among employers and employees alike - of the "digital nomad" way of life. Digital nomads are individuals who choose a location-independent, technology-enabled lifestyle that allows them to work remotely in a country of their choice. Greece for instance will soon be launching a two year visa to attract digital nomads. Foreign nationals will be allowed to remain as a remote company employee of their home country but will instead be working at their residence in Greece rather than in their usual location. Employers favor this principle because it avoids overhead costs, while employees enjoy the stimulation of working in a new and exciting environment. Greece will require a minimum monthly salary level for all visa applicants, as well as proof of ongoing private international health insurance coverage.

The Athens Government likes the concept of digital nomads, because it means that the person is living - and thus spending money - in the Greek economy. Countries around the world - from Costa Rica to Norway - are adopting similar measures, for all the same reasons as Greece. Dubai now has a year-long program called "The Remote Working Visa" that can even be applied for on the spur of the moment, while the person is in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a tourist. The Dubai Government sees it as a way to contribute to the UAE’s position as a key global hub for investment and progress. As with Greece, a minimum salary and ongoing private health insurance are requirements for those who wish to apply. Governments that have yet to offer remote worker permits are keeping a close eye on the economic impact on those countries that have already decided to do so.

As with the general concept of remote-working, the advent of the digital nomad visa would not have emerged so quickly had COVID-19 not globally changed the way of doing business. Similarly, the challenges and obstacles for employers of digital nomads are entirely akin to those mentioned above in terms of the general remote-working employee population. International businesses have never before found themselves in such a place as they are now. For this is an unexpected scenario that has caught them off guard. The business world is in a unique situation, where strategy is taking a back seat to the large-scale policy-making that is needed in dealing with an immediate worldwide reality.

 

Global Disparities and Virtual Solutions

So while the international manager may well be overseeing happier employees, the challenge of providing equity and unity among a diverse group of remote workers is already in the here and now. Governments are working at their own pace in terms of both vaccination roll-outs and remote worker employment legislation. Which is causing fair and precise policy-making at the global corporate level to remain elusive for most businesses. Other kinds of programs that are independent of this can be helpful in instilling a measure of togetherness in a team that is working remotely in culturally diverse locations. International managers need to quickly find ways to remain effective and viable within the "new normal".

In some countries, managers can call on Government programs to assist with this. The city of Sydney in Australia provides public online workshops that provide local residents with a specific understanding of Southeast Asian cultures, along with practical insights into working with - and doing business in - the cultures of the Southeast Asia region. Such initiatives certainly serve to broaden the mindsets of the individuals taking part, which can only be a positive thing.

However, for today's international corporate manager, the development of harmony - and thus loyalty - in a global and remote corporate team is the immediate priority. Given the fact that virtual meetings and activities have become so commonplace, a digital learning experience can be a very effective - and timely - way for managers to achieve this. Any group of international remote workers is exposed to different and changing Governmental and health circumstances, depending on the location that each person may be living in. Such circumstances are out of the control of the manager. A team-oriented program that focuses on shared diversity dimensions at the internal, external and organizational level, can bring a truly meaningful level of cohesion within the group at a time of great transition outside of it. Such programs can create a unique Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) environment that is appropriate for each and every enterprise. This is especially relevant in this time of pandemic, when in-person team building exercises are still difficult to achieve equitably across diverse locations.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the Governments of the world are still catching up with the many and various types of legislation that are necessary in today's suddenly changing business world. This will happen, and it will be for the benefit of everyone when it does. Companies need to act in the immediate term to advance coherence and understanding among their remote workers. The pandemic has exponentially raised the profile and acceptance of virtual business practices throughout the world. It is the perfect time therefore, for international managers to fully embrace virtual learning and motivational tools. For this will enhance their chances of success in the post-pandemic era.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Richardson has lived in seven countries on three continents, performing both global and regional roles in the area of mobility and talent management. As Managing Editor of World Trade Resource, Chris has overall responsibility for the content integrity for 200 countries around the world for the World Trade Resource (WTR). He speaks French and German in addition to his native English. An avid traveler, Chris enjoys returning to the countries in which he has lived while every year also visiting a new country for the first time.