The future of remote working

A New Challenge for Internal Comms 

About the author

Christine Virginie prepared this article for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash
Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash
Christine Virginie
Christine Virginie

On  March 31st 2020,  Microsoft  recorded  2.7  billion  meeting  minutes  experienced  in  Teams, an incredible 200% increase since March 16th in the same year.

Tower Hamlets Council purchased 2,063 devices since the coronavirus pandemic hit. This evidence suggests remote working is potentially here to stay.

However, as Peter Crush from Raconteur questions: ‘are councils and many other employers actually firing the starting pistol for a potential future problem, eroding the very essence of what it is to actually feel employed?’

What will futurology determine about working conditions and what are the knock-on effects to internal communications? We explore the potential and the considerations internal comms (IC) specialists must make if they are to play a part in the survival of their organisation.

The Ever Evolving Work Place

Is change something to be afraid of?  What we need to remember here is that change is not something new, it might be accelerated or in fact forced during these times, but it is not new. A long history of innovation exists in which opportunities to create better futures have been taken and prevailed. The UK is well into its fourth industrial revolution, with the potential impact to improve working practice through AI and automation allowing smart choices to be made faster than ever before.

Another,  and  unexpected  force  of  change  has been  the  global  pandemic,  which  has  caused  a rise  of remote  working with many  organisations considering this  way  of  working  as  the  new  normal, post-Covid. Whether this is a force for good or for bad has yet to be determined. Either way, change should be considered an opportunity to innovate so that society emerges in a stronger position.

Why  are  big  tech  companies  like  Facebook  and  Twitter  saying  their  employees  can  now  work  from home forever, rather than just a temporary measure? Even funding staff with the necessary tools. For Facebook, embracing remote working will enable the geographic diversification from its home in Silicon Valley. Founder Mark Zuckerberg claims that over the next 5 to 10 years, they aim to have half of their 48,000 employees in 70 offices worldwide working remotely. There are plans to build three new ‘hubs’ in which workers could occasionally meet.

What are the reasons for the shift in attitude? Remote working certainly came with its sceptics, with the long tradition of the insistence of ‘presenteeism’ and the perception that if your staff can be seen, they  are working. Sending everyone home  meant  leaders  had no  choice  but  to trust  their  people. It would seem this trust has not been misplaced. Since this shift to homeworking, numerous surveys have revealed increased productivity, with one Californian based company tracking a 47% increase in worker productivity. Could an increase of productivity be attributed to the social exchange theory, based on the idea that both parties abide by rules and norms of exchange that generate reciprocity.

So, in exchange for the opportunity to choose where one works and benefit from increased personal freedom, workers will  be  prepared  to  make  sacrifices  such  as  unpaid  work  or  work  harder  to  get  noticed.  There  are however, disadvantageous commonalities  emerging,  such  as  the difficulty  in separating  home  life  with professional,  the  social  isolation  and  the  risk  of  losing  professional  contacts.  For  many,  these  might outweigh the positives.

What Is The Future Of Remote Working?

The big evolutionary question; will the physical office be a remnant of the past? Will workers want to continue working from home? A Microsoft survey revealed that 82% of managers expect to have more flexible work from home policies post-pandemic. 71% of employees surveyed would like to continue working from home, at least part-time. For some, remote working was viewed as a temporary measure until office working can resume. One Harris poll found that only 35% of respondents have a dedicated home office and only 5% lived alone. These stats back up the notion that distractions, connection issues and the lack of ergonomic work environments have been common themes in the pain points of remote working.

“When working from home, I’m sitting at the dining room table. At the office, I could have a keyboard and two screens and a comfortable chair.” – Information Worker

Not to mention the social connection, team bonding and mental health implications of working in one’s own company for great periods of time. A Guardian article reported on an incident of a 23 year old who landed a marketing job with an online education company based in the Middle East. Living in a small house, in a small town, she initially thought working from home would be great. However, after four months of long days alone at the tiny desk in her bedroom, she had a panic attack. She had also lost weight and become depressed. “At first, I thought it was because the job was demanding, but I realised it  was  more  the  isolation and not  being able  to  interact  with  people,” she says. “I hadn’t realised I’d relied on that so heavily for my mental health.”

Despite all this talk of improved productivity from remote working, how sustainable is this? A London based  solicitors,  JMW,  brought  40%  of its office  staff  back  and  said  it  helped  with  productivity. Lee Adams,  a  partner  in  the  firm,  said: “The  number  of  ideas  that  come  out  when  you  have  people collaboratively  working  in  the  same  space  are  just  much  more  tangible  than  perhaps  emails  flying around or zoom calls that are a bit more stilted.”

Horizon Scanning

Over the next 0–3 years, it’s certainly looking like there will be hybrid working choices, which will foster win-win situations for both employer and employees. Figure 1 shows 57% would like the option to still work from home. Then there is the flip side that some employees will just not want to work from home.


Perhaps some are concerned about the safety aspect of the office environment. To overcome the social distancing fears, Cushman & Wakefield introduce the 6 Feet office, a conceptual idea to normalise the distancing rule, see figure 2. Their belief is workers can maintain social distancing while still creating an effective workplace. Considerations like this will become the norm in office design.

Cushman & Wakefield
Figure 2 Source Cushman & Wakefield

Office and wearable technology will continue to grow in an innovative fashion. UBM’s award-winning headquarters has become a beacon of best practice, with smartcard desk booking systems and plethora of ‘intelligent’ systems that will predict and operate autonomously. These advances will be one of the driving forces in the reason we go to the office. According to Gensler, employees want to be connected emotionally. Going  into  the  office  will  be  a  place  you  want to  visit  to be  as  much  about  tech disconnection as connectivity, for a space to think and nurture emotional connection.

Challenges Ahead For Internal Comms

Traditional IC used to be about communicating with all employees in one place, working the 9-5 pattern, with methods such as ‘Town Halls’ and newsletters. Using the basic form of communication between sender  and  receiver.   Then  came a seismic  shift, Justin  Harling,  CEO  of  CAE  Technology  said: ‘Coronavirus  meant  that  we  (CAE)  went  from  having  eight  company  offices  to  300  home  offices – overnight’. In its present-day form, IC is very virtual focussed in terms of daily check ins, team building, audience segmentation and in some cases, furlough comms.

IC used to be regarded as an afterthought once budget was allocated to external comms and PR. Now we find ourselves in an era in which IC is seen as a critical function, which, without successful execution, could be the cause of a demise of the organisations.

Why Has IC Been Catapulted Into The Limelight?

The COVID situation has certainly raised the profile of IC. While IC still needs to achieve its bread and butter  functions  of  keeping  employees  engaged  and  motivated.  It  has  never  been  more crucial  for everyone to know  what  is  going  on  and  that  they  are  not  on  their  own.  Without  this  torch light of knowledge,  uncertainty  creeps  in,  people  become  nervous  and  the  sense  of  togetherness will disappear. If this situation unfolds, how can any organisation move forward and continue to achieve its objectives. The workplace just brings about matters for consideration, perhaps not so prevalent before.

What Are The New Issues?

The  current  climate  presents  new  challenges  the IC  team  will  encounter. Each  element  needs to  be addressed to develop a successful IC strategy.

The Fragmented Work Place

With the future looking like a blended way of working, employees will no longer be in one place, for example, one team may decide to hire shared offices in one town for their team meets, while another may decide to conduct their team meeting using Zoom. With the workforce dispersed, there is not one physical space to exchange information.

Random Hours Of Work

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index tracked a change in the average number of Microsoft Team chats, which suggests  the  end  of  the  traditional  9–5  day.  Employees  will  find  the  flexibility  to  work  around  their lifestyles to enable a good work life balance and get to see their children grow up, instead of missing out on major child developmental milestones by spending long hours at the office.

Technological Advances

There are now so many different methods to send and receive information. Long gone are the days of the office notice board.  There is the option to email, create podcasts, communication apps and more sophisticated  intranets.  While  having  numerous  options  is  novel,  there  is  still  the  question  of  which ones will be most successful in conveying the message. As these technologies come with a price tag, they cannot just be implemented without some form of prior analysis.

What Are The Key IC Considerations For Successful Execution?

There are some key ideals which would be explored whether COVID happened or not. As basic principles are ever present and as discussed earlier, change is not a new thing. However, this wisdom about IC is echoed from comms professionals worldwide, perhaps just that little bit louder at the moment.

How many of you really understand ‘the why’ of your internal comms campaign…what is the problem you are trying to solve? Is it to unite the workforce or communicate the new strategy? Before the knee jerk reaction of jumping into tactics, really understand the why. Once you’ve established this, you can move onto the how and what. Knowing those elements will inform your channel choices and how you integrate them. Just randomly introducing various methods could become messy with the likelihood to fail,  not  to  mention  the  cost  implications. Imagine  embracing  the  next  generation  tech  to  develop lifelike avatars to share information in a hologram, but the key message not established or tailored.

Treat IC as you would external comms, get to know your workforce; not everyone is the same. Target your communications accordingly. For example, are you talking to employees with children at home, or someone living alone? Both will have very different experiences and needs.

Actively encourage engagement and create the opportunity for two-way comms. Gone are the days of the  message  and  the  receiver.  Create  the  art  of  meaningful  conversation,  use  techniques  that  build connection, belonging and trust. Perhaps the use of the nudge theory to encourage engagement by the addition of a fun element, which is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Go a step further perhaps, with the introduction of gamification.

Finally, set some metrics. Otherwise  how  will  you monitor and  evaluate?  How  will  you  demonstrate that  the  increased  engagement,  fostered  by  the  IC  campaign,  led  to  the  increased  productivity  and retention?

A  beautifully  illustrated  example  of  treating IC  with  the  importance  and  respect  it  deserves,  was  the award  winning, Make Today  Great  campaign  by Anglian  Water. The  campaign  demonstrated how  to execute  a  transformative  strategy  and  internal  engagement. The communications  plan  ensured that every  one  of  its  5,000  employees,  including  those  in  non-customer  facing  roles,  viewed  customer experience as part of their job.

Centre Stage Illumination

In  conclusion,  the  world  of  how  we  work  has  certainly  entered  an  accelerated  evolution  caused  by COVID. While there does seem to be an indication that remote working is here to stay in some shape or form, evidence would suggest that the longer term negative effects are on the horizon. Be conscious that the cracks in the woodwork will eventually sink the ship. Embrace a hybrid way of working, a mix of home and office work seems the most logical approach, creating a win-win for both employee and employer.

Since the start of COVID, IC has really shot into the forefront of every savvy CEO, creating a space for it on the Board. IC teams must grab this opportunity to revel further by practising and developing resilient issues  management  plans  to  account  for  the changes  in  this  new  fragmented  workforce.  This  is  the platform IC has been waiting for, to push its presence into centre stage illumination.