June 23, 2021 [No. 87-2021]
Graduate School of Business and Finance, Waseda University, Japan
Visiting Research Fellow,
Institute of International Management, National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan
Remote Working in Times of “With-Corona”:
The Key to Improving Employee Performance from the Latest Research
#1: Understanding the Nature of COVID-19-Triggered Remote Work
1. Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Changed the Position of Remote Work?
The global outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) made 2020 a turbulent year. More than a year after the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization (WHO), the new virus continues to mutate and pose a threat to people around the world. It continues to rage in many countries and areas, including Japan.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s lifestyles and behavioral patterns. It is now “normal” to wear a mask when going out as well as to wash hands and gargle frequently. The transition to this new normal is evident in many aspects of work. Among them, “remote work” has been actively encouraged and introduced since the early stage of the epidemic in order to reduce the chances of physical contact with people and the risk of infection as much as possible.
Remote work is a form of work in which employees engage in mutual communication by using information and communication technology (ICT) and so forth, in a space away from the workplace (e.g., at home) without having physical contact with other colleagues. It is also referred to as telework, telecommuting, distributed work, or flexible work arrangements.
Remote work itself is not necessarily a new way of working as it had been seen even before the COVID-19 pandemic. In Japan, there were calls for government-led “Hataraki-kata Kaikaku” (work style reform) several years before the COVID-19 outbreak. Remote work, in particular, has attracted considerable attention from the government and firms, as it can be devised as a specific form of flexible work arrangements to materialize that reform. In this sense, even before the pandemic, remote work was functioning (or at least, beginning to function) mainly as a means of realizing “Hataraki-kata Kaikaku” in Japan.
However, after the pandemic, the nature of remote work has changed dramatically in terms of its status and significance. In other words, remote work has come to be positioned as a countermeasure against the virus infection and also as a means for business survival. Of course, the significance of remote work for companies and individuals, both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic, varies depending on the environment in which they are located (especially in terms of industry, occupation, location, etc.). It should, therefore, not be evaluated in a uniform manner.
Of substantive importance is the notable shift in remote work before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, whether or not both employers and employees adopted or used remote work depended largely on their own will – the use of remote work was, in principle, optional. Since the pandemic, however, both firms and employees have been forced to use that work arrangement in order to reduce the risk of a virus infection and to continue business in such a serious pandemic situation. Given that we have experienced the global shock caused by the novel coronavirus and become keenly aware that infectious diseases are a threat to humanity, it is very likely that remote work will take root in the future.
2. What Challenges Will the Shift to Remote Work Bring?
There is a research report that shows that BtoB companies have an advantage over BtoC companies when it comes to transitioning to remote work. Specifically, only about one-third of BtoC companies responded that their business could survive with remote work, while more than 50% of BtoB companies responded that they could (Insider Intelligence, 2020).
The challenges of remote work vary widely depending on the various conditions of the company, but there are probably two main types of challenges. The first is marketing issues in remote work, such as difficulty in acquiring potential customers, prolonged lead-time before receiving orders from the customers, and lower closing rates. One example is the increase in inter- and intra-departmental communication problems, the rise in difficulty in motivation management, and the emergence of issues in subordinates’ evaluation and training. Other important issues that need to be addressed include technical issues such as the internet communication environment and enhanced security.
In general, remote work issues that could not be expected in an offline environment can happen in “relationship management”, which involves (1) external stakeholders such as customers and business partners, and (2) internal stakeholders such as managers and employees. In this serial article, I will focus on the latter, internal management issues, and introduce the key findings of the world’s most advanced remote-work research being conducted and accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic. I will, then, explain how we can enhance the well-being and performance of employees to a higher level under the remote-work organizational setup.
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