Lessons from remote: will firms apply them for the big return?

Jessica Reeder at GitLab explores the benefit from remote work, including higher staff productivity, better work-life balance and less office politics.

One in three Britons has worked from home in the past twelve months, and in that time, we have learned some intriguing lessons. Now, with social distancing and exile from the office soon predicted to end, will these lessons be meaningfully applied by employers?

Office for National Statistics (ONS) data show that 36% of employed UK citizens worked from home in 2020. This is subject to change after the government’s social distancing review due next Monday, May 17th or alternatively, the June 21 target date for main Covid restrictions to be dropped altogether. But though employers may be looking forward to a big office return, in many ways, we can never “go back” to the office habits and dynamics of pre-Covid times.

ONS figures show that home workers started their days later, and worked later; put in more unpaid overtime; and took fewer sick days. This is in line with the findings of GitLab’s annual Remote Work Report, which surveyed 3,900 remote workers worldwide (including 800 in the UK).

However, the ONS didn’t track some of the data that may be most important: Are remote workers happy? More efficient? Given a choice, would they stay away from the office? Or will they gladly resume that commute in return for some face-to-face teamwork, networking opportunities, and office banter?

Our survey found remote workers, here or overseas, benefit by being more productive, avoiding office politics, and enjoying higher morale. Most of them are disciplined, keep a daily schedule, and take regular exercise. Though committed, they are pragmatic: If remote work was abolished tomorrow, a ‘hard core’ of around one-third (one in four in the UK) would look for another remote role. However two-thirds would bite the bullet and go back to commuting.

Intriguing questions on remote working arise around social contact: Only a quarter – and barely one in five British remote employees – makes regular time for their family and friends. Are they content to limit interactions with others in the spirit of getting work done? Not exactly. Our survey shows that remote workers everywhere are equally stressed about missing face-to-face contact with colleagues and properly ringfencing their work and their homelife. More likely in a pandemic, our social patterns have been redesigned in unpredictable ways.

But the data were troubling in that, even after twelve months of enforced working arrangements, less than half of the survey feel their bosses are properly sharing company goals and standardising communications. And fewer than four out of ten think their line managers properly share workloads fairly across projects. Worst of all, perhaps, one-in-three remote workers don’t feel a sense of belonging to their organisation.

The time to address these issues is now. After a year’s disruption, many UK big employers will allow some form of hybrid working to continue. But this seismic change to hybrid or all-remote working could cause difficulties if employers simply reinstate existing office-driven work processes: If they do, they will be creating two distinct, and unequal, types of work experiences.

Unless employers communicate their plans clearly to everyone and ensure that processes are fair to office and remote employees alike, people based in the office might once again be favoured over remote ones. ONS data gathered over nine years – and well before Covid – show that UK homeworkers are less likely to get promoted or earn a bonus. This time, given the successes of WFH in Britain and elsewhere, if effective and productive people settled in remote work arrangements are left out, they will likely become disenchanted and leave. 

As an all-remote company that’s prospered without brick-and-mortar offices since 2015, GitLab has found that it’s crucial to standardise processes and be equitable. We maintain an open-core handbook to ensure efficiency, transparency and consistency. While it may seem boring, transparent documentation is one of the most effective ways a distributed team can improve communication and productivity, and thus morale.

Regarding productivity, GitLab aims to manage teams by prioritizing desired results over hours worked. ‘Presenteeism’ can lead to toxic behaviours, including the long hours and apparent decline in social life we’re currently seeing in some UK homeworkers. Instead, we build a culture by encouraging informal communication for belonging and relationship building – and by allowing guilt-free, flexible work hours and paid time away.

These processes were not dreamt up on a whim; they’ve been proven over years of successful remote operations and they are publicly available in our company handbook. As companies transition to new working models – whether hybrid, all-remote, or office-first – we hope that sharing our learnings can speed a global transition to healthier and more effective distributed work.

Many UK workers may be yearning for the office and a drink after work – but the data confirm that remote arrangements will be missed. Employers will be wise to integrate what we’ve learned from 2020, and benefit from remote work’s higher staff productivity, better work-life balance and less office politics.


Jessica Reeder is Campaign Manager, Remote Working at GitLab. GitLab helps teams collaborate on software and project management. An all-remote company, it has 1300 employees in more than 60 countries and no offices. Its annual Remote Work Report is available here.

© Business Reporter 2021

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