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Remote work has become the new normal during coronavirus pandemic.

AleksandarNakic/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Two weeks into the coronavirus lockdown and Sergei Holmeckis, a boss at Deutsche Telekom AG’s Czech operations in the city of Brno, was frustrated with staff video calls. His team didn’t like turning on their cameras and the discussion was stilted.

“I started to show them my cat,” Mr. Holmeckis said. “It showed the human side of me more and really changed the perception. It got people to switch on their cameras and be more engaged.”

Such tactics obviously won’t appeal to everyone. But they do show how the world’s biggest experiment in working from home is forcing managers to reassess their methods – especially as surveys predict higher levels of remote working postpandemic.

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Before the new coronavirus began spreading, just 2.9 per cent of the world’s employees were working exclusively or mainly from home, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a Geneva-based United Nations agency.

Within weeks, that figure exploded as physical distancing forced companies to launch telework schemes. An Argentinian study found that 93 per cent of large firms had turned to telework; in Britain, half of all employers said that by late-April the bulk of their staff were working from home.

The exercise was often chaotic, with scant regard for what tasks could be performed at home. Many workers faced cramped living spaces or had to juggle the job with children grounded by school closings. Others felt isolated.

Yet overall reactions have been broadly positive. Surveys in the United States and Britain have shown more than three-quarters of companies expect to offer more home-working after the pandemic, with staff citing benefits such as greater work-life balance and claiming they felt just as productive as in the office.

Twitter was among the first to declare that working from home would be a permanent option, while the head of Barclays bank suggested that “putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”.

“This is a revolution here and we don’t know what the end result will be,” said Jon Messenger, an ILO expert on working conditions who has traced the history of telework since it first emerged in the mid-1970s with the label “telecommuting”.

“Managers in the past have been very unwilling to do this because of the loss of direct control over subordinates ... it requires a totally different approach to management.”

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Mr. Messenger argues the new approach implies, above all, a shift toward greater results-based performance appraisal while allowing employees more scope to organize their work time.

But while various studies link “time sovereignty” to productivity benefits, some companies find that hard to take on board. Developers of employee-tracking software – which for example send managers screenshots of their staff’s computer screens – are currently reporting a surge in sales.

Companies where tasks are hard to quantify argue that some form of monitoring is essential. But workplace experts warn that excessive surveillance can be counterproductive.

“Employers risk damaging the relationship if they are treating staff like children,” Ben Willmott, head of public policy for the CIPD body of human resources professionals.

The rise over the past decade of collaborative software has made teamwork from separate locations easier, weakening the argument made in 2013 by former Yahoo! boss Marissa Mayer that teleworkers were seen as a “drag” on office-based colleagues.

But such tools still leave many employees with a sense of disconnect and lack of structure in their working lives. Just as Deutsche Telekom’s Mr. Holmeckis did by using his cat as an ice-breaker, managers will have to learn how to bridge the distance.

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“There is a risk of people disengaging. A lot of the conversations are operational, about tasks: low on empathy, low on personal support,” said Octavius Black, whose company Mind Gym offers workshops on remote management skills.

For now, the world is not far enough into the mass telework experiment to know how it will change work patterns or even what the real impact has already been on productivity.

It is also unlikely to be representative of how companies and employees will use telework when the health crisis abates.

Assuming that lockdowns do not have to be reimposed to prevent a second wave of the virus, ILO’s Mr. Messenger suggests that telework will become more widespread but in a watered-down form – optional and not for the entire working week.

“The sweet spot is about two or three days a week,” he said. “Then you won’t have so many of the downsides.”

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