Flexible & Remote Working (The Sequel): A Global Experiment

Flexible & Remote Working (The Sequel): A Global Experiment

10 Jul 20 9mins Jon Midmer


Two years ago, we wrote an article examining why so many leaders and organisations were still not OK with flexible and remote working (“FRW”) for office-based employees, long after it was perfectly feasible for it to happen. Our conclusion was that it boiled down to “a lack of trust between organisations and their employees, compounded by an inability to track performance.”

In March this year, the discussion moved into the mainstream when COVID-19 unceremoniously severed the umbilical cord of most professionals to the office. The result was the biggest experiment in FRW – with a heavy accent on remote – the world has ever seen. No matter how advanced organisations and employees thought they were as regards FRW, it’s clear that the new working arrangements have forced us all to reconsider how happy we are with it.

Having asked some of the most senior and respected leaders in the JMA community how FRW has worked for them and their teams during the pandemic, below we (extensively) lay out the pros and cons; consider some unanswered questions; and make some predictions for the future.


Business Continuity

Happily, the sky hasn’t fallen in: teams have shown resilience and commitment, and repaid leaders’ trust.

With everyone potentially available on video chat at short notice, we’ve had more regular meetings, which makes for quicker decision-making.


According to a recent survey published by Global Workplace Analytics, 77% of workers said they’re fully productive at home.

With less noise and fewer workplace distractions and ad hoc meetings, many said they’re able to focus much better than in an office.

Employees have proven they can be effective and manage their own workload, without micro-management.


Technology, particularly video-conferencing, in which many have received a crash course, has held up well and served its purpose in a way doubters would not have thought possible.

Equity & Inclusion

One of the upsides of everyone working from home is the fact decision-making has, by and large, become more intentional and inclusive.

Gone are the pre-meeting conversations at water coolers and situations in which the majority of a team were in the office and the minority are ‘dialling in’, struggling to hear, be heard, or be ‘in on the joke’.

Office politics have dramatically reduced.

The Human Element

Many commented how the last four months have humanised us, made us more relaxed and authentic.

Not only has it given colleagues a glimpse into people’s personal lives, it has encouraged us to develop the grace to accept children and pets in the background.

Working like this has not only sustained relationships, in many cases – in part thanks to quizzes, celebrations and happy hours – it has made colleagues feel more connected.

Commuting & Travel

The last four months have massively called into question the need for commuting, business travel and work-related functions.

Few regret the wasted time or expense, or the reduction in traffic and clearer skies.

The new FRW situation has benefited differently-abled workers who previously found commuting into work a struggle.

Shifts in Attitudes

For most, the stigma associated with FRW (and any undertones that it is a euphemism for ‘a sneaky day off’) has evaporated.

As a consequence, those who were already working flexibly and remotely feel less guilty and judged as everyone else has realised how productive it is.

As a consequence, it has gone from being a perk demanded by the few to a no-brainer enjoyed by the many.

Many have said the new working arrangements make life better: calls at 7pm are less bad when you know you can have breakfast with your partner or family at 9am.

Above all, it has caused us to re-appraise the need for meetings to be in-person.


Dream vs Reality

In early March, it took many a month or two to adjust to very different working arrangements, to find a space, rhythm and routine that worked for them and those around them, including incorporating breaks and exercise. This was as much for people’s personal wellbeing and mental health as it was for getting the job done.

‘Remote’ hasn’t always meant ‘flexible’: less senior colleagues have had to adjust their schedules around more senior ones, some of whom are in inconvenient time zones.

Not being able to leave the house has been constraining rather than liberating, and without a guide on how to handle the dislocation, many have struggled to set boundaries.

Many parents have found juggling home working and schooling a real challenge and very stressful, with some becoming physically and mentally exhausted.

Ultimately – unavoidably, maybe? – working from home has at times felt like living at work, with many realising for the first time how much they valued the separation of work and home.

The Human Element

Online-only communication makes it impossible for people to look each other in the eye, and deprives us of the subtle and important nuances of body language.

Many have missed bonding with colleagues over lunch or coffee.

One of the most common refrains was that it takes a lot of work to establish chemistry or an esprit de corps online, particularly with new colleagues or teams.

Inevitably, and sadly, there have been missed important birthdays, anniversaries and retirements.

Equity & Inclusion

Judith Olson, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has been studying distance learning for almost three decades, warns managers and employees alike against the emergence of a collective feeling of “blindness and invisibility” as they may feel “left out of the loop” with no input in decisions of any scale.

Well-heeled senior executives take a large house and home office for granted, but many do not inhabit such luxurious home working conditions and can feel resentful of others’ well-appointed situations.

In an international setting, employees with less confidence and / or linguistic ability who used to feel safe in an office environment and had great contributions to give now might clam up, finding online meetings harder to navigate.

Recruitment and Onboarding Challenges

Old habits die hard: you can successfully recruit people over Zoom, but there’s more risk involved and the majority of hiring managers would still like to meet a potential new recruit face to face before making an offer.

In an online-only recruitment process, it’s impossible for a candidate to get an idea of the hiring company’s culture as they won’t have experienced the ‘office vibe’, sometimes a clincher in the recruitment process.

Equally, you lose the opportunity to see how a potential senior hire treats the receptionist and executive assistants when they come in for interview, which tells you a lot about their character.

A concern voiced by many was that it is much harder for new recruits to onboard virtually, and it’s particularly challenging for those who are called on to make informed judgements about individuals and teams they’ve never met face to face.


Many Chairs and NEDs have said it’s extremely challenging, even impossible, to formulate company strategy online or on the phone, as it’s hard to engage everyone, debate sufficiently and read non-verbal cues.


While for some the solitude of a home office – even if it’s a bedroom – is great. For others, particularly extroverts, they are bored and frustrated by the lack of external stimulus and crave people to spark off.


The downside of technology is that we’re totally reliant on our and other people’s technology and internet connection holding up, which is beyond our control and often frustrating.

For some, the novelty of speaking to their colleagues at home is beginning to wear off: they are finding the informality and background noise of conference calls annoying.


The downside of more, intentional, output-driven meetings is a drift towards the transactional and away from the spontaneous.

If we’re not careful, a hands-off, empowering management style can easily drift into a lax and uncaring one.

Commuting & Travel

Surprisingly, perhaps, many people really miss the commute to and from work, which allows them to gear up for and decompress from the working day.

As time goes on, many people, irrespective of whether they have a partner or family, are beginning to miss the variety and stimulation of work functions and travel, particularly to overseas company operations.


The Long Term

At present, and for the foreseeable future, we are working this way because we have to. How many of us will want to continue in this vein long term?

When, presumably, offices are safe to return to, what will organisations encourage or demand face-to-face interaction for?

A Helping Hand

What team effectiveness-boosting guides and frameworks will organisations put in place around:

Maintaining a fun, informal culture that has been built up over many years when there’s little in-real-life interaction and no ‘open doors’ to walk through?

Enabling existing employees to lead and develop their careers flexibly and remotely if they wish to, while others return to the office?

Onboarding new employees and instilling in them the organisation’s behaviours and values if they can’t see them role-modelled by high-performing (often long-serving) leaders in real life?

Equity & Inclusion

How we do ensure that organisations are at least as, if not more, inclusive and welcoming of diversity if FRW continues in anything like the current form?

How can re remove any discriminatory aspects of FRW – particularly for communities for whom the last four months has been challenging, including working parents, carers and those with difficult home circumstances?

How do we ensure that FRW does not negatively affect people’s chances of career growth and advancement?

Health & Wellbeing

How do we prevent burnout and boost employee health and happiness?

Security and Legal Matters

Many organisations have pretty much ignored the legal and health and safety side of things due to the sudden nature of the crisis, but in a ‘new normal / reset’ who is liable for accidents at home / a ‘third place’?

How expensive will it be to provide the true level of security and insurance needed for everyone to work flexibly and remotely?

What’s our legal stance towards people who really don’t want to work this way?

How do we determine a job’s location and how much can we insist on employees’ physical presence?

The Built Environment

What will we do we do with our millions of square metres of unused office space?

What will this mean for the areas – particularly the cities – that house them, and the businesses and communities that depend on them?


Permanent Change

Many of us will never return to working five days in an office, or be expected to.

Now viewed as a right, not a privilege, there will be an expectation for FRW to continue, just with more thought and nuance behind it.

The need to be physically together in the same building will need to be justified by occasion / event / meeting. It is no longer the norm.

Organisations that don’t change will be left behind, and managers who don’t sign up to this will be seen as luddites.

As the office model changes, the number of breakfast, lunch and early evening meetings and events will dramatically diminish.

Blended Office Spaces

The ‘company HQ’ will be reserved for certain types of meetings (particularly strategy-setting, governance and culture-building) and functions (Creative; Design; Food Development; IT).

Large organisations will come under pressure to apportion a certain amount of their office budget to make it easier for employees who would prefer not to work at home or in the support office to work in a third place, potentially located near a convenient travel hub.

Younger Employees

We have heard that many under 30s – in many companies the drivers of the FRW revolution over the past ten years – would love to be back in an office environment for part of the week, and are disappointed to learn that offices will not reopen before the Autumn, or even next year.

Companies would therefore do well to consult their employees before dispensing with the office altogether.

Recruitment and Culture

Used imaginatively, a new approach to FRW will remain a powerful weapon to attract and retain top talent.

If companies bite the bullet and decide that some employees never again need to come to HQ, they will be able to cast their recruitment net wider, nationally and internationally.

This will also enable employers to recruit more inclusively as barriers to relocation will lower and visa and relocation pressures ease.

However, headaches are likely to emerge regarding how to pay and reward workers doing the same role in very different geographic locations.

Commuting and Travel

The need for regular commuting will dramatically reduce.

There will be a drift of office workers away from cities to the suburbs and more rural locations.

National and international business travel will fall to a fraction of what it was.


Even though the last four months of FRW have been thrust upon us, and many have been given very little guidance on how to succeed, it has, we believe, been proven once and for all that working away from the office can work effectively, albeit not perfectly, at scale.

We don’t yet know if what we’re currently experiencing is sustainable long term, or what a future alternative will look like, so it’s difficult to make definitive predictions.

What is certain, however, is that to ensure the post-crisis iteration of FRW is as successful as possible, company cultures are strengthened and employee wellbeing is maximised, we will need to think and act with courage, creativity and care.