The crisis surrounding COVID-19 has forced businesses to rethink the way they work. As a result, employers and governments have been given an unparalleled opportunity to restructure the workforce in order to maintain and expand flexibility in working arrangements into post-pandemic life, which may yield improvements when it comes to worker well-being, productivity and environmental benefits.

Against this backdrop, the Malta Business Bureau (MBB) recently commissioned a study with a scope to examine the economic and environmental implications of Work from Home (WFH), so as to identify measures that businesses can introduce into their daily operations and shed light on the environmental impact and cost savings these may imply.

The study employed a mixed-method research design including an employee survey and a qualitative assessment of insights drawn from open-ended responses by high level executives. Here, we reached out to external researcher and economist Dr Marie Briguglio, MBB Executive coordinating the study Gabriel Cassar, and MBB CEO Joe Tanti for their views on the findings.

WFH: positive or negative?

Dr Marie Briguglio

Reflecting on the results of the findings, external researcher and economist Dr Marie Briguglio explains that the respondents, who can be considered as experienced in WFH, “returned an overall positive picture on the effect of WFH on the sub-components of productivity and wellbeing, including the quality of the work they do, the amount of work they do per hour, time management, relationships with family members and their physical comfort.” In essence, she maintains, the data indicates that WFH can be considered a key determinant to work satisfaction.

The main advantages mentioned by senior executives and business owners when asked to consider the business perspective were higher productivity and focus, greater flexibility, less time wasting, better wellbeing, lower office costs and lower risk of COVID-19 transmission, she says.

That’s not to say that WFH is not without its pitfalls, however. According to the study, Dr Briguglio maintains, “we note the highest concern to be related to the negative impact of WFH on relationships with co-workers, supervisors and direct reports, as well as concerns about the way meetings were held.” Other barriers include the lack of a private space for work among some employees, as well as findings that high level managers tend to undertake less WFH, and to have less positive attitudes on its impact.

“The main disadvantages to working from home by senior executives were also considered to be decreased internal communications and human contact, loss of team dynamics, lack of control and lack of the necessary facilities when working away from the business,” the researcher continues.

Which segment of employees prefer working from home?

Gabriel Cassar

MBB Executive coordinating the study Gabriel Cassar affirms that while overall, respondents reported a positive effect of working from home, as was expected, certain types of employees showed a more positive perception of working from home than others.

“Though there were outliers on both sides, a more positive attitude was reported for participants who drive long distances to work, who have low job satisfaction, and those who work in face-to-face jobs which naturally provide less opportunity to work from home. Women also reported a greater tendency to prefer working from home than male respondents,” he explains.

“Although still positive on average, business owners and senior managers reported a less positive perception of working from home,” Mr Cassar continues, adding that on the flip side, those who are already working a high number of hours from home and those earning high incomes expressed a desire to spend more time at the workplace.

As for views on WFH within specific economic sectors, he maintains that businesses operating in sectors which are more office-based and require less regular face-to-face interaction showed greater potential to work from home. This includes, for instance, services sectors – aside from tourism, which has its own particularities.

That said, Mr Cassar notes, “the findings clearly show that working from home should not be an all-or-nothing solution for any sector. It is much more useful to consider the job in question rather than the sector the business operates in. This opens up the possibility for jobs in traditionally workplace-bound businesses to work from home, such as the marketing, accounts, and other office-based departments in tourism and accommodation businesses.”

“We must concede that working from home may not be feasible for certain jobs such as manufacturing, where employees need to be on the factory floor and operate machinery. Working from home in this case defeats the purpose of the job,” he adds.

A hybrid model

Speaking of a potential ‘sweet spot’ between working from home and office-based work, Dr Briguglio believes that Malta is particularly amenable to WFH, due to high internet penetration and digitalisation, a large services sector (including financial services) and a business landscape that is mainly composed of micro enterprises. “While it ranks among the top EU member states for teleworkability of employees, the key to optimisation is a hybrid solution, catering for diverse needs, balancing the benefits of WFH with those of office-based work. All or nothing is unlikely to be the solution in any sector,” she explains, adding that WFH has both positive and negative effects, and while several respondents desire more hours of work from home, there are many others who desire fewer hours.

“As WFH expands, certain measures may be put in place to overcome barriers and encourage successful transition. Suggestions gravitate around the issues of tackling employee isolation and relationships (through soft-skilling; offering virtual socialising time and repurposing office space for team-work and community-based hubs for example); assessing productivity (through clear goal-setting and task-tracking); and reaping the benefits from technology (by using online learning platforms, cloud-based filing, remote help-desks),” she continues.

Environmental benefits

Meanwhile, it must be noted that continued adoption of working from home measures can have a significant environmental impact, having the potential to reduce vehicle travel/emissions. “High kilometres of road per square kilometre of land, as well as vehicles per capita, problems of high congestion and greenhouse gas emissions point towards potentially large benefits from the reduction of car journeys,” Dr Briguglio says, while pointing out that, although WFH is associated with fewer car trips, greater modal variety and a lower likelihood to use petrol and diesel, the absolute number of car trips is still high among those who WFH.

“The vast majority of respondents report lower use of air-conditioning and printers at home, but many also report greater use of water. Maximising environmental net benefits would require rationalising work visits to reduce car trips, assessing water and energy efficiency at home and the office, and investing in solutions for comfortable, private and occupationally-safe workspaces at home,” she adds.

Economic impacts

As working from home becomes a permanent offer by businesses, it will naturally decrease the office space and number of desks they need – a situation which presents several opportunities, according to Mr Cassar. “For some businesses, it will mean opting for smaller offices, at perhaps lower costs. For others, this introduces the chance to rethink the way office space is used. One of the greatest concerns expressed by business owners and senior managers in our study is the reduction in team spirit and cohesion as workplace interactions decrease. Rearranging the office and providing places for socialisation when employees do visit the office could partially help address this,” he maintains.

Indeed, the results of MBB’s study show a link between the offer to work from home and work satisfaction. “Going forward, it is reasonable to envisage a situation where businesses increasingly compete for talent based on their remote working policies,” Mr Cassar notes.

Looking to the future

Joe Tanti

Based on the study’s findings, MBB CEO Joe Tanti reflects on whether Malta’s businesses are willing to embrace WFH measures in the long-term, affirming that it is encouraging to see that there is a general positive perception of working from home across employers and their employees. Affirming that it remains to be seen whether businesses will continue offering such possibilities going forward, he points out that “business owners and senior managers did report a less positive perception on working from home than their colleagues further down in the organisational hierarchy, [which] may prove to be a barrier since it is the former who, at the end of the day, are setting the remote working policies in their organisation.”

That said, the CEO continues, “from the responses and even from our discussions with leading businesses in Malta, many are keen to embrace the idea of working from home, and remote working more generally, even after the pandemic is over. Some have even invested to upgrade their infrastructure and office set-up to help facilitate this.”

Analysing what needs to be done to reach a situation in which Malta’s business leaders are ready to implement WFH measures permanently, Mr Tanti believes that it is clear from the results that business leaders are concerned over two things in particular. “The first is the impact that remote working will have on team spirit and cohesion. Communication and physical interaction between co-workers will naturally decrease as less people are at the workplace at any given time,” he says, and, in order to combat this, “we need to become more creative with the way office space is used to help facilitate interaction when employees are at the workplace, and also embrace technology which facilitates online team building and communication.”

The other major concern is a lack of control over what employees are doing, and the difficulty in assessing performance. “Here the study calls for a dedicated R&D effort to develop the right metrics and instruments for the business, including clear goal-setting and task-tracking, with a focus on measuring the quantity and quality of outcomes rather than just the number of hours worked,” he states.

Final food for thought

Interestingly, MBB’s study showed that a considerable number of respondents – 27 per cent, to be exact – do not have access to a private workspace at home. “Given our sample is relatively more well off than the national average, this issue may be more prevalent than this research suggests, presenting a key challenge for such employees wishing to WFH,” the CEO maintains.

In Mr Tanti’s view, this challenge may require innovative solutions to enable privacy and space when working from home, complementing the potential use of office space for meetings and social interaction. “An alternative solution could be a community-based response, centering around public or private work hubs available in several localities. This could address the issue of missing infrastructure at home, induce social interaction and increase the feasibility of walking or cycling to work,” he adds.

Finally, once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the CEO believes that future remote working solutions beyond the home could widen the options of places to conduct work, including from public spaces. “Naturally this would pose other challenges ranging from confidentiality, to safety, to estimating the cost of facilities, and generating further car journeys, requiring further studies in this area,” he concludes.

Want to know more? Access the full study by the Malta Business Bureau here.

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