Preparing post-Covid graduates for remote and hybrid work
Beyond the technical content taught in business schools, our learning environment can also directly impact the sorts of capabilities that are developed over time (Akrivou and Bradbury-Huang, 2015). To what extent do we actively connect the two as a way of learning about working effectively in future workplaces, for example, when we collectively experience a major event such as the pandemic?
The pandemic is a case in point because it has led to the mass expansion of homeworking. Data from late 2019 suggests just over 5% of the UK population regularly worked from home (ONS, 2019). By late April 2020, and because of government decree, this had risen to more than 46% (ONS, 2020).
During this period, a strong and consistent employee voice quickly emerged from within those crisis homeworkers – the desire to retain remote work in the future. Only a minority wanted to work from home permanently, with the majority seeking a hybrid future where some time will be spent working from the office co-located with colleagues, and the remainder at home (Thompson, 2022).
For the most part, organisations have responded positively to the remote work demand, with many launching new hybrid approaches. Although most organisations are still at an experimental stage and with new Covid variants temporarily getting in the way of plans, there are no current signs that there will be a significant RTO (return to office) any time soon. The implications of this sizeable shift are significant and are not solely limited to the labour market. Cities, transport, the housing market, real estate– just a few of the areas that will shift and change around a different future of (home) work.
There are implications too for every employee – including current and future undergraduates. If the move towards hybrid work continues, today’s university students are likely to find themselves spending at least some of their time working remotely – and their year of pandemic online learning will not necessarily have equipped them for this challenge.
The post Covid-19 graduates may well be the first generation to undertake remote or hybrid work at scale, simultaneously finding themselves working for managers who are still learning to manage and lead in this new way. Some will no doubt be happy to do so, but regardless of personal preferences or abilities, employees may not necessarily have a choice whether to work remotely or not, depending on the future strategies of the organisations for which they work.
Skills for the remote future
Many of the skills that are necessary for remote working are not entirely different to those that are already necessary for professional success and could be aspects to highlight in business school education. However, some of them become more important and demand a greater or altered focus in the remote environment. Whether individuals are working from home all the time or just some of their working week, research from almost a decade ago had already suggested that there are there several core competencies for job effectiveness when working remotely. These are self-motivation, integrity, self-confidence, and good communication skills (Grant et al, 2013).
Critical skills for remote work also include:
- Relationship building. The ability to be able to form valuable and effective relationships, even when working virtually.
- Technology. Collaboration and communication using a variety of digital tools and techniques. We should not assume that because today’s students are digital natives, they can automatically use work-based technologies, especially when these have not formed part of their studies.
- Personal effectiveness. From time management to competence with technology, remote workers need to be efficient and effective – as well as self-motivated.
- Work life balance management. Determining effective boundaries and transitions between work and home.
- Communication. Mastery of a broad range of communication skills can compensate for the reduction of non-verbal communication arising from remote work. (Dyer and Shephard, 2001).
Challenges of remote work
Remote work, whilst desirable, is not without its challenges, some of which may be specific to a younger workforce (Wall, Cooper & Brough, 2021).
Although focusing on current workers rather than future graduates, during the pandemic those early in their careers (the so-called ‘Generation Z’) reported greater issues with creating appropriate workspaces at home, and difficulties with motivation and achieving work-life balance (Microsoft 2021). Half of those included in Generation Z in an Ipsos Mori poll also stated that working from home during the pandemic has put pressure on their health and wellbeing (Ipsos Mori, 2021). Many graduates and early career professionals may well still be living with family, potentially limiting their ability to create separate or personal workspaces.
Research prior to the pandemic considered the outcomes and implications of remote work, albeit much of it focused on completely remote organisations, individuals, or teams. It identified some challenges in relation to work from home that may have an impact upon future remote workers – and graduates particularly. Employees who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other employees between 2012 and 2017, when controlling for other factors. Employees who worked mainly from home were also over a third less likely to receive a bonus compared to those who did not (Ipsos Mori, 2021).
Remote work can lead to reduced visibility, which may be a particular issue for those at early stages in their careers. In the office, employees can get “face-time” with their manager and their colleagues, but this is lessened when working from home. Unfortunately, we can be biased towards those to whom we are in proximity. When managers see employees in the office - especially when they are seen working long hours - they will unconsciously believe them to be committed and dependable, even if they don’t have evidence on actual performance (Christea and Leonardi, 2019).
Working remotely is also associated with wellbeing challenges. Working online, especially undertaking long hours of remote meetings, has a high cognitive load leading to tiredness – or as well came to know it, ‘Zoom Fatigue’ (Bailenson, 2021). Working remotely can lead to feelings of isolation, where employees feel that they aren’t getting enough social connection. It can also be associated with working longer hours than might typically be undertaken in the office. Where individuals do not have effective boundaries between work several undesirable outcomes can result including burnout, work-related stress, and anxiety (Michel et al, 2013).
When we consider these potential issues, coupled with the typical challenges of starting a new job but with the added complexity of doing so remotely, future graduates will need strategies to overcome the specific challenges brought about by remote work. Business schools have a key role in developing the capabilities to enable graduates to effectively navigate these challenges.
The employability skills of 2019 may not now be as effective in a post Covid working world. Universities will undoubtedly need to consider preparing students for this future and help them to develop the relevant skills for future success.
The future of work is hard to predict from the position of the present, and the full implications of the global pandemic on working practices will take time to emerge. However, it is highly likely that many of the roles that were previously undertaken predominantly in offices will instead be undertaken remotely.
To be ready for this increasingly remote future, current students and graduates need to master the necessary skills for success, focusing on communication, personal wellbeing, organisation, and effectiveness. In a future of work that will certainly include increasing digitalisation, today’s students and graduates must also develop the ability to adapt to ongoing change. Universities can help to prepare students for professional success – wherever and whenever work takes place. Remote work is not only a skill for the future, but a subject to urgently include in employability programmes in business schools and Higher Education more broadly.
A future research agenda for remote working will need to consider the nature of the new hybrid model of remote working that has evolved in response to the global pandemic’s enforced working from home period, and specifically any career and professional implications for graduates and early career professionals.
Akrivou, K and Bradbury-Huang, H. (2015).Educating Integrated Catalysts: Transforming Business Schools Toward Ethics and Sustainability’, Academy of Management Learning & Education Vol. 14, No. 2 https://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2012.0343
Bailenson, J. (2021) ‘Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue’ Journal of Technology, Mind and Behaviour, https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000030
Cristea, I. and Leonardi, P. (2019) ‘Get noticed and die trying: signals, sacrifice and the production of facetime in distributed work’, Organization Science 30(3):552-572 https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2018.1265
Cooper, C. and Hesketh, I. (2019) ‘Wellbeing at work, how to design, implement and evaluate an effective strategy’, Kogan Page, London.
Dyer, C. and Shephard, K (2021) ‘Remote Work’ Kogan Page, London.
Gemma Dale and Professor Tony Wall CMBE are lecturers at Liverpool John Moores University.