Remote work and technology issues: How do we ensure tech equity for all?
While there have been plenty of positives worth shouting about, the transition to telecommuting for many over the past year has hit its share of snags along the way.
Following on from last week's piece on some communication challenges when working remote, let's look at remote work and technology issues affecting its implementation.
Remote work challenges impacting younger staff
Last week, we talked about the communication difficulties being experienced largely by younger remote staff in a study by Atlas Cloud.
That same study also identified a host of tech-related issues affecting employees in a similar age demographic. According to Atlas Cloud's findings, despite these issues affecting all age demographics to some extent, younger employees were more likely to experience:
- A decline in the effectiveness of work technology.
- Difficulty accessing tech support.
- Internet connectivity not being fit for purpose.
It's likely that these tech concerns played a role in the communication problems these remote workers also experienced. Given that modern remote staff rely almost entirely on virtual tools to communicate and collaborate, remote work and technology issues are inextricable to some extent. But, even so, it's important to make sure that employees aren't arbitrarily disadvantaged by things like demographic.
These findings also raise the question of why these issues are affecting younger employees more severely. It's possible that more senior staff are being given higher priority by tech support services (as shown in a moment), but it could also be that older staff are less bothered by the remote work transition, because they're simply more used to working with lower-tech setups. Cost and affordability of tools including internet connectivity undoubtedly play a role too.
Tech glitches have been a major obstacle for remote staff
Atlas Cloud's findings show that work technology effectiveness suffered across all age demographics. But, while older staff members reported decreases of 5% or less, employees aged 18-24 and 25-34 reported effectiveness decreases of 11% and 7% respectively. But, if you think those numbers are too minor to worry about, then take a look at this:
O2 Business surveyed over 2000 previously office-based remote workers, in a bid to understand how their experience of working life had changed. More than 40% stated they had still not received access to all of the relevant applications and virtual systems needed to perform their roles. Just under a third still hadn't been issued with a computer or laptop, and 45% did not have a means of video conferencing with colleagues.
This isn't manageable, nor is it sustainable. Success at remote work depends massively on the tools we use for it. Without technological systems equivalent to those employees would have in an office, it's unrealistic to expect remote workers to reach their full potential for engagement and productivity.
A lack of tech support for remote employees
With the obvious exception of not having a computer, most of the remote work and technology issues identified by the O2 Business study could be significantly lessened by accessible tech support.
Unfortunately, many remote workers aren't getting that, either.
The findings from Atlas Cloud show that the ability to access tech support was the worst affected aspect of the remote working experience, with employees aged 18-24 reporting a 17% decline. Even staff over the age of 55, who were the least affected group, were 11% less likely to be able to access tech support.
Could it be that younger staff feel a greater level of embarrassment in asking for tech help? After all, they are known as digital natives so there may well be a stigma around a seeming lack of knowledge or ability.
Poor connectivity is hampering remote work effectiveness
Few things are more irritating than being dropped out of a video stand-up because your router needs resetting. If the transition to remote work has highlighted any consumer issue in particular, it's the shoddiness of some broadband packages and providers.
WiFi effectiveness was down for 15% of 18-24 year-olds in the Atlas Cloud study. By comparison, only 3% of employees aged 55 and over experienced connectivity issues. The spread of this issue could be explained by the fact that older employees typically occupy more senior positions and earn more money. This means older staff can more easily afford better internet, and can live in more affluent areas with a more comprehensive rollout of things like 5G and high-speed broadband.
And, although it doesn't clarify age demographics, WiFi problems were even more prevalent in the O2 Business study. Almost half the respondents had unreliable internet access while working from home. O2's report also highlights the fact that employees finding their own informal solutions to tech problems can pose a risk to IT security.
Despite difficulties, employees want remote work
Given how badly remote work and technology issues seem to be intertwined, you'd be forgiven for thinking that, just maybe, the whole thing isn't worth it. But, despite all these issues and a lack of tech support, remote workers have proven themselves just as (if not more) productive compared to when they worked in an office.
And remote work's popularity seems set to endure, too. Despite the tech issues they also identified, 69% of O2's respondents reported that they felt adequately supported in the transition to remote work. More than 60% felt that remote work should be the default going forward, and almost 40% reported interest in a hybrid approach, mixing office time with remote work.
This is supported by Buffer's annual State of Remote Work report. Every year, Buffer's report finds that the overwhelming majority of surveyed remote workers want to keep working remotely to at least some extent for the rest of their careers. In 2020, this response was given by 98% of participants, and 97% would recommend remote work to others. The majority of respondents were full-time remote workers, and 70% overall were content with the amount of time they worked remotely.
Two things are clear: Telecommuting is popular and effective, but separating remote work and technology issues requires HR and managers to invest in a proper digital-first approach that enables employee support and communication.