Authors: Katarzyna Komorowska, Michał Balicki, Bartosz Siwiak
How employers will approach the issue of remote work when the pandemic is over remains an open question. What forms and models of working will be preferred by both employees and employers once the pandemic-related restrictions are lifted?
Remote work has appeared on a massive scale in the Polish economy not by choice, but in many cases it has been enforced by the COVID pandemic. The commonly used solutions and the work model in its current form and scale have not been previously provided or regulated under Polish law. Although remote work was introduced into the legal system by the COVID acts, the legislator defined and regulated this area in a very laconic way. As a result, it is employers that faced the challenge of having to resolve practical and legal doubts and inconsistencies. So what can be done to introduce, regulate and carry out work well under a remote or hybrid model? How does remote work affect an organization, employees and business in a broader perspective?
Remote work is not regulated under the Labour Code. The Code only provides for the concept of “telework” – in practice, it is a solution that is not well adapted to business needs and, consequently, it is not particularly popular with employers. Therefore it is the employer’s duty to regulate the issue of remote work based solely on the laconic provisions of the COVID acts. Most employers decide to introduce internal regulations in this regard based on rules of flexible work. Furthermore, when preparing such regulations, it is worth reviewing the safety of the practice to date, that usually was worked out in the early days of the COVID epidemic, when the main priority was the safety of employees, which sometimes overshadowed the legal safety of the employer.
Clearly, what requires regulating is, among other things, not only handing over IT equipment but, in certain cases, also office equipment, OHS and the potential liability of the parties. Additionally, issues of how the employer agrees with an employee on working remotely, which home office days are available to each team, or how an employee should connect to systems outside the office are also important. It is important to take into account not only the perspectives of the employer and the legal regulations, but also employees’ preferences. Remote work is the most frequently chosen form by the youngest generation of employees – the so-called “Generation Z”. However, employees most often point to a hybrid model – working remotely for 2–3 days a week - as the preferred one. There is also, of course, a group of employees for whom being forced into a home office may be unacceptable.
Those preferences should be seriously analysed by the employers. Basing on the experiences and impact of employee opinions, in spite of the changed economic situation, is still one of the most powerful tools supporting their effectiveness and commitment. This area of the “impact of employee opinions” may pose a real challenge when implementing remote work mechanisms. It is worth thinking about the groups that may be sceptical about switching over to working remotely and analysing how it will affect the planned changes. This should translate into an appropriate approach in the implementation and communication process. For example, a collective e-mail with standardized content to all employees will not always have the right effect on the level of employee motivation after the changes are introduced.
A project to build flexible forms and models as far as the workplace is concerned does not end on the day of implementation. It is important to maintain the long-term productivity and motivation of employees. Key soft competences such as empathy and vigilance may be enhanced with mechanisms that stimulate appreciation, team building and upholding company values. It is also important to verify how the mechanism that has been devised is working. And in this case it is better to know than to guess – in particular if you do not see your employees every day. Properly conducted surveys on commitment, work culture and identification with the company’s values may help.
The restrictions related to the COVID pandemic, the indirect result of which is the implementation of remote work within the organization, in combination with periodic lockdowns, have a significant impact on the employment structure of employers.
By analysing this topic in more depth, we come to the conclusion that, depending on the industry and a large number of enterprises transitioning to virtual space, employers are adapting to the new situation on an ongoing basis also in terms of employment structure and levels.
Such measures are a natural process aimed at ensuring business profitability. Current data shows that the levels of redundancies and hiring new employees for 2020 are similar. Unfortunately, it cannot be ruled out that the further “freezing” of certain industries in the long term could upset these proportions.
The proliferation of remote work due to the need to keep ourselves and our families safe has affected the retail industry in two ways.
Firstly, the restriction of the activities at stationary retail outlets and the risk of isolation of employees affected by coronavirus has forced companies in this sector to design new work models for their own employees. These models are based to some extent on remote work or on the so-called hybrid model.
A PwC report “A new image of the Polish consumer” shows that for as many as 51% of people remote work is associated with a greater sense of security, whereas for 39% of the respondents it is the solution they prefer. If we look at employee expectations about what the future model of their work should look like, the most popular solution is to work partly from home and partly from the office, while the least popular is the prospect of a return to full-time stationary work.
However, we should not forget that the remote or hybrid work model is not suitable for every type of task performed by an employee. Among the survey participants who indicated that they did not work remotely as many as 72% of the cases were justified by the specific nature of their work which did not fit into the remote work model. In the case of entities in the retail industry that have so far based their sales model mainly on a network of stationary outlets, this is a particularly important issue. Entrepreneurs who, in addition to a stationary sales channel, already had an additional well-developed online sales channel before the pandemic, have far greater flexibility in the choice of model and method of working – here, “transitioning” to employees working remotely was much less complicated.
The second important phenomenon affecting the retail industry on the human side is the fast growing popularity of remote work among employees in other industries and all age groups. This phenomenon has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the retail industry if we look at it from the consumer’s perspective. All people who work, irrespective of their industry and specialization, are consumers. The need to change where and how they work has naturally affected the way they behave as consumers. Our shopping habits, the extent to which we use technology, transport, entertainment choices, and care about the natural environment are different than a year ago. Approximately one-third of Poles have increased their frequency of online shopping during the COVID pandemic. In the era of the pandemic, online stores have a considerable advantage over traditional trade in terms of feeling comfortable while shopping. This is due to the social distancing attributed to this channel. In traditional trade, Poles mainly appreciate shops located close to where they live, which results from the limited mobility of many of us. The transition of these people to the online channel – plus the restrictions on travelling to and from work – has resulted in “home office” consumers greatly expanding their reach as far as local shops are concerned to an almost unlimited range of stores and products available via the Internet.
Regardless of the above, the business challenges of creating entirely new forms of direct contact with customers also have a human face. Transforming the business model of retail entities also requires changes in the human capital of the organizations. Strengthening brand presence in e-commerce requires building new competences in current employees, related to the remote handling of the shopping process, as well as the ability to build a positive consumer experiences in the new sales channels. As a result of the automation and digitization of trade, it may transpire that a company needs people supporting customers and collaborators in using the modern technologies. They are both people in managerial positions and lower-level employees directly involved in customer service. Employees with good communication skills, who can build relationships with customers using modern communication channels will be no less important.
Implementing remote work is a complex business process that requires identifying the needs of employees and the needs and capabilities of a company. The new way of working requires adapting the company’s processes properly. Certain processes that worked perfectly well in stationary work may no longer be adequate in a home office situation. The time when the rules of working remotely are regulated is, among other things, a good opportunity to give up the use of paper documentation in the HR area. Taking care of the organizational and legal matters related to the new working model is no less important. The trend in the development of customer relationships through online and mobile channels or, more broadly, the automation and digitization of trade will require the industry to equip its employees with new competences and their subsequent verification, hence the importance of training and adapting the employee appraisal systems to the new market requirements.