Remote working in the time of COVID-19

Due to the COVID-19 epidemic more workplaces are turning to remote work out of necessity to keep their businesses running. I know there have been hiccups with setting up technology at home and ensuring that everyone has internet connectivity – and there has been the odd game of Zoom Bingo…’You’re frozen’, ‘you’ve dropped out’ but productivity has continued. At Rapid Context we have always had staff working remotely so we have been ‘remote enabled’ from the get go. To ensure social connectivity we have a weekly morning tea where remote staff ‘Zoom’ in. Last week we held our usual ‘socially distanced’ morning tea for all staff.

But what does this mean for other workplaces after we have ‘flattened the curve’ and the world as we know it returns to some level of normality? Will workplaces go back to the old ways of ‘working flexibly’, suiting the employer but not necessarily the employee? Will ‘presenteeism’ still be an issue even though it has been proven that a ‘bum on a seat’ does not equal productivity. Rapid Context is proof that working remotely can be achieved. We realise that this best practice model will not work for all workplaces but it will work for more workplaces than previously predicted.

Flexibility and presenteeism

We often talk about flexibility in our office but what about other workplaces? Does your company’s culture support staff being out of the office regularly? Do staff feel the need to be present as much as possible, even when they are unwell (obviously before COVID-19)? Presenteeism can be turning up to work when you are unwell and ‘soldiering on’, often because you feel pressured to be there, or the more common notion of making sure you are being seen at your desk (whether working productively or not). Presenteeism is rife in many organisations that refuse to believe employees can work unsupervised at home. Believe me when I say employees are very capable at working from home (matter of fact I’m doing it now). Similarly, some organisations let staff work a day from home in the interests of workplace flexibility (meeting the workplace SOP for workplace/life balance) but not going beyond and seeing telework as an investment in staff productivity or a talent-retention tool.


Many organisations read ‘flexibility’ as ‘leaving early’ or working one day from home – they have a tokenistic view of work/life day is OK but any more than that is apparently not doable. Stigma around flexible working remains, with many employers citing a reluctance to pay people to watch daytime TV and be generally unproductive. Tony Featherstone, a finance writer says "when people tell me they work a day a week from home, I ask why they don’t work two days. 'The boss wouldn’t like it,' is their standard response. Or, 'working more than a day a week from home is pushing it too far.'" I too have noticed this along with ‘I need to be in the office because Joe Bloggs would complain if I wasn’t there’. According to research out of the UK, people who have the option to work flexibly are 2.5% more productive than those who do not have the option to work flexibly. They are doing more work!

Recently a project team at Rapid Context put the finishing touches on a proposal for submission due Friday and none of us were working from the office –shock horror – how could we get the proposal completed on time if we were watching daytime TV? We were not watching daytime TV, quite the opposite, we had several meetings using Zoom and regularly touched base until the proposal was complete.


Many organisations still believe that a ‘bum on a seat’ in the office equals productivity. Many employees believe that if they are not seen in the office for their required hours (or more) then they are not ‘seen’ to be doing their job. Which of course is not the case, a 2016 report commissioned by Pathology Awareness Australia says presenteeism costs the Australian economy in excess of $34 billion annually. So, why do people feel they need to be ‘seen’ at their desk? Is it employer expectations? Employees may feel that they appear less dedicated to their jobs, that there is too much work to do and even one day at home puts them way behind. Some employees try to keep their leave to look after children when they are sick so attend work when they themselves are unwell. Some employees may have health problems they don’t want to discuss at work so keep turning up so that they are seen. What needs to be done to change the mindset of organisations?

Maybe the culture of the organisation needs to be addressed? Maybe reviewing the organisations wellbeing programme/policy. A policy that has a ‘stick’ approach to health could be replaced with a more holistic approach to health and wellbeing? Maybe leaders need to be educated to notice the signals associated with employees experiencing high levels of stress or mental health problems. Workplace training and awareness raising of common mental and physical health issues will help reduce stigma and provide people with a better understanding of workplace wellbeing.

If you want to discuss flexibility, presenteeism or remote working or any areas of workplace culture feel free to contact for a chat.

Lindy Fritsche is an epidemiologist and senior consultant at Rapid Context. Her expertise is in quantitative research, implementation and analysis of data. Specialist expertise in survey methodology and design.

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