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Regional study: How can SMEs equip themselves better for remote or hybrid employees?

Published on 18/09/2023 by Andrew Blair

Many small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) in Australia have adopted remote and hybrid working models, initially spurred on by the pandemic. However, what have we learnt since then and what lies ahead for the future of work? In this article, we learn about remote and hybrid employees' location-specific difficulties and needs, and what small businesses can do about them.

An employee working remotely using remote work software

The world of work has experienced a paradigm shift over the last few years, with remote work becoming a prominent feature in the modern professional landscape. Technology has played a vital role in that shift by offering remote working solutions. Working from home has also evolved from a necessity to a personal preference while opening new job markets without territory restrictions.

Work-life balance may have been a significant driver for many employees to seek out remote work opportunities that could provide them with more flexibility and the ability to adjust work hours around personal life responsibilities. Remote work also allows employees to cut out commute hassles and embrace a lifestyle removed from densely populated urban areas. Moreover, living in regional Australia could have the allure of cheaper living costs, tranquillity, and a promise of an improved work-life balance. However, companies will need to carefully evaluate how to manage their remote employees, depending on where they are, to maintain company culture and productivity. As such, what are some location-specific pros and cons for an employee working remotely that companies should be aware of?

To learn more, GetApp surveyed 1,024 fully remote or hybrid employees and analysed their responses accordingly by considering the location of their residences. The analysis reveals urban, suburban, and rural employees’ working preferences and their perception of productivity whether working remotely or in the office. The article also focuses on how SMEs can optimise a hybrid working environment to cater to the location-specific needs of employees and potentially increase productivity. The full survey methodology is at the end of this article.

Nearly 8 in 10 respondents like working remotely

Overall, there is an overwhelming preference towards remote work from the surveyed respondents. A combined total of 82% of respondents say they like working remotely. The data shows that slightly more rural respondents (46%) strongly like working remotely compared to suburban (45%) and urban (42%) respondents.

Stacked bar chart showing how remote employees by location feel about working remotely

Although there may be a marginal preference for remote work among rural respondents, there is a significant difference between rural respondents (26%) willing to apply for a fully in-person job compared to only 17% of suburban and urban respondents each. Clearly, the shorter commute time is not a significant factor, since even a significant proportion of respondents living in rural areas are willing to apply for fully in-person jobs.

The majority of respondents would only apply for a non-remote job if it is hybrid

While larger companies are implementing a gradual reverse migration from virtual to in-person, smaller companies should be cautious of employee needs, as back-to-office mandates can cause employees to resign. In fact, as an increasing number of Australians are searching for remote work, smaller companies may be able to attract top talent from an exodus caused by back-to-office recalls.

As most remote and hybrid employees like working from home, this sentiment resonates with their preference for a hybrid job. Nearly two-thirds (65%) agreed with the statement that ‘If the job/conditions are good, I would be willing to apply for a job that is not fully remote, but would at least have to be hybrid’. Only 18% of survey-takers agreed they would apply for a fully in-person job, while 17% wouldn’t apply for a job that is not fully remote.

How to set up an efficient hybrid working environment

Hybrid working models can attract employees by offering a working environment that solves some of the challenges of working remotely. However, it is imperative to create the right environment for a hybrid working model that also meets employee needs when working remotely. Companies can consider the following software solutions to get set up:

  • Desk booking software: Ensure employees have a place in the office by using a reservation system. Companies can plan their resources accordingly and get insight into how frequently employees come into the office. 
  • Communications software: Establish clear communication channels between employees to overcome challenges such as loneliness or isolation when working remotely. It is imperative that the right communication channels are used such as an internal chat for quick and responsive dialogue, video conferencing for meetings and brainstorming, and email management software for sharing practical information, announcements, or updates. 
  • Collaboration software: Enable an internet-based environment for virtual teamwork. The challenges of working together virtually can be reduced by using collaboration tools that allow for greater efficiency in managing document libraries and versions, projects in progress, report editing, threaded discussions, calendar sharing, and task management. 
  • Technical support software: Provide employees with remote customer support via tools such as screen sharing, text chat, and monitoring. The use of remote support software can also help IT and administrators control devices remotely and solve glitches.

In-person connections at the office attract remote employees

Following the analysis above, the high number of respondents that would apply to a job that is at least hybrid shows prominence towards the value of businesses having a physical office in Australia. In particular, just over half (51%) of respondents said in-person connections are their biggest draw to working in an office environment, followed by better awareness of what's happening in the company. The full list of favourable benefits is illustrated in the graph below.

Bar chart showing the benefits remote employees get from working in an office environment

Notably, 78% of the survey sample said they currently work hybrid, which suggests that the majority have found a suitable middle ground. However, the proportion of respondents who work entirely remotely (22%) doesn’t indicate that they prefer to work completely remotely. Only 15% of respondents said they like to work entirely remotely.

Therefore, companies looking to get their employees back into the office may ask themselves how many days per week would suit hybrid working employees. When we asked survey-takers how often they would like to work in the office weekly, a third (33%) said three days per week would be ideal.

While some respondents value the benefits of a hybrid working model, more urban respondents (37%) would be inclined to work three days per week at the office compared to suburban (31%) and rural (29%) respondents. Despite the majority of respondents from all locations favouring working three days per week at the office, in terms of location, location favours more urban respondents who want to work three days per week. Commuting may be a decisive factor for respondents who live further away from urban areas.

In the next section, we investigate further to find out if employees favour having the option to work remotely not only because they like it but also if they perceive themselves to be more productive.

In-office versus at-home productivity of remote and hybrid employees

Productivity is a fundamental measure of how efficiently employees work, whether that’s from home or in the office. The global pandemic set the stage for the biggest experiment of working from home. Many studies at the time suggested employees working from home were more productive. However, contrary to those studies, Apple, Meta, and Google, among other tech titans, have recently demanded employees return to the office at least three days a week with an emphasis on productivity. 

A significant proportion of our sample (41%) was already working remotely before the onset of COVID-19. However, we evaluated the productivity levels of those who started working remotely after the pandemic. As a result, some respondents (39%) believe that they are more productive working fully remotely compared to when they were previously working in an office. Only a minority (28%) of respondents believe they are more productive in the office. We investigated further to see if this was also true when analysing a location-specific breakdown.

How does location affect the productivity of remote employees?

Of the respondents who started working remotely after the pandemic, more urban respondents (34%) said they are more productive working in the office compared to suburban respondents (26%), and rural respondents (23%). However, it is interesting that nearly half of rural respondents (46%) find themselves equally productive working at home or in the office. Many suburban respondents (40%), on the other hand, are more productive working from home.

Stacked bar chart comparing regional productivity of respondents when working in the office versus remotely

We can deduce from the results that productivity at home or the office differs according to where a remote or hybrid working employee lives. The proportion of remote employees who perceive themselves to work better from the office increases the closer they are to urban areas. Conversely, remote employees think they are equally productive in the office or at home the further they are from urban areas. SMEs should evaluate what makes each employee more or less productive based on location.

How can SMEs boost productivity for remote workers?

Boosting the productivity of remote employees can involve several key factors including providing the right tools and processes, and fostering a culture of trust and communication. Businesses can consider the following strategies to boost productivity:

  • Provide the right tools: In addition to the software solutions for setting up a hybrid work environment, SMEs should ensure employees have the necessary tools to work effectively. This includes a stable internet connection and suitable hardware.
  • Train staff for working remotely: Onboard new hires by offering specific training to ensure all employees understand how to use remote working software solutions and collaborate efficiently. 
  • Set concrete goals and track progress: Set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals to help prioritise, focus, and measure performance. Workforce management software enables organisations to plan, track, and manage the allocation and requirements of staff and also aids businesses in optimising employee productivity.
  • Encourage feedback: Seeking feedback and support from managers and vice-versa can help improve employees’ skills, overcome challenges, and drive professional growth.

Remote employees benefit from no commute, but lack communication

Overall, not having to commute was among the most chosen (29%) advantages respondents have experienced since they started working remotely. However, this benefit was particularly favourable for a third (33%) of suburban respondents, although slightly more rural respondents (35%) cited no commuting as a top benefit compared to urban respondents (24%). These results, therefore, highlight the reasoning for location favouring more urban respondents to work at the office.

Top three benefits remote employees have experienced since working from home by location

Among the other benefits when it comes to location, adjusting work hours around personal life responsibilities was more cited by rural respondents (37%) than urban respondents (26%). Rural respondents benefiting from adjusting work hours around personal life responsibilities could mean that working and living in regional Australia does offer employees a greater work-life balance.  

However, isolation is a challenge for more rural respondents (37%) who said loneliness is a significant concern, followed by communication with colleagues (36%). Lack of communication with colleagues is also among the most cited crucial overall challenges for respondents (28%).

Location impacts how employees work remotely

From the results, it is evident that the location of remote employees is a contributing factor to the future of remote working models. While some overall results indicate a favourable majority, SMEs should consider minor details that challenge and benefit remote employees based on location. Appealing to all remote employees is a complicated task. However, businesses should keep location in mind when establishing a remote working environment or making changes to their existing models, such as making it mandatory for employees to come to the office for a certain amount of days per week. 

Employee feedback can also help evaluate hybrid or remote working changes, and businesses can make informed decisions while considering employees’ convenience and productivity. As there is still momentum for hybrid working and less for fully remote working, SMEs should use this knowledge to equip themselves for the future of work better. In the following article of this two-part series, we will discuss how organisations can prepare themselves, particularly for the threat of a remote data breach.

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The data for GetApp’s 2023 Remote Work Survey was collected in April 2023 and comprised answers from 1,024 respondents. The following criteria were used to select respondents:

  • Australian resident 
  • Employed full or part-time in a company with between 2 and 250 employees
  • Aged between 18 and 65
  • Works fully remotely or in a hybrid role in a position above trainee level

For the analysis of the survey, respondents were classified by regional location. Each region was classified according to the following criteria:

Urban: Living in an apartment/unit

Suburban: Living in a single-family-house/standalone dwelling in a city with more than 100,000 residents

Rural: Living in a single-family-house/standalone dwelling in a city with less than 100,000 residents

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

About the author

Andrew is a Content Analyst for GetApp, giving SMEs insights into tech, software and business trends. Interest in entrepreneurship, furthering projects and startups.

Andrew is a Content Analyst for GetApp, giving SMEs insights into tech, software and business trends. Interest in entrepreneurship, furthering projects and startups.