10 November, 2021

Remote Revolution

As working life returns to a state of normality, the approach to remote vs office life has evolved dramatically. Isabella Aslam speaks to Malta-based CSB Group’s Head of Human Resources and Employment Advisory Services, Dr. Elaine Dutton

Hybrid versus remote working – a popular subject, anyone?

As we sit down with Elaine Dutton to discuss society’s new working conditions, there’s a lotto cover. Dutton firstly confirms she and the CSB Group employees are mostly remote working (for the time being). Having just finished her maternity leave when the lockdown restrictions were announced, she explains how she was looking forward to returning to the office. “I was very eager to get out of the house and meet my colleagues and employees,” she tells Gambling Insider. “That’s what HR is about, meeting physically and having contact with people, but then we went completely remote and within the space of a few months, I returned to a completely different format; with things like Zoom.”

Dutton admits remote working had its challenges at the outset; however, the turnaround was a successful one. “It was insane in the beginning, but we transitioned very fast within a matter of days. One issue we overcame was people’s reluctance to turn their camera on in Zoom meetings; we had to put it as a policy. If you’re having a team meeting with nine people, you can’t have two people with their camera on and seven off. It doesn’t help people build that level of trust, especially when you have new employees on board. They need to see who they are working with; it’s a normal part of who we are as human beings.”

Agreeing that speaking to a blank set of initials [on Zoom] takes the human interaction away from a meeting, Dutton explains: “It does, it’s the reality of what we are experiencing. Employees need their camera on because we want them to be there. We used to be able to see people in the corridor, recognise if that person looks a bit tired, and go and have a chat with them and see what’s going on. You have to prompt people on Zoom and ask for a chat because these natural steps are removed when it comes to remote working.”

In terms of different formats, Dutton discusses how CSB employees managed the shift from in-office to remote working. “People felt cared for and that was an important point. It’s easier to do your job when the employees know you  are doing it for their benefit,” she continues. “We had several interviewees explaining to us how previous companies didn’t essentially care about the pandemic. This made them feel anxious going to the office, worried about the possibilities of bringing the virus home unknowingly. And I thought that was unfair to the employee.”

Safety precautions like social distancing and plastic screens were implemented across the globe in most offices. When asked if CSB also actioned these precautions, Dutton confirms: “We still have the screens, Perspex, and glass halfway through a room so both sides are separated, we are all still wearing masks in the office, as soon as you come in there are stations to clean hands.”

A year on from the initial ramifications of the pandemic, Dutton finds CSB in the position to alternate its staff members. In her own words: “Everyone has to come into the office but to limit the number of people in one space for eight hours a day – not at the same time. Our employees were a bit reluctant to be in large groups, too, so we have not forced anyone.”

The number of days an employee must attend the office is left to the overall decision of CSB line managers. However, it is requested that staff members come in at least once a week minimum.“We need to see you and we want to see you!” proclaims Dutton. “It’s also a way to encourage people to step outside their comfort zone; it can be good for them. People can get very anxious which can quickly spiral into an anxiety disorder; situations like not wanting to leave the house and being too comfortable spending time alone,” she expresses. “I do mean this from a mental health point of view as it’s very easy to develop anxiety issues; furthermore, some people have told us this, so we say ‘we are going to push you to come into the office once a week to help you.’”

CSB prides itself on its empathy toward its staff. In an environment where not every company acts similarly, the boundaries at CSB have been set in ways where employees and employers work together, not necessarily forced back to the office; but rather to bring back normality in working process. “To be honest, needing them to be back at the office isn’t really about productivity, we are a very performance-driven organisation; we’ve got clear KPIs (tailored to each person), very clear targets delivered at the outset of the year, and regular feedback,” she says. “It’s very easy for us to monitor how people are doing and we don’t need staff in the office. The reason we push people to be in the office is more about the relationships of employees with their colleagues, it’s not about the output or productivity, it’s about keeping these relationships and maintaining a social fibre between people to perpetuate that connection.”

The ethos of the company shines bright through the first few questions of this interview; when we explain this to Dutton, she mentions that family values are of huge importance to CSB – at the forefront of the company: “We try as much as possible to maintain our company as a family-based organisation, in the sense where we treat people with compassion. By all means, we are results-driven and we want to be the best but there is a genuine sense of care for other people.”

In 2020, thousands struggled during the first set of lockdown restrictions, especially dealing with so much time spent alone. With a background in psychology, Dutton is sensitive to the subject of employees’ mental health. “I can spot when someone is struggling. Certain emotions lie dormant in many people, and a situation like Covid can bring it all to the surface. This is why some people need help to get themselves out of a dark place. We need to ask our employees if they’d like to be more present in the office to help them combat these issues. And in doing so, some people have said ‘yes please, I don’t have family here in Malta, I don’t function well on my own, so in these cases, we make an expectation to help them personally.’”


Productivity and progress

The discussion of productivity surrounding professional performance, or a potential lack thereof, in the workplace is a high topic of conversation across the board in many industries. Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford University in California, and specialist in studying work practices, including remote work, has previously voiced the pros and cons in productivity in office workers: ‘During short-run activities, such as writing reports or undertaking repetitive tasks, the productivity level is high; however, the problem lies in longer-run creative activities which hold the challenges when working from home and not being interactive.”

General office conversation is seen as a hindrance to productivity compared to the varied increases in efficiency levels rising in employees working from home. Or is it? “There could be a slight truth in the fact that productivity might suffer a little bit, but in reality, that ‘office chit-chat’ is building relationships,” Dutton insists. “That ‘office chit-chat’ is human communication."

Dutton explains how the conversation in the office is not a catalyst for inefficiency, but rather, productivity utilising requisite communication:“I would be hesitant to say productivity declines when people are in the office because it could be productivity that comes out differently; for example, somebody could initiate a great idea to improve the company that wouldn’t necessarily be voiced if they were at home.”

Many professions require different types of working environments. Some employees thrive in the hubbub of a workplace, communicate better working as a team and feed off the inertia of a busy environment, whereas other roles benefit from a quiet environment. Different individuals may have different preferences, too. To gain quantitative research on the debate between remote and hybrid working, Gambling Insider conducted a poll on LinkedIn asking what types of working conditions people preferred post-pandemic. The highest figure showed 36% in favour of a fully remote workforce, with the lowest number accounting for 17% choosing two days per week. However, the results were quite evenly spread: CSB also conducted a survey. “People prefer the hybrid way of working,” Dutton states.“The nature of our jobs allows the best of  both worlds; the ability to be with colleagues and understand what they are required to do in the office, but at the same time, concentrate and be quiet working at home.”

Malta stands as a European iGaming hub, with hundreds of iGaming companies operating in the highly sought jurisdiction. IGaming is one of the region’s fastest-growing industries, along with blockchain, and Malta is establishing itself as a popular place to call home. CSB has supported the industry since its inception and Dutton has worked with numerous clients over the years. She sheds some light on her knowledge of working in the gaming industry: “The full remote working option was very popular. I have had many companies that designed fresh remote working policies. I know that some gaming operators – whether it’s about the culture of the employees or that they have more international employees – who want to be back home in their countries, we’ve had a lot of people wanting to be predominantly remote.”

This topic raises the question of whether the iGaming industry is more suited to working online than in the office. Dutton proffers: “Online is more suited because you aren’t dealing with anything tangible (like tangible paper, original signatures, or certificates). Working in gaming gave me an insight into clients being online as well. However, here we often have them drop by the office, so need to have physical premises to meet people.”

Thousands of businesses and employers have been weighing up the dilemma of how to bring their employees back to work in a safe environment. The subject of ‘no jab, no job’ is a sensitive one. Where some companies have made the vaccine mandatory for all new hires (think: MGM Resorts and many Nevada casinos), others believe it to be an employee’s personal choice. Dutton explains that CSB does not feel it “has the right to impose the vaccine on anyone.”“The moment you start policing employees can create a very negative repercussion very quickly. That is not the type of relationship we want to have with our staff.”

CSB has voiced to its employees that it believes in the vaccine and its benefits in protecting its team members; however, it does not believe in “forcing anyone.” Dutton explains that the company does take note of who has had the vaccine due to the safety of others who may have chronic conditions. “We aim to be in a position where if anyone joins the company or becomes pregnant, and they need to know how safe the office would be, we want to be able to answer that.” Regardless of the company not forcing vaccination, CSB’s employee coverage stands at 95% double jabbed, meaning the office has achieved herd immunity.

Overall, working remotely is based on adhering to essential job responsibilities from the employer and the employee: “I feel it is important to know how to manage a remote workforce. I can understand the hesitation around the concept of remote working, but only if objectives and performance targets are not set beforehand.”

Dutton continues: “If there isn’t any sense of agreement from both parties on what is expected (and vice versa), then it can’t work. This is the piece of the puzzle that remote working needs to thrive. There needs to be a sense of accountability for the manager to feel relaxed and not micromanage, checking up every five minutes, saying: ‘are you working on something important or are you taking a break?’

CSB maintains its values in treating employees fairly; with this comes respect from team members. “Employees also need to relax because they start doubting if their employer knows they’re working - when we know you are, “Dutton concludes. “This worry can cause anxiety, so there needs to be a very good working relationship based on trust between both employee and manager, based on very clear tasks and expectations. Both parties can then leave each other alone, but know what to expect from one another. You're doing your job and I’m doing mine. Everyone is working. That is how remote working can be implemented efficiently and how it does not diminish productivity.”