The way we work has radically changed due to COVID-19. Many businesses have been forced to innovate and embrace flexibility to stay afloat. Consequently, workers who were able to do so have switched their offices for their homes, kitchen tables, and living rooms, oftentimes sharing their workspace with family members instead of colleagues.
However, temporary as they were first perceived to be, many of these changes are now here to stay. Or at least to a degree. That’s according to our global survey of 8,000 office workers, leaders and CEOs which concludes that 3 in 4 employees demand more flexibility and a mix of office-based and remote working.
So how exactly should businesses change the way they operate? How much time should we spend working remotely and will the office as we know it cease to exist?
The Flag Bearers – From One Dogma To Another?
Some companies such as Twitter and Facebook have used the switch to remote working as an opportunity to move away from an office-centric approach. In May, both companies announced that all employees would be allowed to continue working from home until the end of the year. Shortly afterwards, Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey went further, saying individuals could work from home “forever” if they wanted to.
Meanwhile, beyond the tech sector, Barclays Bank CEO, Jes Staley has declared that crowded offices “may be a thing of the past.”
There are mixed feelings. For instance, Microsoft has been more circumspect. In a recent interview with Business Insider, the company’s CEO, Satya Nadella, said most employees would prefer to work collectively in dedicated offices.
This balanced approach resonates with other businesses as well, including the banking group Nationwide. The company deployed more than 90% of its staff at home during the pandemic and it has since announced a permanent transition to a hybrid model, combining home and office work. This is to avoid jumping from one dogma to another.
The Middle Way
So what are the factors driving organisations to consider adopting at least some degree of remote working on a permanent basis?
The response of employees to the emergency measures adopted during the pandemic has certainly been important. Just over 50% of those polled in our survey said their experience of remote working had been positive – a figure that was broadly consistent across Europe, the US and Australia, with only Japan showing less enthusiasm.
Crucially, some aspects of working life were seen by many to have been enhanced. For instance, 59% said work/life balance had improved against only 5% who didn’t. Perhaps more surprisingly, 31% said they were more productive against 27% who said they were working less efficiently.
Finding a Balance: The 50/50 Split
There appears, therefore, a great appetite to move to a place where both office and remote working would become available. Staggering 75% of employees favour greater flexibility at work and there is overall support for a 50/50 split between remote and office work. This view is more or less consistent across all age groups and locations. On this reading, hybrid working patterns emerge as a clear and preferred solution.
Of course, permanent change ultimately depends on organisation leaders identifying tangible benefits. The survey suggests that transformation is, indeed, in the air. 73% of senior executives (and 79% in the C suite) think their businesses would benefit from allowing employees greater flexibility.
In terms of recruitment and retention, 62% of managers (73% in the C-suite) believe flexible working would make roles more accessible to a greater number of people. Generally speaking, leaders in Australia, the US and the UK are most willing to experiment with flexibility with managers on mainland Europe and Japan showing more caution.
Managing Change: The Need For a Compromise
Remote working poses genuine challenges, some of them recognised by employees. Half of those questioned expressed concerns that teamwork and collaboration would deteriorate if remote working became the norm. A quarter said this aspect of working life had already been adversely affected during the pandemic. Two thirds stressed the importance of meeting colleagues face to face.
These concerns arguably underline the view that flexibility can be best served by a hybrid approach, rather than all-out homeworking strategy. This would certainly offer a beneficial compromise. With just half the workforce in the office at any one time, employers would gain from lower costs across the board, from real estate rental fees to coffee consumption and cleaning bills.
There will, however, be some upfront costs. For instance, our survey underlines the requirement for organisations to provide staff with additional support.
When asked where increased training would be required post-COVID, 69 and 65% of employees cited digital skills and company systems respectively. Soft skills were also seen as important, with 63% saying they needed help in areas such as communication and problem-solving.
Hybrid working may also require additional spending to provide staff with suitable home-working equipment – not just PCs and laptops, but also, perhaps, desks, chairs, printers and even dedicated phone lines. There are also real questions about compensation models in a new landscape where rather arriving at 08.00 am and leaving at 17.00, staff are essentially scheduling their own days. This may require a shift from hours-based payments and productivity measurement through to models shaped around delivery.
Hybrid working models have many attractions for employees and organisations. But implementing change successfully will require a complete review of how work is structured.