Over the past 18 months, there has been much talk about how the pandemic has put a stop to the old ways of working. Out with open-plan offices, in with working from home – possibly for good. But if mandatory WFH policies served as a proof of concept, showing that it was possible to be away from your desk and still do your job well, then it hasn’t yet coalesced into a consensus about where we go from here.
In fact, the picture coming into focus is more complicated. UK commuter traffic was back to pre-pandemic levels by the first week of September. And while job ads mentioning the option to work remotely have increased by 180 per cent since February 2020, now totalling 10 per cent of all job ads on global jobsite Indeed, there are still questions about how to balance the different demands of staff and businesses.
As the world undergoes a simultaneous reboot, “Almost everyone acknowledges that there is no going back to ‘normal’,” writes John Wilpers, Senior Director at Innovation Media Consulting and author of the recent FIPP/UPM Media’s Future in a Post-Covid World report, which goes into greater detail on the topic in its opening chapter.
So what will take “normal”‘s place?
Employees want more flexibility
While WFH 100 per cent of the time is certainly not for everyone – the young, in particular, seem to have found it more isolating than older employees with families – increased flexibility does have wide appeal. In the wake of the pandemic, employees are broadly resistant to a “business as usual” approach from employers: in short, they want to have a conversation about the options, and not have it swept under the rug as though Covid-19 never happened.
A March 2021 Prudential workplace study found that 87 per cent of workers want to continue to work remotely at least one day per week, and 55 per cent would prefer to be remote at least three days a week. Almost half (42 per cent) of workers surveyed also said they would not work for an employer who required full-time work on-site.
What seems clear, then, is that employers need to involve employees in decisions about working habits going forward.
The end of one-size-fits-all
Achieving some balance between remote and in-office work isn’t always possible – or desirable. Goldman Sachs Group CEO David Solomon has made headlines with his position that remote work is “an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible”.
If employers are too uncompromising, though, they risk losing good workers – a trend that Wired UK is already calling “The Great Resignation”. A Microsoft study has found that 41 per cent of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year, they write.
All this means that flexibility from employers is critical, and the sweet spot could be somewhere in the middle: “As multiple studies of workforces across industries indicate, the pandemic-era change most desired and most likely to be maintained in some form is the hybrid work schedule: a mix of remote and in office work,” writes Wilpers.
It might be harder than before
Employers should also be prepared to have a teething period where they figure out the appropriate boundaries in a fair way. Managing a remote-only team, paradoxically, might turn out to be easier than managing a hybrid workforce.
There are questions about staff meetings – in-house employees might resent having to keep using Zoom – and the ways that performance is tracked. This risks opening up a schism between those who come to the office and those who don’t.
There are additional ethical, social and safety considerations for employers asking people to return to the office. Even if not legally necessary, masks and social distancing have become such a part of the behavioural vernacular that it is still reasonable for employees to object to being in a crowded, unventilated space.
Meanwhile clinically vulnerable employees and those with anxiety or mental health issues triggered or worsened by the pandemic may be extra reluctant to come back to work. Vaccine hesitancy among staff – and whether or not to demand that everyone be vaccinated – also creates a social dilemma that could undermine team cohesion. And what about booster shots, forthcoming in autumn and winter in much of the rich world? Will they, in time, also become socially mandatory?
“It’s going to take a lot of reassurances from employers that the workspace is physically safe,” writes Wilpers in Media’s Future.
As was emphasised consistently at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s worth remembering that this moment in history represents a real opportunity. The promise of flexible working arrangements is significant; employers would do well to explore the options seriously, before the old practices become sedimented again.
“The workplace of the post-Covid era has the potential to be much more rewarding, productive, collaborative, and enjoyable than any of its predecessors,” adds Wilpers. “But if old-school thinkers are allowed to force workers back into the old workplace model, everyone and everything will suffer: people, product, and profits.”