We have been talking about flexible work more and more each year for the last decade but the events of 2020 have brought this discussion to the fore. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a mass remote working trial beyond anything anyone could ever have imagined, as we discussed in March. Now, as we move into December and vaccines begin to move into production and distribution phases, we can start to assess the impact of this mass remote working trial on the future of work. While 2021 will still be dominated by social distancing and other public health regulations, it seems that even after this crisis is over, the workplace will never return to the pre-COVID norms.
According to research by Stanford University, 42% of the US labor force are now working from home full time, while another 33% are not working at all due to the pandemic, meaning almost twice as many employees are now working from home than at an office. Weighted by earnings, the study found that remote workers now account for more than two-thirds of economic activity in the US. The summer survey of 2,500 American workers also showed that 20% of workers don’t want to work remotely, another 25% want permanent remote work, and a clear majority of 55% want some kind of hybrid of office and remote work.
“The COVID pandemic has challenged and changed our relationships with work and how many of us do our jobs. There’s no real going back,” says Nicolas Bloom, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), in a policy brief. “So the simple advice is to let employees choose, within limits. Nobody should be forced to work from home full time, and nobody should be forced to work in the office full time. Choice is key — let employees pick their schedules and let them change as their views evolve.”
The trend is not limited to the US. In the UK, new research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows employers expect that the proportion of people working from home on a regular basis once the crisis is over will increase to 37% compared to 18% before the pandemic. While China-based Alicia Tung, COO of the Great Place to Work Institute, expects the same trend to take hold in the Asia-Pacific region too. “As far as emotions are concerned, we’re not there yet. But it is happening. In ten years’ time, if I were to make a very broad prediction, I would say 60-40 in terms of working in the office compared to working remotely,” she stated.
Most employers and employees are not ready to lose their physical office completely, highlighting the need for an in-person experience for some activities and the need for a physical space to maintain their all-important company culture. So, the future will be a hybrid of the traditional office and remote work, offering employees the flexibility to work from home some of the time and the chance to be in the office at other times. Sounds great in theory, but how it can work for entire companies in practice is still open to broad interpretation.
Outside of the full lockdown periods of 2020, companies have applied hybrid policies in order to maintain their working community within the limits defined by public health regulation. For personal finance firm, The Smart Investor, the approach was to designate certain days for in-office meetings and collaboration, then leave remote days for work requiring individual focus. “We try to use home working days less for video sessions and more for the tasks that require concentration,” says the company’s founder, Baruch Silverman. “A task that may take several hours in the office may be completed in just an hour or two at home.”
This task-based approach aims to make the best of both worlds, benefiting from the concentration benefits of independent remote work and the benefits of having employees in the office for meetings and other collaborative tasks. SEO firm NOVOS also recognizes the benefits of office and remote work for different tasks but offers greater flexibility. The company backed out of its lease with WeWork and moved to a WeMembership that allows employees to book desk space in eligible WeWork locations around the world. Thereby enabling employees to decide when they should be in the office or remote.
Other models also recognize the need for both office-based and remote work but accept that collaboration is a daily need that will have to be satisfied by video conferencing. US and India based digital workplace service provider, Kissflow, is introducing a monthly 3-weeks remote and 1-week in the office system they call REMOTE+. The company even offers to pay for accommodation during the office-based week, potentially allowing workers to live far away from the office and “visit” for that 1-week per month. Such hybrid models are not so flexible but instead operate a traditional office a quarter of the time and a remote workforce the rest of the time.
All of these approaches present major issues. First and foremost, not everyone can work from home effectively and the divide can often be on socioeconomic, gender, and racial lines. Remote work may be wonderful for those living alone in luxury homes with outdoor spaces, but not so great for those sharing cramped apartments with family or others. Furthermore, everyone is different, some require the bustle of the office to be productive while others prefer peace and quiet. So, when there is an option to be at home or in the office on any day, it may not be so much of a task-based approach as a decision based on employee personality and circumstances, with the two aspects not necessarily aligning for optimum productivity.
All this can have a detrimental effect on company culture and group dynamics according to workplace experts. “You run the risk of creating in-group and out-group dynamics in hybrid teams and there’s consistent evidence to show that in-group and out-group dynamics reduce collaboration and increase conflict,” says Marco Minervini, an organizational design researcher at business school INSEAD in Singapore. To avoid that, Minervini proposes modularization of the hybrid model, where tasks are divided between those that require synchronous or asynchronous communication methods. “You need to break the temporal chain of synchronicity,” he says.
Others highlight their concerns towards the very idea of hybrid in any shape or form. “I thought I’d be happy to go back, but I have to say that it’s difficult,” explains Nelson Sherwin, a Nebraska-based HR advisor for PEO Companies. “I think the key is to just be consistent and you can pretty much adjust to anything – office or remote work. But when you do both, you don’t really get a chance to adjust to either. You’re in and out, never quite able to create a consistent routine.”
The reality, however, is that we currently have a choice between a fully remote workforce or some kind of hybrid model, and many companies are not ready or able to completely forego having a physical office. If and when we are able to vaccinate enough people to end this crisis, we will have accelerated the remote working trend so far that it will be a challenge to return to a fully office-based workforce, a model we were already moving away from before the pandemic. The future of work, therefore, is hybrid in one shape or form. Companies will have to accept this reality, they will have to experiment with various hybrid models, and ultimately they will have to trust in the ability of their employees and company culture to adapt to this new world.
“It just takes a little creativity and comfort, getting used to a new way of doing things. And so for me, the silver lining in the pandemic is that it has forced organizations to find ways to do that,” suggests Anita Williams Woolley, researcher of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University. “And I really hope they never go back, because for people’s wellbeing, work-life balance, etc., it just really is better to have this kind of flexibility.”