Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the US workforce spent just 5% of their total working time remote from the office. By the spring of 2020, that figure had risen to 60% and remained at a similar level for over a year, according to an April 2021 special report by The Economist. In Europe, 89% of companies now intend to develop a hybrid working model for the post-pandemic era, 32% are actively recruiting remote workers specifically, and 92% are exploring progressive policies like core hours and 4-day work weeks —that’s according to Owl Labs’ ‘State of Hybrid Work 2021: Europe Edition’ which concludes that remote and hybrid work is here to stay.
Progressive European governments are also embracing this evolution of work with bold policies for worker flexibility. In Portugal, a new government paper on the future of work aims to regulate new ways of working and respond to the challenges of classifying labor relations in relation to hybrid work. Germany has made it mandatory for workplaces to offer employees the opportunity to work remotely as long as there are “no compelling operational reasons for not doing so”. As in Germany, employers will need a good excuse to decline a remote-working request in Ireland, who plan to make hybrid working available to employees in all relevant sectors by next year. While employers in Russia must provide, or cover the cost of, necessary equipment for employees to effectively conduct their work from home.
This is not just a health and safety measure in response to the ongoing pandemic, these are permanent policy changes in response to long-term trends that were accelerated during the crisis. Freelance work emerged as a major labor shift after the 2008 recession, full-time remote workers were a growing force over the last decade, Scandinavian nations have long been experimenting with 4-day work weeks, and digital nomads have flooded the internet with photos of laptops on beaches. The last decade has proved that there are health, wellbeing, comfort, and ultimately productivity gains to be found in remote work, and hybrid work models appear to be the best way to unearth them.
Almost two-thirds of executives in Europe agreed that hybrid working makes companies more profitable, according to Owl Labs, with leaders of larger businesses more likely to agree (73%) than businesses under 1000 employees (55%). Driving productivity is one side of the profitability coin, the other is cost, and hybrid work offers companies direct and significant cost saving by downsizing real estate assets to match the daily expected occupancy. Selling or renting excess office space opens up new capital and revenue streams, reduces operational costs, and significantly improves a company’s environmental footprint. As recession looms and the environmental agenda steps up another gear, hybrid work is becoming a wise business strategy.
Not everyone agrees that hybrid work can deliver on all these promises, however. Research published by global real-estate giant Cushman & Wakefield has found that the hybrid approach produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the conventional five-day week at a traditional office. The problem, they claim, is that while organizations continue to heat, cool, and power their offices, their employees are using more energy in their homes while working remotely. While it is true that businesses will need to find a way to manage occupancy within a hybrid work model, it seems far more likely that would involve occupancy analytics, flexible office design, and basic scheduling, with optimally downsized and therefore more efficient offices.
“Effectively, the energy usage attributable to doing business is being ‘offshored’ from the office to employees’ homes. At the same time, the lights remain on at most major office buildings, even if there is a reduced capacity to cater for those using the office,” reads Cushman & Wakefield’s report ‘Monitoring and Measuring ESG in an Era of Remote Working’. “The greenest approach for employers would simply be to oblige their hybrid workers to return to HQ on a full-time basis,” the commercial real estate giant’s report argues.
The EU Joint Research Centre meanwhile, argues that “policies to support the transition to more widespread remote work will need to carefully consider the potential benefits and costs for productivity, job quality, and workers’ work-life balance and mental health.” Commentators point out that there is also no legal definition of ‘working from home’ in employment health and safety laws, which do not differentiate between working remotely or in the office. If the employer is still responsible for the protection of the occupational health and safety of staff, how can we shape fair policies that account for work in the office, home or local cafe? And, how can we protect those forced to work from home in difficult living conditions?
Research by the European Foundation of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) discovered evidence of over-working by remote workers. “This new culture of employees being ‘constantly available’ could lead to greater feelings of burnout, heightened anxiety, and even depression,” the report claimed. This “new culture”, it should be noted, has only existed during a global pandemic that has killed millions and kept many locked in their homes for months, which may have influenced the results. Furthermore, any good hybrid work model should have the flexibility and awareness to protect remote workers, and for every employee struggling with remote life there is another struggling with the 5-day office week. Hybrid work needs time but the idea is to account for all the varied needs of the workforce through flexibility.
In addition to showing employers the benefits of a hybrid workforce, the pandemic era has given almost all employees a taste of remote work and many of them liked it. The pandemic has sparked a trend that has become known in HR circles as “The Great Resignation”, with workers leaving their jobs in record numbers. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics report that 2.9% of the workforce have quit their jobs in the last few months, just as many companies return workers to the office. While governments consider worker policies and employers explore the best path to profitability, the employees themselves may have already made up their minds, which alone may be enough to drive the evolution to a hybrid working world.
“Despite quizzical think pieces on the motivations behind the Great Resignation, anyone who pays rent or a mortgage knows why this “labor shortage” is under way,” writes Erika Rodriguez, director of the New Commons Project, in an article for The Guardian. “After years of inflation and stagnant wages, the pandemic has revealed the value of labor, the worthlessness of commutes and office culture, and the importance of finding personal comfort in times of increasing precarity.”
Work is at an unprecedented junction with governments, businesses, and workers all pushing in each direction at the same time. On the right is the traditional workplace and business as usual, on the left is the remote work and the new normal, but it seems the inevitable direction work will take is into the empty field in between, which will gradually be shaped into a flexible and hybrid approach to work. Too many employers and employees have seen the light, there is no way back to the way it was before, remote work will now play an important part alongside a fresh breed of workplaces designed for their new role within a hybrid working world.