March 2020, the world shifted forever.
Overnight the majority of office-based roles were fully remote, whether the infrastructure or technology was in place or not. It was the start of a working revolution.
Over 3 years later and the remote working debate is still raging. Employee expectations and preferences have changed, but businesses are starting to vocalise their opinions, and they aren’t supportive of a fully remote model.
Within professional services it’s a hot topic.
Are you fully remote?
How many days are you in the office?
What’s the company policy?
How do you build engaged remote teams?
So many questions, so many different ways of working and no clear answers.
What’s at the crux of the argument? Let’s take a closer look.
A potted history of remote working
Prior to Covid working from home was a relatively rare occurrence. With only 5.7% of workers exclusively working from home in Jan-Feb of 2020, come April 2020 and that had shot up to 43.1%.
In fact 8% of workers didn’t enter the office at all for the whole of 2021.
It’s no surprise that when all the lockdowns and tiers came to an end, people's preferences had changed.
For employees the lack of commuting, saving both money and time, combined with the focused interruption free work time and the ability to stick a wash on at lunchtime, has become their new normal. And it’s a normal they’re loathe to relinquish.
Currently around 44% of UK workers work from home at least some of the week, and 1 in 4 workers want a hybrid working week. Remote or hybrid working has moved on from being a perk to an expectation.
But for employers who were thrust into offering remote work it’s a different story. 80% of people leaders report that a hybrid setup is exhausting for employers.
With the challenges it can bring - less collaboration, lower productivity, less opportunities for juniors to learn from seniors it’s not surprising that employers are starting to demand change.
Last year it was a candidate’s market, there was a shortage of top talent which meant that firms were fighting for the best candidates. That meant bowing to demands around remote working and flexibility.
But as we go into the current employer's market it’s not as easy for candidates to be granted, or to find the flexibility they crave. Which means the hybrid working debate that’s rumbled in the background for the last year or so is rearing its head again.
What’s the crux of the argument?
More firms are requesting employees return to the office up to three times a week. Most recently law firm Osborne Clark have changed their hybrid working requirements and directly linked these to bonus eligibility.
For employees this is causing outrage. They’ve become accustomed to a certain style of working over the last three years and are outraged it can’t continue.
Not only that but for those with caring responsibilities or other additional needs, hybrid working can provide a more inclusive gateway to the working world. Allowing employees to work in a way that suits their specific needs, keeping their valuable skills in the workplace.
Then you’ve got those entering the workplace who need to experience work in person, not through a screen. The impact on junior employees who learn by doing and observing has been underestimated, and they aren’t the only group of employees who want to be in the office full time.
There are also those who feel isolated by remote working, whose homes aren't set-up for work or need the mental and emotional connection from in-person working. There’s a whole group of people who we aren’t hearing from, who aren’t shouting about their needs who need to be engaged in the end result.
For employers there’s the headache of managing remote teams and the perceived lack of productivity. But Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford and remote working expert has found that hybrid working improves productivity by 3-5% and the ability to work from home two to three times a week has the same value as an 8% pay rise. Something that can’t be ignored in the current economic climate.
This feels like it’s a hill to die on, for both sides. But surely there has to be a way to work together so everyone wins?
Flexibility is two ways
The thing about this debate is it assumes that remote working and office working are mutually exclusive, that there’s no middle ground.
In fact, the answer to the debate lies in that middle ground and in flexibility.
That means employees need to be upfront about what flexibility they want, while showing willingness to put in extra hours at busy times of the year, or work shorter or different hours at other times. But employers need to be willing to flex their blanket policy to accommodate an individual’s specific circumstances.
The new Flexible Working Bill coming into force will aid this, offering employees the right to request flexible working from day one rather than after six months. It also puts a timeframe on a response from employers and shifts the onus to them to provide a reason for a rejection rather than relying on the employee to explain how it’ll work in practice.
Could these new flexible working rights be the answer to the hybrid working debate? Offering employees confidence in an employer's commitment to flexibility and creating a new formalised process?
Only time will tell.
What does the future hold?
Businesses were forced into a position that might not have been the right course of action for them. It wasn’t a strategic business move, or a planned change, it was forced upon them so they made it work. But now is the time to hit pause and strategically assess the impact of hybrid and remote working for the business.
Boeing moved to remote work several years ago, but that was after decades of planning. They had a clear strategic plan, understood how to connect employees, create virtual water cooler moments, how to manage teams. In short, they’d thought it through.
That’s the key here. It’s time to stop digging out the research to support the side you sit on and shift to working together to find a solution.
The focus needs to stop being at a macro level, and instead look at the needs of the individual business, the needs of the customers and clients and the needs of the employees. The decision on the best working model for your particular firm needs to be based only on that information.
For some people, that may mean it’s not the workplace for them and that’s ok. Because for others it’s their ideal firm.
Firms are still trying to navigate this post-covid hybrid world and trying to get the balance right. The market has exacerbated the divide between employees and employers when it comes to where they can work from and how often they need to be in the office.
It needs to stop being either / or, and start being a collaboration.
What’s clear is that the answer to that comes from a firm evaluating its own specific business needs and also flexibility both ways between employers and employees to create the right setup for that individual firm.