Flexible/remote/hybrid working becomes mainstream

The movement towards flexible working has been growing for some time. For example, in the UK in 2018, of the employed population:

  • 7.2% reported working mainly from home.
  • 30% reported having worked from home sometimes.
YouGov Profiles data shows that 40% of workers think they could do their job from home, compared to 54% who say they couldn't. Regional differences show that 48% of London’s workforce say they can complete their work remotely. This is followed closely by two areas bordering the capital, with 44% of workers in both the East and South East of England saying they capable of getting the day’s work done away from the office. (Source: Who are the Britons working from home? | YouGov published 07/04/2020)
The push towards greater adoption of flexible and remote working has been held back by deeply held views that it was not:
  • technically feasible,
  • culturally acceptable.
The COVID-19 lockdown has substantially debunked both of these objections. Forced remote work during lockdown has shown that not only is remote work possible but that for many it is better.
This is despite the fact that, for many, the experience has been less than ideal.
  • The transition was sudden and unplanned. People struggled to acquire, set up and learn to use the technology required for remote work.
  • Many processes are unsuitable for remote work. In general, organisations which had invested in digitising processes found the transition easier.
  • Parents with young children struggled to make the transition to remote working on top of the already difficult transition to remote schooling.
  • Not all homes are suitable for remote work. Conducting your video calls from a well-appointed study is one thing. Doing so from a kitchen table where your children are also trying to do their homework is quite another.
  • The change comes on top of a number of other stresses. For example, people may be concerned about the health of their friends and family. On top of their work lives, their social lives have also been disrupted.
  • Newly remote workers have complained of 'Zoom* fatigue'. That is, the sense that a day spent in video-conference meetings feels more tiring than a day in physical meetings. There are many theories about what could cause this. Some of them relate to the other issues described above rather than to the nature of the meetings themselves.
Some of these struggles will be temporary. Children will return to school. Other stresses will subside. People will get used to the technology. Processes will improve.
And we know from the long-term remote workers that things like 'Zoom fatigue' are neither permanent nor unavoidable.
The advantages of office environments are well understood. For example:
  • Serendipitous conversations around the proverbial water cooler.
  • Quick conversations as you pass each other in the corridor.
  • Greater awareness of peoples' dispositions. When it's OK to interrupt them and when it's better to wait.
  • The creation of social bonds with people even when you're not formally meeting with them.
  • Those shared cups of coffee or drinks after work.
  • Increased non-verbal communications through body language.
  • The role of the commute as a buffer zone between work and home life.
  • Role modelling (informal) and mentoring (formal) between older more experienced workers and younger new recruits.

The COVID-19 lockdown has made illuminated, on the other hand, the many advantages of remote work:

  • Fewer interruptions.
  • Better work-life-balance as a result of less time spent commuting.
  • Less time and money wasted by travelling between meetings.
  • The ability to hire the best person for the job; not just the best person for the job who just happens to live near your office or is willing to relocate.
  • Greater opportunities for people with certain types of disabilities.
  • A reduced environmental footprint.

A survey of just under 1,000 firms by the Institute of Directors (IoD) shows that:

  • 74% plan on maintaining the increase in home working.
  • >50% planned on reducing their long-term use of workplaces.

(Source: Home working here to stay, study of businesses suggests - BBC New)

A smaller survey of bosses whose firms had already cut workplace use suggested 44% of them thought working from home was proving "more effective". (Source: Home working here to stay, study of businesses suggests - BBC New)

A survey of 1,000 UK and US employees who have been working from home since the beginning of COVID-19 found that:

  • 90% said they would remain with an organisation if they were offered the flexibility of remote working.
  • 75% said the level of communication from their employers had increased since they had been away from the office.
  • 51% said communication with colleagues had improved.
  • 85% said they were more positive about remote working.
  • 52% said they wanted remote working to be a permanent fixture.
  • 36% said they would prefer a flexible work/office balance.
  • 70% said their productivity levels have increased since working from home.
  • If work from home became a permanent benefit:
    • 34% said they would miss seeing colleagues every day.
    • 23% said they would miss leaving the house.
    • 49% said the lack of a commute was a bonus.

Source: 90% employees would stay with an organisation if they offer remote working - Employee Benefits published 04/09/2020

A survey conducted by the research firm Gartner reported that 75% of respondents plan to increase the number of permanent remote employees. (Source: How Working From Home Is Changing The Way We Think About Where We Live)

A study of 2,000 UK employees by Owl Labs found that:

  • 45% of employees would be interested in taking a pay cut to continue working remotely long-term.
  • 15% of staff would take a pay cut of 5% to continue working remotely
  • 46% would leave if their organisation chose to reduce their pay as a cost-cutting measure.
  • 41% of staff would consider resigning if they were forced to return to the office.
  • 84% of respondents will continue to work remotely for the rest of 2020.
  • 44% of employees plan to work from home five days a week
  • 55% plan to work a hybrid of home and office working with up to four days being office-based.
  • If their employer made changes to their salary based on new working costs:
    • 51% of respondents would begin looking for new jobs
    • 8% claim they would leave the organisation even if they did not have another job to go to.

(Source: 55% of staff willing to take pay cut to work remotely - Employee Benefits published 15/10/2020)

Another survey by the Future Strategy Club (FSC) found that:

  • 52% of employees feel closer to their families and enjoy better work-life balance after working from home due to Covid.
  • 40% of employees said having now realised they had had a poor work-life balance they would not return to it.

Source: 52% of UK employees enjoy a better work-life balance after home working - Employee Benefits published 05/01/2021

According to a new study commissioned by Slack, data from a survey of 9,032 knowledge workers in the US, UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia found that:

  • only 12% want to go back to working entirely in an office.
  • The majority of workers—a whopping 72%—want to continue with a hybrid workstyle, a mixture of office work and remote work.
  • 51.6%, report improved work-life balance from remote work, with only 17.8% showing a decline.
  • 45.8% saying things have gotten better in their overall workplace satisfaction, versus only 20% who report a drop. The world’s biggest experiment in work from home is showing that we are generally happier and more satisfied with it.
  • 74.5% have felt no change or an improvement in workplace productivity.

Source: Slack Found Only 12% Of Workers Want To Return To The Office Full Time; This Is Good News

However, instead of returning to the old ways of working when the lockdown is lifted, forward-thinking employers and employees will find new ways of working which provide the best of both alternatives.

If nothing else, we will gain two ways of working instead of one. More individuals will be able to choose between in-office and remote work according to their personal preferences and styles, rather than almost everyone being forced into in-office work whether it suited them or not.

This reconfiguration of work will also provide an opportunity to address some of the toxic meeting cultures found in many organisations.

  • Too many meetings.
  • Poorly structured or absent agendas.
  • Inadequate preparation.
  • Too many and/or the wrong attendees.
  • Poorly chaired meetings.
  • Meetings dominated by the most senior and/or loudest voices rather than those best able to contribute.
  • No clear outcomes.

Simply replicating in-office behaviours and processes into remote environments will reduce, instead of increasing productivity, and lead to more stress instead of less. (See The 5 levels of remote work - and why you're probably at number 2.)

This will largely benefit better educated and more highly paid white-collar workers at the expense of blue-collar workers.
Younger workers have shown great enthusiasm for remote work:
One big loser in this is likely to be commercial office real estate. Excess capacity may be:
  • used to create more spacious, but expensive, offices that better accommodate social distancing.
  • repurposed as inner-city residential space.

The nature of work has been evolving - this change has been hastened, but not created by COVID-19 - as this chart from a book released in 2014 shows:

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