After the exodus

By Aoife Doyle

The nudge to return to the office is turning into a shove. With hectic commutes sandwiching the traditional 9-to-5 working day displaced by government-imposed homeworking, the way we view work has been fundamentally inverted. The pandemic is a basepoint to the fact that a new era of work is here, and businesses emerging from the pandemic have a unique opportunity to shape how, when, and where people will work in the years to come. Still, vast swathes of the labour force are unable to work remotely. These sectors have had profound effects on the economy, inequality in the workplace, and the future of major cities. As governments lift restrictions, allowing office work once again, expectations of workers differ considerably amongst businesses. Companies have three broad choices: bring everyone back to the office, allow employees to work remotely, or adopt a hybrid working model. One might view this as a polarising decision – the answer is a marker of whether the company will put their employees’ needs above their own, or if they are willing to develop a model that combines the best for all.      

Prior to the pandemic, the conventional wisdom was that working from the office was critical to productivity, corporate culture, and capturing talent. After 16 months, many dispute this sentiment, with evidence backing up claims that working from home improved employees’ productive capacity. A study conducted by Stanford found that working from home increased productivity by 13% and attrition rates decreased by 50%. The once novel ideas of casual dress and more flexible working hours have become essential to the relaxed atmosphere of remote working. Industry-leading companies are questioning long-held assumptions regarding how work should be performed in addition to the role of the office. The aspiration for many companies willing to adjust to a hybrid work pattern is to maximise employees’ capabilities by enabling them to do focused work at home, reduce commutes and allow them to balance professional and private lives better. Work-life balance has also significantly improved, with a report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development finding that 61% of employees claimed their work-life balance had improved due to working from home. Organizations drafting new work arrangements will need to keep specific social concerns in mind to avoid the potential for burnout and blurring boundaries between home and work. In turn, office space will turn into a destination for innovation, collaboration, networking, coaching, and socialising. This vision is idealistic since companies are aware that every employee has individual needs; a universal return to the workplace will not benefit everyone. 

A hybrid working model is far from simplistic. One can attempt to condense such a concept and focus on just two important considerations: place and time. The primary focus attributed to the pandemic has been on the place as millions of workers made the shift from being place-constrained, working in the office to working anywhere – for most, in their homes. The lesser focused on, but perhaps the more important is time, as workers changed from time-constrained, working synchronously with others to working in an asynchronous manner. Firms currently split between home and office workers are already noting that it can be arduous to manage and adds to divisions between the in-office community and the at-home community. Those in the office can easily discuss ideas and work on new projects without having to set up meetings and converse through a screen. Geographical disparities are also a contributing factor to employees’ resistance to new working patterns. In the Shanghai office of B+H Architects, it became mandatory to work from home one day a week. The experiment discovered that “Ninety per cent saw some element as a benefit but living arrangements in major Chinese cities can be cramped”, and not everyone had the amenities to work from home. Those with larger at-home workspaces, fundamentally senior workers within corporations, will find working from home less strenuous as they have clear boundaries separating their workspace and their living areas. In contrast, millennials just starting their careers find themselves attempting to accommodate an office and home into much smaller living arrangements. Moreover, new hires will have a harder time adjusting to the new workplace, since working from home prevents side-bar conversations with co-workers further hampering their development within the industry and impeding natural learning. 

Working from home has become a source of socioeconomic inequality as several industries cannot perform their job remotely. Hospitality, the arts, and retail industry, to name a few, have seen workers forced into unemployment, temporary or permanent, due to extended periods of restrictions preventing businesses from opening. However, this burden seems to have fallen disproportionally on lower-income workers. The Economic Policy Institute found that less than 30% of US workers were able to work from home, a statistic that varied extensively between race and ethnicity. Higher educated, higher-earning employees are considerably more apt to work from home; continuing to get paid, develop their skills and progress their careers. Those unable to work from home are being left behind. These individuals face bleak prospects as extended lockdowns reduce their abilities and work experience. Despite politicians indicating workers in such industries should ‘retrain and get a new job’ there is a niche for these industries in the lives of all as we patiently wait for the green light for re-opening. 

A permanent move toward hybrid work could result in widespread breakdowns at city-centre service companies, redistributing economic activity away from large cities, towards suburban and rural areas. Retailers on high streets in towns and suburbs are suffering less from a downturn in trade than witnessed in major cities owing to the fact that people remain closer to home. Thus, major cities that rely heavily on office workers will need to diversify and adapt to more remote working patterns. 

All signs pointing toward some form of a hybrid working model puts employers at a difficult crossroad. In particular, data breaches are far more likely to occur when employees are working away from the office. In 2020 the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) revealed that 10% more UK businesses were experiencing breaches or attacks weekly than in 2017. Nevertheless, employers must extend some trust to their employees and provide confidence and tools to work flexibly whenever they want. To support a hybrid model of work, firms will need to invest in an agglomerate of technologies and guarantee that their data is secure. 

While COVID-19 has ushered in new and durable ways to work, capitalising on the benefits of any shift to work from home will involve putting employees at the centre of business plans. Understanding the benefits of both home and office working will enable policymakers and corporations to make informed decisions about the future of work. It is a comfortable segue back into the new normal. Even if hybrid work does not become a feature of all workplaces, the scale of this shift for organisations that adopt these new practices is not to be underestimated. There is no roadmap to be followed, and so the opportunity to reimagine the future of work has never been so profound. Businesses have the ability to explore solutions that fit and flex to suit their organisation best. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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