Office, home or hybrid. One workplace model will never again fit all.

By Paul Kelly

Covid continues to influence so much of our world; its impact is clear in the very language we use. Lockdown, track and trace, self-isolation. Not to mention unprecedented…The transformation of our working lives is reflected in this evolving vocabulary: flexible, blended, hybrid. Many welcome the mix, convinced full-time office working with its inevitable long commute’s no way to make a living. Others are equally adamant remote working’s a pale substitute. A simple power struggle between bosses and employees?

While July 19th will fall far short of the firework-fuelled FREEDOM DAY! many yearn for, Boris Johnson’s urging us to return to work gradually over the summer. Some doubt his wisdom, accusing the government of breaking its promise to be data rather than date led. Dr Chaand Nagpaul CBE, BMA council chair, told the Independent “It’s irresponsible – and frankly perilous”, a view shared by WHO expert Dr David Nabarro, “it’s too early to be talking about massive relaxation or freedom.”

Investment banks have been among the most vocal advocates of a back-to-the-office approach, believing people need to be in the workplace to learn their craft. We’ve discussed this apprenticeship culture previously. David Solomon, Goldman Sachs’ head, dismissed remote working as “an aberration” we should correct “as soon as possible”. As well as concerns over productivity dips Monday and Friday and some employee abuse of home working privileges, most criticism’s culture based. Technology’s made home working possible, but it’s difficult to absorb company values from a distance. We watch others to see how they interact. We’re immersed in a common sense of mission and attracted by the same goals. Much information sharing happens informally; spontaneous conversations can generate surprising solutions. A recent Totaljobs study found on average we connect with 17 people daily in the office but only half that working remotely. Some, particularly those living alone, miss these interactions. They welcome definite boundaries between home and work and prefer having separate clothes, routines and surrounding for each.

Companies’ ability to offer flexible working evidently varies greatly by sector and, at the other extreme, outsourcing firm Capita announced most of the 900 new hires who’ll manage the congestion charge and low-emissions zones for TfL will be encouraged to work remotely. It’s closing 25% of its office space by the end of the year. The number of remote-working roles advertised in the UK has risen steadily this year reaching 145,000 in May, 5% of all jobs listed and treble that in August 2020.

For most employers, the future’s hybrid. The UK’s main office occupiers including the big four accountancy firms are all pursuing this model. PWC expects its people in the office 40 – 60% of the time and Schroders won’t resume full-time office working. Mark Zuckerberg intends to work 50% remotely and will allow employees whose jobs can be done effectively to work from home. “We’ve learned over the past year that good work can be done anywhere and I’m even more optimistic that remote work at scale is possible.”

The blended approach certainly seems to appeal to most. One of the largest of its kind, Ernst & Young’s Work Reimagined Employee Survey canvassed the opinions of 16,000 across 16 countries and multiple industries and roles. It found people want to home work 2 – 3 days weekly on average and most, 54%, would consider resigning if not offered flexibility. Individual health concerns are crucial; 700 DVLA workers went on strike in June over workplace safety fears, the Swansea site experiencing more Covid incidences than any other single UK employer. The i also revealed recently that employers expect legal cases brought by employees reluctant to return to work because of health anxieties. “In such cases, claimants do not have to prove their health or safety was in serious or imminent danger – they simply have to demonstrate they genuinely believed this to be true.”

Back to vocabulary, reference to pre- and post-Covid is naïve. More realistic is coexistence with Covid; workplaces must be fluid and agile to safeguard their people, manage the risks and succeed. Hybrid working has its drawbacks; fragmentation of teams and procedures, presenteeism, office cliques excluding homeworkers from decision making all demand careful control. But, the central issue is that most of home working’s benefits favour employees whereas organisations fare better with workers in the office and the positives of onsite attendance affect workers less directly. Although there’s a strong bias for people to prefer options whose benefits are obvious, in person work and the collaboration, spontaneity and shared visions it encourages are better for us.