In focus: Life after Covid (part 2) – The great debate around remote working

5 min read 24 Sep 21

The positives and negatives of working from home have been a source of debate throughout the pandemic. But (whisper it) as life starts to get back to some kind of normality, this issue is now reaching crunch point as many businesses face a decision about if and how to make a return to office working.  

And, as we’re about to find out, that decision isn’t necessarily an easy one, with many people divided on the subject. Ask around friends, family and colleagues and you’ll likely find a distinct split between those who are itching to know if and when they can get out of the house and back into the office while others are looking for reassurance that their current home working routine won’t change. 

What’s the official guidance? 

Strictly speaking, all guidance relating to home working was actually removed by the UK government on 19th July but for reasons including the Delta variant, many companies have opted not to act on this as of yet. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also faced criticism from both businesses and MPs for a lack of clear messaging on the subject. Elsewhere in the UK, the Scottish government has said that a ‘gradual return to offices can begin in line with staff wellbeing discussions and business need’, although it adds that firms should consider a hybrid working model for the longer term. The Welsh government is also promoting a long-term shift to increase remote working. And the latest available guidance from Northern Ireland is still encouraging home working where possible.  

Much of the guidance is clearly being left open to interpretation to a greater or lesser extent, meaning it falls largely to individual businesses to decide on what is right for both the needs of their business and staff. 

Is home working, working? 

A temperature check quickly gives a sense of if and what action other firms are taking across the world of work. Larger businesses in particular will naturally have more time and resource to put into researching and weighing up the pros and cons, so we’ll draw from some of this as we go. 

Let’s start with a study from tech giant Microsoft which looked at data from 61,000 workers in the US and found a range of issues with home working which, in its view, outweigh the benefits. According to the data, working from home has made employees ‘more siloed in how they communicate’, with fewer real-time conversations, while also increasing the average number of hours worked per week.  

UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak appears to share concerns about home working, repeatedly stating that it is damaging prospects for younger workers in particular.  

A bit of balance 

The key then, may well be a balance between remote and office working, or a ‘hybrid’ model as it’s sometimes referred to. Indeed despite its negative view of home working, Microsoft’s CEO has said the business will continue to promote hybrid working going forward.  

Insurance Broker Willis Towers Watson recently surveyed 120 British companies and found that 41% of employers expect to use hybrid working in two years’ time, compared to just 10% two years previous.  

So what constitutes the right balance of home and office working as part of this hybrid model? Interestingly, global firm Cisco’s hybrid working model does not include any mandates for how often staff need to be in the office. And for those employees that do want to be office-based, Cisco says it expects less than a quarter will want to be there for three or more days per week. 

Figures from major recruitment firm Reed show that applications for either ‘dynamic’ or ‘hybrid’ working increased at the start of the pandemic, as did the number of people applying for positions of this kind. However, as the pandemic has gone on, Reed found that the number of roles offering hybrid working actually dropped back from 9.2% in January to 5.6% in July. 

Too soon? 

If you do feel strongly that a full-time return to the office is the best option for your business and staff, then the timing could be a very important factor to get right. Especially when you consider recent examples, where Apple staff won a successful campaign against CEO Tim Cook’s plan to bring everyone back into the office by September 2021. 

Since then, the company has announced that a return to the office will be delayed until 2022. And Apple isn’t the only one, with other major global firms including BlackRock, Amazon and Facebook announcing similar delays until 2022.   

What not to do 

Apple’s premature push to end home working is just one of quite a few colourful examples of lessons that can be learned from what not to do when it comes to considering what the future of work should look like. 

One thing that should almost certainly be avoided is a similar move to Google which has threatened to cut the salaries of employees who choose to work from home on a permanent basis. And, even if you’re concerned about the impact of long-term remote working on your business, it’s probably best to steer clear of some of the so-called ‘digital surveillance platforms’ as a potential solution. The Guardian recently reported the rise of such platforms in some workplaces, including one firm which introduced technology called Sneek that captures a live photo of employees using the webcams on their own company laptops…as often as every minute. If this is starting to sound far-fetched, data from search engine Google reports that queries for ‘remote monitoring’ had actually risen 212% year on year in April 2020 and has grown by another 243% by April of this year. 

So what’s the answer? 

Firms may not yet have clear guidance, and indeed that might never come if governments feel it’s a step too far to dictate to businesses now that the immediate state of emergency appears to have passed. However, when it comes to putting your best foot forward as a business in this situation, everything we have discussed here – good and bad – all points to the need to get the basics right. That means communication and in particular avoiding springing any decisions on employees without engaging with them first. The more open conversations you can encourage with employees to allow them to be up front about their needs and feel part of the decision-making process, the better.  

This may also require some honest conversations about the reality of the firm’s own needs and even individual performance, making it vital that you’re prepared with clear justifications and a strong case for whichever working model you ultimately feel is best.