During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sudden shift towards remote working, with around 50% of employees told to work full time from their homes.
Many employees enjoyed the flexibility and optimal work-life balance that this offered. It meant they could ditch the daily commute, avoid many of the interruptions of the office and focus on being more productive instead.
Others missed the camaraderie of the office, found working from home to be too distracting, and couldn’t wait to get back to normal.
Three years on, an increasing number of organisations are telling their staff to return to the office five days a week if they want to keep their jobs.
This leaves us with a big question – were these remote working practices simply temporary solutions to a global pandemic? Or could hybrid or remote working be here to stay?
Remote and hybrid working wasn’t anything new
Long before the pandemic, increasing numbers of employees wanted to adopt flexible working. Many felt they would benefit from the increased autonomy, better work-life balance and greater job satisfaction it would offer.
However, most employers were reluctant to adopt this approach, believing that a lack of supervision would lead to lower performance.
As a result, flexible working was only possible for a lucky few, and even then, only around 5% of the workforce took advantage of the option to work from home. Most of these were self-employed or working in areas such as technology, administration, construction, interior design and architecture.
Many forward-thinking organisations did experiment with remote working options, only to pull the plug several months later.
This famously happened in 2013 when the former CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, announced that employees would no longer be allowed to work remotely, saying that high-quality work, maximum productivity and optimal collaboration were only possible when working from an office.
How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the popularity of remote working
When the pandemic struck, everything changed. Overnight, employers were forced to adopt remote working practices to ensure that businesses could operate as usual despite what was happening in the wider world.
Although this was somewhat disruptive at the time, it shifted common practice in the workplace and showed employers that working remotely did indeed offer unique benefits.
Overall, employees became more engaged and productive, absenteeism decreased, company overheads reduced and staff retention rates increased. Additionally, many business owners realised that without the usual geographic constraints, they could recruit new team members from a global talent pool.
Employees also enjoyed the benefits of this new work-from-home arrangement. They could avoid the daily commute, become more productive, and fully relax after the working day was over. For employers, potential benefits included reduced worker burnout and improved professional performance.
So why are we seeing a shift back to in-office working practices?
Despite these clear advantages, many companies are asking their employees to return to the office five days a week or risk losing their jobs.
Elon Musk did exactly this back in November 2022 during his takeover of the social media giant, Twitter.
Musk said, “The road ahead is arduous and will require intense work to succeed. We are also changing Twitter policy such that remote work is no longer allowed, unless you have a specific exception.”
Given the flexibility they’d been previously offered, many chose to leave their jobs and look for other remote-working opportunities, so they could continue to enjoy the benefits that it offered to them and their families.
But Twitter isn’t the only company to demand that workers return.
With a potential economic crisis looming on the horizon, more and more businesses are telling employees to return so they can improve working processes and ensure they stay afloat.
In a recent LinkedIn poll conducted by Hunter Dunning, 56% of respondents said that their company’s remote working policy had shifted towards being more office based in the last year. And, according to LinkedIn’s October 2022 Global Talent Trends report, remote job positions fell to 14% in September last year, from 20% just a few months earlier.
What do employees think about this shift away from remote working?
Many employees reluctantly admit that they do enjoy working from an office. They appreciate the social connections, a more work-focused environment and the ability to set clear boundaries between work and home. However, many others remain unwilling to sacrifice the flexibility that remote working offers.
Even though there are fewer remote work listings, job seekers still prefer roles that offer this opportunity. One study by McKinsey & Co. from July 2022 showed that 40% still said that workplace flexibility was a key requirement, and that if their employer cancelled the arrangement, they would be likely to quit the role.
This means that employers and employees alike are faced with difficult choices. With employers wanting their teams to return and employees wanting flexibility, we need to find a middle ground if we are to protect the future of our businesses and the economy.
So will employers take away flexible working options?
The truth is that employers have seen that remote working does offer unique benefits. It can help boost performance and motivation while protecting the mental health of employees.
Therefore, in order to recruit key talent, they need to make compromises when it comes to remote working arrangements, despite the current pressures on the economy.
Whether hybrid/remote working practices will change over the coming years remains to be seen. But one thing is clear – employees now demand greater flexibility and work-life balance in their careers. This is likely to shape the future of employment.
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