The pandemic revolutionised the workplace: It’s now everywhere. COVID-19 lockdowns saw homeworking surge across the globe in 2020. And while restrictions almost everywhere have now lifted, the practice persists.
A survey by the Australian Government’s Institute of Family Studies found that more than half (67%) of employees in the country are sometimes or always working from home, compared to 42% pre-COVID. In the UK, almost half of working adults sometimes worked from home during the crisis, and most plan on hybrid working in future, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
As of May 2022, one in seven Brits remained entirely home-based, and nearly a quarter worked both from home and the workplace. Likewise, in the US, Pew Research published earlier this year found that six in ten US workers thought their jobs could be done from home.
Although less common, employees in Africa are also working remotely with the World Economic Forum confirming that 42% of African employees work remotely at least one day a week. In Nigeria for example, vacancies for remote job positions increased steadily between 2020 and 2021.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Partly it’s because concerns over the pandemic also persist. China’s Wuhan district locked down a million people at the end of July, while in Australia in the same month, telecoms company Telstra and Westpac bank advised staff to work from home following national health advice designed to limit the spread of the virus during the winter.
Evolving employee expectations
Of course, these decisions are partly driven by the appeal of home working to many employees, who have significant bargaining power due to tight labour markets and widespread staff shortages in many industries. Vacancies across the US, UK, Germany, Australia and elsewhere have all seen record highs in recent months. It is wise to note that a looming recession could start to shift this power back to employers bringing some balance back to the marketplace however.
Perhaps the most significant reason to expect hybrid working to remain, however, is that the trend towards increased flexibility predates COVID by years. In the US, for example, between the year 2000 and 2010, people working at least one day at home a week increased by 4.2 million, according to The United States Census Bureau. Others, like the UK, have joined countries such as France in giving workers legal rights to request flexible working arrangements.
Most recently, it was reported that lawmakers in the Netherlands are planning to submit a proposal to the Dutch Parliament to begin treating remote work as a legal right for citizens. All of this is in addition to the 2019 Work-life Balance Directive that created an EU-level right to request flexible working for parents and carers.
Like the uptake of workplace technology – to which it’s closely related – the pandemic merely, albeit massively, accelerated an existing trend. The rise of flexible working cannot be avoided, however, it does need to be managed.
Nor is it the only challenge businesses face adopting home and hybrid working.
While recruitment and retention are key motivators to adopt hybrid models, how they’re adopted matters. If not properly managed, remote working can undermine rather than strengthen employees’ loyalty. Without daily interactions, opportunities to socialise and regular engagement from peers and management, employees’ ties to the business will weaken, making them more likely to leave.
A similar risk applies to customers or clients, too, if homeworking means visits and meetings cease. Nor is it just about being in the office or out – employees’ desire for different working times may correspond poorly with customer demands. Without strong personal relationships, some businesses are left competing solely on price for sales and compensation for staff retention.
It is not only businesses that may suffer, however. Again, while homeworking can provide a better work-life balance, poorly managed, those benefits may be undermined. Several studies have shown homeworking during the pandemic adding to working hours and leading to increased fatigue and, worst case, burnout, for example.
It is important to recognise that it is not just the hours that employees work but what they accomplish in them that can add to pressure. The inability to easily seek help and direction to be able to accomplish challenging tasks can leave employees feeling isolated, unsupported and disheartened. Any delays or disruptions in employee performance reviews can have the same affect.
Businesses today cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the risk of losing talent. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the “Great Resignation” trend (a label which marked an unprecedented level of skilled people leaving their jobs since the pandemic), is still going strong. In one of the largest surveys of the global workforce carried out by WEF recently, one in five workers plan to quit their jobs by the end of 2022, which is bad news for businesses looking towards economic recovery and future growth.
Mitigating these risks requires a clear strategy. This will vary widely between industries and the organisations within them. Indeed, the first step will be to understand the business and the unique circumstances of the workforce. Two principles, however, apply:
The first is setting clear expectations, detailing, for instance, the number of days on site and at home, presence at meetings and availability to clients. Companies should not be surprised if hybrid working fails to meet business requirements if it was never designed to do so.
This does not preclude permitting further flexibility on request to accommodate individuals’ responsibilities and particular circumstances but ensures these arrangements are formalised and understood by both sides.
The second is communication, which is critical. That’s true regarding expectations, but it’s also key to ensuring employees feel engaged and supported. Emails and scheduled video conferences are not enough. Businesses, and managers, need to recreate the immediacy, collaboration, and engagement of the live environment. Frequent, unplanned telephone and video calls keep communication, engagement and relationships alive. Because the further away staff are, the closer they need to be kept in mind.