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Will homeworking outlast the virus?

Published on 28 July 2021

Will homeworking outlast the virus?

A question has been occupying the minds of millions working from home (WFH) in the past year: will they still be allowed to work remotely, at least some days, once the pandemic has faded? Some people talk more generally about working from anywhere (WFA). Many people like working from home, at least some of the time, but working patterns and the team environment are very different from those purposedesigned by specialist homeworking operations.

Who is work from home popular with?

Some say that Work from Home is popular with workers but not so much with bosses! Data from, a platform that tracks flexible working trends, surveyed 180 companies, mostly startups and scaleups, asking what their expectations for in-office working will be, post-pandemic. They also asked 25,000 job applicants what their preferred balance of working from home and office work would be. The disparity is striking. 8% of candidates wanted to go to the office every day, but 20% of companies expected this. 68% of candidates want to be in an office 2-4 days per week, but only 32% of companies wanted this. They also found that 71% of people are more likely to apply for a role that directly mentions flexibility.

Individual choice and preference

Yet, recent CIPD research found that most employers believe homeworkers are either as productive as other workers, or more productive. They say that managers should be regularly checking in with their staff, discussing their well-being and wherever possible, ensuring decisions about future patterns “are based on individual choice and preference”. This last year “is the biggest experiment we’ve ever had in homeworking,” says Peter Cheese, CEO at the CIPD, whom members will remember from our Leadership Forum in London in 2017. In an interview with the BBC in July, he suggests that WFH “has proved to be a great success for many individuals and organisations”, with business leaders “starting to shift towards judging output, rather than the number of hours spent in front of the computer”. Peter is now leading a government workforce in this area. 

Further research supports hybrid working 

A SurveyMonkey/Zoom poll in the US found that most workers who’ve been doing their jobs remotely would actually prefer a hybrid model. 65% say their ideal choice is a blend of home and office, evenly split between 33% preferring to work mostly from the office and 32% preferring to work mostly from home. Just 20% prefer fully office and 15% fully home working (20% for technology workers). Research by Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, suggests that for many workers the regular daily commute will end as a result of the pandemic. In a recent survey of 5,000 employees in Britain with academics from Nottingham University, working in the office for three days a week was the most popular choice. Indeed, employees reported they regarded this as a perk worth about 6% of wages. A specialist in management practices and uncertainty, he sees that organisations will be essentially making a basic trade-off: the expectation of greater creativity in new projects at the office, but greater productivity on existing tasks at home. There are also major implications for inequality, he points out, only half of all employees can work from home, typically university-educated people in management, professionals or business services – including many but not all customer operations of course.

Is this a global shift in our work lives?

Press reports from global corporations based in the US are a clear sign of the potential cultural shift in work lives. Ford Motor Company told 30,000 workers worldwide, that they can continue to work from home indefinitely, with flexible hours approved by their managers. Their schedules will become a workoffice ‘hybrid’, going into the office mainly for group meetings and projects best-suited for face-to-face interaction. At Google, 62% of employees expressed an interest in returning to the office part-time. As many Google staff would now rather return to the office for good as would like to stay fully remote, an internal survey reveals. But the vast majority said they would like to come back “some days” to work and collaborate with teammates, as well as to socialise. Microsoft has told staff that they will have the option of working from home permanently with manager approval. Twitter has also said remote work would be a permanent option and Facebook has said that up to half of its staff could work remotely within five to ten years.

One organisation standing out as opposed to this trend is Goldman Sachs, where leader David Solomon has said that “for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us. And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.” In particular he was worried about an incoming “class” of about 3,000 new recruits, who wouldn’t get the “direct mentorship” they need. They had operated throughout 2020 with “less than 10% of our people” in the office. In a telling sign of reaction, this appeared alongside reports of interns facing 95- hour weeks, sleep deprivation and nightmare working pressure.

Listening to different voices

Even within the finance sector, there are different voices. In September, JP Morgan’s chief executive Jamie Dimon said that working from home has had a negative effect on productivity. Barclays boss Jes Staley also expressed hope recently that the vaccine would allow employees to return to the office. However, more recently Lloyds Banking Group said it planned to cut the amount of office space it uses by 20% within three years, and HSBC has announced a 40% cut in its office footprint. In April 2021, they announced 70% of UK contact centre staff (1,200 people) voted to work from home on a full-time basis. HSBC have agreed to pay them £300 per year to cover their additional home heating costs. Unions were supportive of the change. British Airways will let staff split their working lives between the head office and home in another example of big firms offering flexible employment. The airline is also exploring the sale of its huge Waterside HQ near Heathrow Airport, where 2,000 people worked before the coronavirus lockdown. The firm is in a race to cut costs after the virus led travel to collapse. A BBC study in August 2020 found 50 major UK employers had no plans to return all staff to the office full time.

Reach, one of the leading news publishers in the UK, is calling time on the traditional newspaper office, telling three-quarters of its journalists that they will permanently work from home in future. They will no longer be expected to come to the office full-time. Although there will be hub offices with meeting rooms, dozens of mid-sized towns will lose their remaining newspaper office, with staff having to commute to the nearest major city if they want to work at a company desk. An internal survey found most people felt they did not need to be in an office to do their job, but 70% still missed seeing their colleagues in person. Reach are owners of the Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Daily Star and hundreds of regional newspapers around the UK and Ireland.

What is driving our decision making?

Capita has permanently closed 11% of its office space in 2020, including its London head office, and is looking to reduce its office space by a further 15% in 2021. The company announced last August that it was to close over a third of its offices in the UK permanently but planned to hire 900 staff to manage London’s congestion charge and low emission zones, the majority of whom would be allowed to work remotely and encouraged to work from home. Capita, one of the major providers of outsourced services to the UK government, aims to raise £700m by selling off assets and cutting costs. The 400 people making up the Northern Ireland workforces of Hughes Insurance and parent company Liberty have been told that they will now be working from home permanently. Remote employees will receive a €660 (£566) gross annual payment to cover any related remote working expenses. One branch will be used as a hub which staff can visit up to two days a week if they wish. In the UK the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported the number of people who did some work at home in 2020 rose by 9.4 percentage points from a year earlier to almost 36% of the workforce, representing more than 11 million employees. However, there were substantial variations between occupations and parts of the country, reflecting the differing experiences of the pandemic for workers as some were hit harder by the crisis than others. That was comparable to the US, where 42% of the workforce was remote in May, according to Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom. The ONS also suggested that people might feel well enough to work from home while sick if they did not have to travel. Staff based at home took less than half the amount of sick leave, with two days compared with four for other employees. This may reflect the reduced risk of catching an infection. Reports from round-table leadership discussions at The Forum showed different levels in different companies, with some suggesting that this linked with leadership style and approach. This was even more apparent in looking at other productivity metrics and shrinkages. Handling time of course is also impacted by the speed of systems and connections, very different when working from home and work by our Awards Finalists AXA Insurance and Pegasystems demonstrated how this could be tackled using data from desktop analytics.

Looking to the future

A survey by PwC last summer showed 55% of respondents expect continued remote work. Of 133 executives, mostly from large companies, just 17% said they wanted employees back in the office as soon as possible. An additional 26% said they preferred only limited remote work but recognized that it’s become popular with employees. “If job postings are a guide, employers are increasingly open to remote work, even as some employees return to the workplace,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed to AP. The share of Indeed’s job postings that mention “remote work” or “work from home” reached just 7% last month, but this is more than double what was less than 3% a year ago. Yet reports suggest that flexible remote work is hardly an equal opportunity. Low paid work often requires on-site work or face-to-face contact with the public. More than one-third of Asian employees and a quarter of whites worked from home because of the pandemic in January, according to an analysis of US government data by the Conference Board, a business research group. Just 19% of black workers and 14% of Hispanics were able to do so. In the UK, trade unions are calling for higher sick pay to help those needing to selfisolate. This situation is also severe for those working in the ‘gig economy’.

This article was first published in the 2021 Best Practice Guide - Unlocking Opportunities: You are the Key

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

Author: Paul Smedley

Published Date: 27/04/2021

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