As business leaders contemplate a return to the office, it’s becoming clear that remote working is here to stay. And, with the pandemic bringing about the world’s biggest workplace experiment, what does the future hold for employers and their staff, who are seeking new ways of working?
In early 2021, Aviva announced the closure of a number of offices across the UK. The firm, which employs 16,000 people, plans to allow staff to work from home on a more permanent basis, albeit mixed with time in the office. It’s just one example of how the world’s biggest-ever workplace experiment – a pandemic – is having a long-term impact on where and how we work. And then there’s social distancing. “How can you get several million workers in and out of major cities like New York, London, and Tokyo everyday keeping everyone six feet apart?” asks Nicholas Bloom from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
HR experts and business strategists have talked about flexible working for years but, until COVID-19 hit, it was a rare perk offered by few forward-thinking enterprises. In 2020, 77% of UK employees say they’d prefer to mix office-based and remote working (known as hybrid working), and 79% think it’s important for companies to be more flexible about how and where staff can work. It’s expected the number of days worked remotely will double post-pandemic, going from 1.2 days to 2.4 days a week. “Most organisations believe they need an office but a lot of them are redefining that. And everybody is talking about hybrid working,” says Kursty Groves, founder of workplace innovation consultants Shape WorkLife. Landlords are trying to lure corporate tenants by investing in creating an experience that’s worth commuting for, with social spaces, health and wellbeing amenities, smart technology, clean air, and the highest hygiene practices.
Rise of the flexi hub
It’s expected the future of office-based work won’t be confined to the handful of big cities it was before. London’s net migration is set to decline in 2021 for the first time since 1988, thanks, in part, to the economic fallout of the pandemic, and high housing costs leading people to reassess where they live. Londoners are more likely to work from home than anywhere else in the UK, due to a higher proportion of knowledge-based workers in the city, and are no longer limiting their housing choices to within commutable distance of the office.
If businesses move out of the city centres, what does that mean for the space that’s left behind? Property developers are debating whether shops on the UK’s high streets could become housing for older adults, with the government indicating its intention to relax planning laws. Others anticipate that ‘third places’ (those that are not work or home) could play more of a role in facilitating remote work.
In contrast to the mass exodus from London, there are signs that the UK’s regional cities such as Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, and Belfast are booming. Employers are looking at facilitating a hybrid model of work by decentralising HQs in favour of smaller satellite offices, enabling people to live close to their mini work hub.
Moving to a ‘hub’ model could have wider benefits in terms of gender equality. Research has found that men tend to spend longer commuting to work than women – 43% of women get to work in less than 15 minutes, compared to 34% of men – with commuting times falling significantly after the birth of their first child. This is linked to the gender wage gap, whereby high-paying jobs are more likely to be further from home, in big cities such as London. On the other hand, that transience poses a dilemma for companies that have paid higher wages for those in areas with higher living costs.
The physical office reimagined for a hybrid world
By 2040, experts predict ‘workspace consumers’ will choose their time and place of work. There will be no set hours and productivity will be measured in tasks and goals achieved, with collaboration being the main driver of business performance. The concept of a ‘near office’, or satellite workspaces close to where people live, will help people find a better work-life balance. Organisations won’t necessarily downsize their headquarters, Groves says, but reimagine the space to be used differently. “Rather than just the numbers of desks they need, some companies are thinking about using the same amount of space for more social, more collaboration, more mentoring, more experiential – really thinking about the experience of coming together. The one type of creative space most organisations forget about is the reflective, quiet space. Having contemplative spaces where people can go and recharge is really important.”
People want wellbeing to be top of the priority list
Hybrid work means freedom about when to work, as well as where. It gives employees more autonomy to fit work around their personal lives but still benefits from the structure, face-to-face contact, and sense of community that office working provides. But it will also require new ways to measure productivity and motivation, which might mean more frequent employee satisfaction surveys to monitor the mood of staff. Digital natives like Gen Yers and Zers are likely to want to be in the office more often – 30% of those with under five years’ experience say they’d only want to work remotely one day a week (versus 20% of all respondents), and Slack finds 82% of 25- to 34-year-olds prefer this mixed way of working. “They’ll be very used to working asynchronously and independently, but also need mentoring, social contact, and a sense of purpose and belonging,” says Groves. “Another big challenge and fear of leaders is if people can work from anywhere, then why would they bother working for us?”
Creating a culture that works, wherever you are
If hybrid working is the future, how do you create a culture that feels the same to the entire organisation, wherever they’re working from? Treating everyone the same, helping employees clarify which tasks are best suited to the home or office, and having group meetings in a distributed way, where everyone’s on their own device can really help. There’s a sweet spot to remote working – a Gallup poll finds the most engaged workers are those who spend 60-80% of their time working away from the office. This drops slightly for employees spending 20-60% of their time away remote working, and significantly for those who work off-site all the time. As businesses around the world have discovered during the pandemic, company culture is about more than sitting close to colleagues. But there needs to be investment in the technology and infrastructure to support remote working long-term. The good news is that rent is most companies’ second-biggest expense, so those who can downsize or take on less costly premises can potentially channel savings into other areas.