Parisians are snacking over spreadsheets at their kitchen tables, unshackled from laws prohibiting them from eating at their desks. London lawyers are sipping wine on evening Zoom calls to New York colleagues, without incurring memos from HR. And Russian office workers are no longer being paid lower wages for doing the same job outside of company premises.
While Covid-19 has accelerated many trends—online shopping, say, or movie streaming—it has driven a coach and horses through office life everywhere. The Economist recently noted that in the U.S., the world’s largest economy, only 5% of people worked from home pre-pandemic. By spring 2020, that figure was 60%. Moreover, this shift has gone far better than anyone had expected. People are working longer hours and are more productive, yet they report higher levels of happiness.
The current buzzword is “hybrid”—a blend of office and remote working that will allow employees to do focused work at home and enjoy a better work-life balance. Offices, meanwhile, will become a destination for innovation, collaboration, networking, coaching and socialising. Or, as Jeffrey Saunders, CEO at Copenhagen-based Nordic Foresight, puts it: “workplaces should be places where employees come – not because they have to, but because they want to.”
Banking giant HSBC is ditching executive offices in favour of hot-desking; its CEO, Noel Quinn, told the Financial Times: “I won’t be in the office five days a week… It’s the new reality.” Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, which employs more than a quarter of a million people, suggests that only 60% of employees may now even need desks. Indeed, a recent Microsoft survey of 30,000 employees worldwide found that 70% desire flexible work options, while 66% of companies are considering dismantling partitions and glass boxes in favour of an inclusive hybrid future. Some outfits are even encouraging staff to work from anywhere all the time. Quora now employs a ‘Head of Remote”; Automattic, the parent of WordPress and Tumblr, has closed its San Francisco HQ.
As if this seismic shift isn’t monumental enough, it is taking place amid a backdrop of heightened harmony. MIT Sloan Management Review revealed a huge spike in workers’ approval ratings of their employers’ culture and values when Covid broke out, especially in terms of transparency and communication. Willis Research Network found that 90% of firms believe their culture has improved during the pandemic; 83% believe employee experience is better; and 84% believe employee engagement has gone up in the past few months.
“Workplaces should be places where employees come – not because they have to, but because they want to.”
“Covid-19 may be the best thing that ever happened to employee engagement,” proclaims Josh Bersin, a leading global research analyst in human resources and talent management, on his widely-read blog. “Businesses are bending over backward to take care of their employees. Why? Because they have to. It took a global health crisis for business and HR leaders to wake up to the fact that when people don’t feel safe, supported, or emotionally secure, they simply cannot do their jobs.”
The pandemic has clearly uncorked a torrent of empathy. “Working from home has become a real leveller,” says Kate Lister, president of San Diego-based Global Workplace Analytics. “When you’ve seen someone’s kitchen on Zoom, or their child climbs onto their lap or their dog wanders in, you can’t go back to just seeing them as so-and-so from the office. Equally, watching your boss trying to work the camera is a reminder that we’re all human, muddling through this together.”
Yet the blurring of home and office life could have profound consequences. On the plus side, it will force some firms to raise their game in leadership, communications and staff training, initially, at least. Hopefully, it will also lead to laws to better protect workers outside the office. With poor management though, Lister warns, it could also lead to the unravelling of the company’s culture.
“Company culture has to be the anchor of any new hybrid or remote working model,” explains Lister. “And you don’t have a strong culture without trust. Employers have to be clear what they expect from their people, they have to give them the right training, the right remuneration package, whatever… and make them feel like they’re a part of what’s going on. At the same time, if employees want more freedom and autonomy, they have to take their responsibilities seriously too.”
In other words, the more alienated a company’s management and its employers feel from each other, the more moral disengagement—or what psychologist Anne Tenbrunsel called in her book Blind Spots, “ethical fading”—could gradually creep in.
Anecdotally, at least—some employers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in central London, are already questioning the business sense of continuing to pay such high salaries, when work-from-home staff are choosing to relocate to far less expensive places, and do not need to buy expensive daily train tickets. It is not difficult to imagine this as the first step on a slippery slope for some companies who decide to favour full-time staff who live in cheaper parts of the country. Or even other countries where wages are much lower.
“Good employers will always let staff choose where they want to work as much as possible but when you’re no longer constrained by commuter distance, it upends the whole work model,” says Chris Hood, director of consulting (EMEA) at Advanced Workplace Associates. “Some companies will suddenly realise they can hire the best employees from a much bigger talent pool.”
Dan Newns, the co-founder of Birmingham tech firm Jump24, claims he has always struggled with recruiting locally, but says the switch to remote working means he can look for staff all over the U.K. Rhian Sherrington, founder of the Women in Sustainability Network, has closed her Bristol office and opened new hubs in Hertfordshire and New York. “So long as we get a team Christmas party, I’m happy to keep this up,” Sherrington confided to The Guardian last month.
“It is only natural for housebound workers to experience a sense of isolation, stress and anxiety, which will likely lead to them cutting corners, bending the rules, and possibly making unethical decisions.”
“The downside to that freedom is, if you’re the boss, at some point you may have to ask: am I profitable?” warns Hood. “Bad employers could easily take advantage of a blended workforce by not respecting ‘out-of-work-hours’ or even ignoring the fact there are different time zones.”
In fact, a study last year by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research of 3.1 million workers throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East found “significant and durable increases” in the number of emails sent internally and the number of recipients. By measuring the time between the first and last emails sent (or meetings attended), the researchers concluded that, since the pandemic, the average workday across all countries had become 48.5 minutes longer. This is despite the fact that some form of the “right to disconnect” is already included in some countries’ employment laws, or is enshrined in many large companies’ rulebooks.
“When people don’t feel safe, supported, or emotionally secure, they simply cannot do their jobs.”
Hood points out that remote workers are likely to feel particular pressure to always be available to an unsympathetic manager. And, of course, if employers have to let employees go, it may be a whole lot easier if you’ve never physically met – let alone bonded at a company barbecue.
However, Lister believes that, with skills shortages in several industries across Western economies, it is often employees who actually have the upper hand. “Anyone who thinks their staff are looking forward to things returning to how they were is in for a shock,” she says. “A lot of people liked spending more time with their family and are not exactly thrilled about that daily commute.”
Indeed, a survey of 1,000 U.S. workers in May showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers were not flexible about remote work. The generational difference is clear: among millennials and Gen Z, that figure stood at 49%, according to the poll by Morning Consult on behalf of Bloomberg News.
This means that the pressure is on companies to optimise engagement with staff working remotely, giving them agency, empowerment and focus, according to Lister. “It is much easier to quit a job if you feel isolated,” she points out. “Without the ties that bind office life together, people could feel far less loyalty towards poor managers. When you’re working from home, it’s much easier swapping one face on a computer screen for another.”
Distance breeds distrust
Problems may arise long before workers quit however. On a webinar panel last November, to discuss fiscal uncertainty during the economic shutdown, Professor Sreedhari Desai, at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, noted: “It is only natural for housebound workers to experience a sense of isolation, stress and anxiety, which will likely lead to them cutting corners, bending the rules, and possibly making unethical decisions.” This could run the gamut from spending a rainy Monday watching Bridgerton under a duvet to selling company secrets down the Dog And Duck. In Desai’s view, the more time you spend at your breakfast bar, the likelier you are to plunge down an ethical sinkhole.
The solution is not so straightforward. In a recent survey of 2,000 employers, for example, Express VPN found 78% of employers are using surveillance software to track their employees’ performance or online activity even though 83% of them have moral concerns over such activities. More than half started using this so-called “tattleware” or “bossware” in the last six months. At the same time, 41% of employees admit that recordings of their work calls could get them fired.
“The pressure is on companies to optimise engagement with staff working remotely, giving them agency, empowerment and focus.”
Even though plummeting trust tends to lead to a fall in productivity and stalled innovation, there is usually a legal requirement to prove that contracted obligations have been met, points out Nathaniel Caiden, a barrister who specialises in employment and privacy at top London chambers Cloisters.
As companies wrestle with the ethical dimensions surrounding monitoring Caiden expects a deluge of calls to legal departments. Equally, working from home can create challenges for some with data protection. “One issue is that many people will be working off their own devices, which are shared by other members of the family, and may be storing information on personal devices insecurely,” he points out.
A cascade of other hot-button topics will likely include: whether home-workers are reimbursed for those devices; who is accountable for cybersecurity breaches when employees use their own computers; and a multitude of health and safety compliances issues—or as Jeffrey Saunders at Nordic Foresight puts it—who is liable if a laptop falls on a kid’s head?
Just as the rise of the gig economy makes it harder to determine who is an employee and who is self-employed, so the rise of working from home tests the boundaries where employees’ and employers’ responsibilities begin and end. While companies and individuals alike are embracing the move from office to remote-working, the next stage clearly requires investments in technology, training and the rebuilding of organisational structure.
As Josh Bersin notes, the companies most likely to succeed in future are the ones who are already radically rethinking their leadership and are now focused on empathy, resilience, caring, and safety—pretty much everything that has got them through the last few crazy months.