2022 and beyond
A year on, the move to remote and hybrid working driven by the pandemic continues to have the most lasting impact on work as increasing numbers of employers and employees take the opportunity to reconsider their working arrangements.
Remote working covers a wide range of working patterns where employees work away from an office or workplace base. It includes engaging workers in different parts of their home country or in countries overseas.
Hybrid working involves a working pattern in which the individual splits their time between their home and the employer’s workplace, usually the office. Whether hybrid working is practicable and, if so, how it will work depends on the context – the nature of the organisation, the role and the individual’s personal circumstances. Although some jobs can be carried out remotely, around 60% of all workers cannot benefit from the flexibilities of hybrid (or remote) working. For example, those whose roles are based on direct “in person” presence at a place of work.
More than 8 in 10 workers who had to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic said they planned to continue with a hybrid work arrangement. Since then, hybrid working rose from 13% in early February 2022 to 24% in May 2022. The percentage working exclusively from home has fallen from 22% to 14% in the same period, as employers started to require workers to spend some time in the office. The proportion of homeworkers planning to work mostly from home rose by 12% between April 2021 and February 2022. Data indicates that hybrid work is more common among higher earners, and that the youngest and oldest workers are least likely to embrace hybrid working. Responding to the rise in popularity of hybrid working, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) has published useful guidance on home and hybrid working for employers.
The degree of autonomy and flexibility provided by hybrid working arrangements varies, depending on the model adopted. In some cases, the employer will dictate the number of days (and sometimes particular days) employees are required to work in the office. This can be necessary to ensure that employees are in the office together to facilitate collegiality, foster a sense of belonging and help build trust. Many employers also need to manage the days in the office carefully to avoid workers all turning up at the same time, particularly where companies look to reduce office space. In other cases, employees can control the days they work from the office, generally subject to minimum attendance requirements. The degree of control an employee has over their place of work has been referred to as the autonomy/flexibility spectrum. A study by Advanced Workplace Associates showed a strong employee preference to work between one and three days per week in the office.
A government report on the impact of remote and hybrid working on workers and organisations indicated that hybrid working arrangements can: improve productivity; increase job satisfaction; promote more inclusive ways of working; reduce sickness absence levels and, potentially, reduce overhead costs in the longer term. This report from the Office of National Statistics also highlighted improved wellbeing; a better work-life balance; fewer distractions; and an ability to complete tasks more quickly as consequences of carrying out work at home as compared to office-based work. A study by King’s College London of London workers who worked at least one day a week from home, revealed that the younger generations are more likely to recognise the benefits of remote working than older colleagues. This study also showed that as well as freedom and control, savings of time and money are important drivers behind homeworking.
The flexibility offered by hybrid working is now an important factor for individuals when choosing which organisation to join.
A shift in working patterns was already underway before the pandemic due to the combined effect of several drivers of change. However, Covid was the catalyst for a sudden acceleration in the adoption of more flexible ways of working. As the world of work continues to evolve, there is no indication that it will be possible, or even desirable, to revert to the pre-pandemic ways of working, despite the attempts of some politicians, influential businesses and commentators.
Despite the wide adoption of hybrid and remote working arrangements, a range of challenges are becoming apparent. A disconnect is emerging between managers’ and employees’ views on productivity and working from home. A Microsoft report in September 2022 found that while 87% of workers felt they worked as (or more) efficiently at home, 80% of managers disagreed. Remote working arrangements can also increase the potential risk of isolation, stress and health issues from working in unsuitable environments. The growth of hybrid and remote working has seen a corresponding increase in the adoption of remote worker surveillance to monitor employee performance, with the potential to undermine trust and impact on employees’ sense of autonomy. As new ways of working make new demands of managers and HR teams, organisations will need to carefully navigate these emerging challenges.
Increased home working brings with it the risk that those working from home will lose out on opportunities in the workplace. This has the potential to disadvantage particular segments of the workforce. For example, women are more likely than men to work from home.
The benefits of increased flexibility in working arrangements will not be equally distributed throughout the working population and could increase economic and social inequalities.
Increased homeworking also indirectly impacts businesses supporting city centre office workers. While many have lost customers, those businesses closer to workers’ homes have benefited. These shifts will have lasting consequences for city centres and the services sector which relied heavily on steady footfall from office workers before the pandemic.
With energy prices soaring this winter, for some working from home has become working from local cafes or pubs to save on household energy bills and for others a (temporary) return to the office until winter is over and heating costs decline.