In early March coronavirus meant working from home became the new normal for many of us. By the start of April nearly 35% of workers in the US had swapped the office for their homes. But the new normal isn’t temporary. Long after coronavirus, working from home will remain a big part of our lives.
During the transition to remote working in March 2020, about 25% of executives and small-business owners purchased new digital tools to help employees working from home. A large majority expect that tool usage to be permanent after COVID-19.
These will be the companies whose workers remain working from home in some function post-pandemic, as we move towards a more integrated system of in-person and virtual hybrid work.
Companies that have invested in their digital workforce during the pandemic will see reverting to the old normal as a step backwards.
It won’t be ubiquitous. Workplace expert and futurist, Alexandra Levit, who also received a Radar award in 2019 from Thinkers50—who identify the leading management ideas of our age—says the reaction to COVID-19 and working from home has split businesses into two camps.
There are the companies who will keep in place remote work and those are the ones who were already somewhat distributed to begin with, and then there are the companies who have an entrenched office culture and haven’t yet changed their minds.
The new reality of working from home is one we'd have faced in the next decade or so anyway, says Alexandra (pictured right). The pandemic has simply accelerated the process and the businesses who haven't yet changed their mind around remote work will have to come around to a new way of thinking about and structuring their workforce.
A long-term shift to hybrid working
It isn’t feasible to say everyone who has an internet connection, Zoom, or a Microsoft Teams account is good to go with remote work. Jonathan Dingel—associate professor of economics at Chicago Booth School of Business and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research—explains that the transition raises big questions for organizations about how they structure their workforce, and how they cause personnel to work with one another.
“That’s not going to be the default for firms that were organized with the assumption of co-located people working face to face,” he says.
Michael Segalla, professor of management at HEC Paris who also has a PhD in organizational studies and labor relations, adds that workers don’t want to live fully atomized lives disconnected from human contact.
In the immediate future splitting work between office and home will be unavoidable as companies restructure their workplaces for coronavirus. A rota system will be temporarily required as different teams alternate between office and home to adhere to social distancing requirements.
But beyond that, hybrid work will remain.
The shift to remote work could be particularly resounding in the US. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper found that more than 35% of firms think that 40% or more of the current switch to remote working will be permanent.
Twitter has told its employees they can continue to work from home permanently. Other big tech firms like Google and Facebook have said they will operate at around 30% of office capacity, with most workers allowed to work from home through 2020.
Before the pandemic, Jonathan (pictured right), together with Brent Neiman—the Edward Eagle Brown professor of economics at Chicago Booth—predicted that around 37% of US jobs could be plausibly done at home. The pandemic has accelerated the transition.
“This has taken maybe five or ten years of change and crunched it down into just a couple of short months,” explains Jonathan (pictured right), who teaches a course on managing the firm in a global economy at Booth. “The pandemic has potentially changed the future of work in the sense that lot of these changes might not have happened absence [it].
“I think it will force people to adopt new technologies and potentially change their beliefs and lead businesses to reconsider their office and personnel arrangements in a variety of different ways.”
A shift in mentality
Over half of managers think working remotely during the pandemic has gone better than expected. The caveat to that is that the answer depends how well or badly those managers thought it was going to work in the first place. If best case scenario was utter chaos, then a marginal drop in productivity will likely be a positive.
Even if companies have seen a slight performance drop, the shift to working from home has benefitted some employees. Michael (pictured right) points to a poll in France that found 71% of people who had never previously worked at home before the pandemic now wished to do so at least once per week. 79% said they would do so even if it meant giving up their office.
“Because French workers have the legal right to ask their employers to work from home, the results of this survey are exceptionally relevant,” he explains.
Being forced into working from home was an experiment that at the start of the pandemic most of us would probably have been skeptical about. But for those who’ve been able to, it has worked.
Because of this it’s likely that post-pandemic the taboo around requesting to work more frequently from home will have been replaced by confidence that work can be done productively from where employees feel most comfortable. It’s also been a lesson in utilizing the digital technology available for home working.
The office will still be a part of our working lives, we’ll just spend less time physically in it. And it will take work for companies to establish a digital culture that fits the culture in the office, so workers who spend more of their time at home don’t become isolated, and still fit in.
The future of work was always heading in this direction. COVID-19 has simply accelerated the process, condensing into four short months what would have taken over a decade. That’s a good thing, and it had forced us to grapple with a challenge we were always going to face as hybrid work becomes the new normal.
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