Coronavirus restrictions last spring required many businesses to quickly shift from the office to remote working. The abbreviation ‘WFH’ became commonplace in our language, and shares in video-calling software Zoom skyrocketed. Just over a year on, with a vaccine rollout in the UK and lowering infection rates after over 120,000 deaths, we ask, is remote working here to stay?
Is big tech turning its back on working from home?
As more of the population in the Global North gets vaccinated, the tech giants have begun announcing their roadmaps for the future of work at their companies.
Far from Jack Dorsey’s infamous assertion last year that “Twitter employees can now work from home forever”, companies are now taking a more cautious approach to remote working.
Google recently announced to employees that after the 1st September, those wanting to work from home for more than 14 days a year will have to go through an application process, and employees will be expected to go back into the office for at least 3 days a week. Last year Google also reportedly asked that workers remain in the country they were employed in for tax reasons, after large numbers left Ireland to return home during the pandemic.
Earlier in the month Facebook announced that they believe remote working is the future, and those in eligible positions can apply for remote-first working, on the condition of approval from management. While this sounds promising, the realities of who is ‘eligible’, and if approval will be given is yet to be seen.
Employees voting with their feet
In the UK we look across to Silicon Valley and innovative tech as setting the benchmark of forward-thinking work practices.
On this side of the pond the government is calling for companies to re-open their offices in city centres, mainly to stop the economic haemorrhaging of businesses like bars, cafés, shops and restaurants. Chancellor Rishi Sunak also referred to office camaraderie, telling the Telegraph that employees would "vote with their feet" if deprived of water cooler moments and “the culture that you create in a firm or organisation from people actually spending physical time together”.
However, in contrast to the government’s claims, it is more likely that employees will be voting with their feet if they are not afforded the chance to work remotely and flexibly. Research conducted by the World Economic Forum earlier this year shows that nearly 80% of full time UK employees would like to have at least one paid workday at home each week, with 2, 3 and 5+ days most evenly split with around 20% of the vote each.
Remote working during lockdown has shown employees that work can fit more easily around their lives – be that families, appointments, disabilities, pets, or location – and they expect more flexibility.
What is hybrid working?
While it seems companies want to move away from remote-first working at least in the short term, hybrid working is the compromise being offered. Hybrid working blends remote and office-based working, but it is not without its challenges.
First of all, the terms ‘hybrid working’ and ‘flexibility’ are subjective, and will most likely mean very different things to different companies. Are employers looking to only have staff in the office 2 days a week, for example, or will remote working only be reserved to Fridays? Will start and finish times become more flexible, or will they remain rigid regardless of an employee’s location?
Hybrid working also presents issues around professional development, training and opportunities. It is infinitely easier to have a full-time remote or in office team, where there is less room for privileging certain team members thanks to their preferable working arrangements. We are yet to see how businesses will ensure that they do not overlook employees for promotion because they are not in the office – including women who may choose more flexible working solutions to fit around childcare, or disabled employees who find work more manageable at home. Then there is the more logistical issue of arranging and managing meetings where some team members are joining remotely, and others are in the conference room.
Are big tech ready for change?
Ready or not, change is coming. The future is remote, and it is predicted by 2028 that 73% of all departments globally will have remote workers.
The shift to sustainable remote and hybrid working models require a huge overhaul to work methods, systems and practices, and some companies, including big tech, are resistant. But opting out isn’t an option. If big tech can’t meet the demands for working from home then start ups and remote-first innovators like Shopify may gain an advantage in sourcing the best talent.
In these changing times, agility and open-mindedness are key to success. So, the real question is how quickly can big tech effectively adapt to meet the needs of their workforce and attract new talent? The answer, and just how progressive organisations claim to be, will be shown in the coming months. And we’ll be keeping a close eye on it all.
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