The UK is preparing to announce an end to all of its COVID-19 restrictions, including the requirement to self-isolate when testing positive, as the government seeks to focus on a strategy of ‘living with the virus'. But it's not just the UK, other European countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway, are also lifting restrictions and are declaring that the disease no longer poses a threat to society.
The scientific community is still divided over whether the time is right to be shifting the needle so far away from government-mandated protections, but as societies begin to carve a path towards no legal requirements to stay at home, social distance or wear masks, big questions remain over how the business world will respond over the long term.
With offices still sitting empty across the world, or at the very least much sparser than they were pre-2019, will business leaders feel the urge to send their employees back in droves to their desks?
I personally don't believe the majority will, but it's also true that now is the time where organizations need to shift their focus away from a ‘COVID-19 policy' towards a business-wide, long-term future of work policy.
Will hybrid working remain? If so, what does that look like? How does your company policy reflect your technology strategy? And is a return to the office shortsighted?
The great resignation
Some organizations have already made it clear that the return to the office is a given. For instance, the financial sector has been particularly bullish, with companies like Goldman Sachs stating that work from home policies are an "aberration".
However, most have taken a more diplomatic approach, waiting to figure out what works for their employees and to test as to whether productivity can be maintained in a work from home environment. On the latter productivity point, any concerns should mostly now be appeased, with study after study showing that working from home has in fact increased productivity.
Not only that, but one Stanford study of over 16,000 workers over 9 months also found that work satisfaction improved and attrition rates were cut by 50%.
And organizations should take these findings seriously. The ‘great resignation' is becoming a popular catch-all phrase to reflect changes that are happening in the labor market, as COVID-19 restrictions ease - but it's something that company leaders should think about as they form their future of work policies.
For instance, research by Ipsos has revealed that in the last three months, 47% of British workers have either looked for another job (29%), thought about quitting their job (26%), applied for another job (13%), or spoken to their employer about resigning (6%).
Similarly, an analysis by Deutsche Bank found that more people left their jobs at the start of 2022 than at any point in the last decade, with the number of open vacancies in the UK at its highest point ever. Meanwhile, redundancies are at their lowest point since the 90s.
This indicates that employees in certain sectors are in demand and have a certain amount of choice when it comes to applying for roles - which is exactly why organizations need to cater their future of work policies to employees' needs.
Flexibility is key
A new survey by Theta Global Advisors has found that:
57% of Brits say they do not want to go back to the 'normal' way of working in an office environment with normal office hours
40% of Brits believe forcing a strict return to the office would hinder their performance
24% of Brits say that their employer hasn't explored any flexible working options to help them return to work
41% of people are likely to consider leaving their jobs within the next year
Equally, according to a new survey by the Chartered Institute of Management, as reported by the BBC, whilst more than 80% of firms have adopted a hybrid working approach in the UK, it also found that senior leaders are actively encouraging employees to return to the workplace, according to the majority of managers.
In short, the data suggests that most employees don't want to return to pre-COVID working patterns, whilst at least some employers are considering a return to ‘the norm', which in turn is forcing employees to reassess their options.
Ignoring these trends would be foolish for any enterprise leader. If the general theme is that employees would like some flexibility in where they work, at least some of the time, mandating rigid structures that require being in the office five days a week will only lead to poor outcomes.
Whilst not all employees will have the option to quit and go and work for someone else - your best talent quite likely will. And that's where employers offering employees the most flexibility are likely to win, as the best talent gets drawn towards roles and organizations that cater to policies that work for the employee.
Companies love to market their organizations as ‘great places to work', but that will become much harder if you don't have a forward thinking strategy that appeals to the best talent in the market.
My colleague Phil Wainewright has done extensive writing on building a maturity model for enterprise digital teamwork, which grades organizations from ‘digital as an add on' to fully ‘digitally augmented'. His work is definitely worth a read if you're thinking about your future of work strategy, alongside implementing the technology to enable it.
What this all comes down to is flexibility and choice. Employers across the world have been proven wrong that working from home means slacking off - quite the opposite, in fact. Productivity is up and organizations have discovered that actually remote work and collaboration can open up new opportunities for ways of working.
That's not to say that all employees are against spending some time in the office. The organizations that have put in the work to think this through properly are finding ways to bring employees together in person when it brings the highest value - and my general impression from speaking with buyers is that employees are very open to that. And actually welcome face-to-face time with their colleagues, when it is worthwhile.
But what I think will be a hindrance to organizations over the long-term is rigid rules that push for the old ways of doing things, pre-COVID-19. Not only because I think organizations that aren't embracing new digital ways of working will fall short on the kind of work that they're doing compared to competitors, but I also think they will lose out on the best talent.
However, with government's removing mandates - and some governments likely pushing employers to return staff to the office - it's inevitable that some will take what they deem to be the easy route and lose out on the opportunity over the long-term.