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The Future of Work - remote or in the office? It's complicated as COVID consensus cracks in the Vaccine Economy

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 16, 2022
Summary:
A ping pong table and free snacks are not enough to lure people to join or stay with their employers; flexibility of work mode is key, according to Topia's latest study.

remote working

Remember back in March 2020 when the COVID crisis almost overnight forced organizations around the world into remote working mode? And remember how, in most cases, that worked out surprisingly well? And remember also, how we were ‘all in it together’, employees and employers, to make this work?

Well, that was then and this is now. As the pandemic continued, more and more attention turned to how long-lasting this operational revolution in working would be. Would people want to return to the office after the emergency was over? Would employers insist on a return to desks inside all those expensive skyscrapers they spent so much money on building? What would those offices look like anyway?

The answers to those, and many other, questions are only now playing out in the real world as the Vaccine Economy takes shape and businesses re-open their doors. What the final outcome is remains to be determined, but a study of nearly 1,500 respondents from US and UK organizations by global talent mobility tech provider Topia - registration required - makes clear that there is division in what shape the future of work takes.

Last year Topia’s Adapt study found that employees wanted to be able to work from anywhere in the ‘New Normal’ and that a growing number of employers could see the benefits of this. Fast forward to 2022 and there’s more of a feeling, on both sides, that remote working isn’t actually working out for a variety of reasons.

Is it possible that the ‘all pull together’ spirit during the COVID crisis has begun to fray at the edges? In 2021, approaching two-thirds (60%) of HR employees said they were very confident about where the majority of their employees were working; this year only 46% can make that assertion while nearly half of such respondents (48%) said they have noted employees working in countries they do not have permission to work in. The Topia study notes:

Most employees (66%) do not report all days working outside their home state/country to HR. Thus, it is no surprise that - compared to last year - HR professionals are significantly less likely to be confident in knowing where their employees are working. 40% of HR professionals discovered employees working from outside their home state or country, but many more additional employees likely went unnoticed.

Cynical

On the other side of the coin, employees are more cynical about the motivations of their employers, with 39% claiming their firm makes it too difficult to work remotely, while nearly half (48%) believes that remote work policies are effectively gesture politics and are really put in place to make it easier to reject requests to work remotely.

That’s a frankly unhealthy tension that’s emerged since those office doors started to re-open in the Vaccine Economy and in many ways a dangerous one for employers, given the so-called Great Resignation movement across the economy. Some 29% of employees changed employers in 2021 and that number is set to rise by a further 34% this year.

While it’s not the only reason for people quitting their jobs - money remains the prime motivation for changing employer (44%) - the desire for flexibility to work from home to meet your own schedule is named the second most powerful driver for change (41%). An overwhelming 96% of total respondents said flexibility in working arrangements is important when seeking a new job.

But nearly half of HR staff (49%) polled believe their company lost employees due to an inadequate remote work policy, while 85% expecting remote work requests to increase in 2022.

With half of employees polled saying their company is mandating a return to the office, nearly two-thirds (64%) of such individuals say this is only going to make them more likely to look for a new job, with 96% of employees citing flexibility in working arrangements as a key factor when selecting a new employer.

Experience matters more than location to employees today, according to the study. The top three drivers of exceptional employee experience are cited as being empowered/trusted to get on with the job without too much supervision (57%); being able to work in whatever location you want (56%); and having the right technology to do work efficiently (56%). Topia’s report observes:

Gone are the days when a ping-pong table and free office snacks were enough to attract top talent. Today, the #1 driver of an exceptional employee experience in the US — and the #2 driver overall — is the flexibility to work from anywhere. Work flexibility was cited more often than technology, career growth, office perks, and a feeling of belonging.

My take

What does emerge from the study is a need for compromise on both sides. Many employees don’t want full-time remote working mandates - some 29% say they are changing employers as their current employer has shifted to 100% remote - anymore than they want to be told to turn up at the office every day.

Those organizations who do enforce such office mandates may have a price to pay, warns the Topia report:

This is a risky move: 64% of workers forced to return to the office full-time say this makes them more likely to seek a new job. To avoid falling victim to the Great Resignation, employers should avoid implementing mandatory work-from-office policies.

A hybrid regime is what seems to be the optimal arrangement, but also a more complicated one for employers to implement and manage. Outside of the crisis conditions of the pandemic at its height, that’s an ask that many may be disinclined to meet. (There are some interesting perspectives to be found on this subject in Cath Everett’s companion report to this article, The Great Resignation and how to avoid it - two tech firms offer up their tips on staff retention.)

But overall, the message to take away from this year’s Topia study is that flexibility is key. The Future of Work is not locked in place and is never likely to be. The genie is out of the bottle on remote working however and not going back in. Employers need to get the technology in place to maximize the efficiency of their workforces in a Vaccine Economy. The findings of next year's study, assuming there is one, will be interesting. 

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