Over the past week or so a number of global organisations have started to indicate what their long-term workplace strategies will be, with a hybrid approach clearly dominating most agendas. That's not true for all though - particularly those with an existing large and expensive real-estate - as some continue to push for a return to the office.
One of the main impacts on the enterprise during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the shift to distributed working and the use of digital tools to collaborate and get work done. As one social media user pointed out last year, the drive for the paperless office simply needed a focus on getting rid of the office, not the paper.
However, there has been lots of debate about the long-term effectiveness of full time WFH, as one would expect. The mass-scale shift basically happened over night, with lots of organisations unprepared and needing to adapt to a new model of collaboration (something my colleague Phil Wainewright talks about extensively).
Not only that, but the tools needed to fulfil this WFH dream have needed to mature rapidly too, with vendors investing in digital (remote) workplace tech at a rapid rate. But vendors too have rolled out COVID-19 workplace solutions for when people do need to return to the office, with contact monitoring and facilities management front of mind. Indicating that there's opportunity for both in the market.
Whilst a hybrid approach will likely dominate in the medium term, it's going to be interesting to assess in the months and years to come whether it's those firms that offer flexibility that win out with customers and employees, or those that adopt a more traditional office-based approach. And of course winning out can be measured in a number of ways - attracting talent, agility, productivity, innovation, profitability, etc.
But there is clearly concern in some major markets, with the finance industry in particular leaning towards office based work - at least for a chunk of its staff (traders and advisers). What's concerning is that some banks - the likes of HSBC and Lloyds - are using this as an opportunity to reduce office space, but increase the number of staff per desk.
Indeed, CEO of major investment bank Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, didn't mince his words about having had staff work from home for close to a year. He said:
It's not a new normal. It's an aberration that we're going to correct as soon as possible.
Barclays CEO Jes Staley has also reportedly said that the bank has "no plan" to adjust its real estate strategy. These banks, of course, have invested a lot of money in high rise buildings in areas such as Canary Wharf, in London, which may mean the idea of WFH stings a little bit more.
And there are indeed other potential negatives that need to be addressed. For example, how do you facilitate learning and development, particularly for junior members of staff? What about younger generations that typically share small properties in the city and perhaps don't have the space to work from home? Can you integrate teams properly through a virtual environment? Do WFH strategies place additional strain on those with childcare responsibilities?
There are also of course arguably some job roles that are better suited to an office environment - such as banking traders.
However, I would suggest that barriers and potential concerns aren't enough of a reason to resist the change to flexible working, when you consider the numerous advantages and the competitive edge it may bring. The ability to recruit from anywhere, where location is no longer a barrier, for example. Companies could of course do this before, but now it feels like there is less stigma about recruiting a remote colleague - if everyone else is putting in substantial virtual time too.
A mixed approach
Despite some in the financial industry kicking up a fuss, others are embracing some level of change. BP, for instance, this week told office-based staff that they will be expected to work from home two days a week after lockdown restrictions ease.
This model, where full time staff are asked to work from home 40% of the time, will affect 25,000 employees.
Elsewhere, insurance company Phoenix Group told the BBC that the company's employees will continue working remotely for the foreseeable, stating that the "business has been able to operate very well working from home".
In addition to these two organisations, global workplace provider IWG CEO, Mark Dixon, told the BBC's Today programme that "something's happening and it is a change to the way that companies and people work". He said that hybrid working will become "the norm" for many companies and IWG has already signed deals with NTT and Standard Chartered bank.
NTT will get access to IWG's office network, providing flexible working space for its 300,000 employees, whilst Standard Chartered will carry out a trial for the next 12 months for its 95,000 staff.
Big decisions are being made and it feels like after months of ‘wait and see', companies are finally pulling the trigger on long term strategies. Some will inevitably revert back to the traditional office-based approach (if it is safe to do so) and continue to insist that in-person work is superior to virtual and remote. I personally believe this is short sighted. Mostly because I think it will leave these firms at a distinct competitive disadvantage when it comes to hiring talent. If you've got the opportunity to work for a firm that offers you flexible working versus one that requires you in the office full time, which would you pick? And these companies are nothing without their talented people. There will be more of this in the months to come and the decision to embrace WFH is just the first step. Then comes the challenge of adopting and embedding collaborative digital frameworks that are sustainable over the long term.