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Back to work? Or back to the workplace?

remote working
(Image credit: Image Credit: Eugenio Marongiu / Shutterstock )

The pandemic has proved divisive in terms of the approach to business continuity. Many organizations managed to implement remote working fairly seamlessly – others still have recorded messages and website notices blaming Covid-19 for their less than impressive customer service. Some furloughed employees have enjoyed a long, paid holiday. Others have taken the opportunity to gain new skills that will benefit themselves and their employers. 

Headlines are now about the two extremes: companies ‘insisting’ employees return to work versus those which have declared that employees can work from anywhere. Throughout the coverage though, the phrase ‘return to work’ has been used both in the media and with employees – a phrase that is really only applicable to those in the early furlough schemes. Just because people aren’t in the traditional workplace doesn’t mean they are not working. 

The vast majority of the employed continued working throughout the pandemic, often under difficult circumstances and in cramped ‘kitchen table’ home offices. They also worked harder - almost 70 percent of professionals who transitioned to remote work because of the pandemic say they now work during the weekend, and 45 percent say they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before.

People are not ‘returning to work’. The debate is whether they need to return to the workplace. Work surely works, wherever it takes place. Price Waterhouse Cooper’s remote working survey taken in January this year shows a shift in positive attitudes toward remote working, with 83 percent of employers saying remote working has been successful for their company, up from 73 percent in the same survey from June 2020.

Despite the debate raging over the two extremes, it is increasingly likely that a hybrid working environment is the way forward, as it effectively balances the needs of most workers. A full-time return to the office or worksite mandate could result in destabilizing job churn.  In the recent Fuze Flex Study, 75 percent of all workers surveyed believe flexible work should be standard practice, not a benefit and 68% of UK workers would consider finding a new job to ensure greater long-term flexibility.

Stress and anxiety in the new normal

But any degree of remote working requires a different level of trust between the employer and the employee. 

Research conducted during the pandemic shows that many managers are struggling with the effective management of people working from home, with this translating into many workers feeling untrusted and micromanaged by their bosses. Yet the Fuze study shows that 70 percent of senior leaders think that management is more trusting of remote work since March 2020. 

This vote of confidence from senior leaders is critical to overcoming the undoubted aura of mistrust from some managers around remote working. This in turn leads employees to question whether a company’s commitment to allowing remote working to continue will remain true.  

Change has to be led from the top, and senior management has to lead by example. Of course, it’s great to see employees in person, but those who do not want or need to come back to the workplace shouldn’t feel second-best. Many people have worked remotely successfully for many years prior to the pandemic, and have learned the importance of clear channels of communication and the full support of senior management, irrespective of employee location. 

It’s important to realize and acknowledge that the ‘new normal’ that many workers are currently encountering can result in employee stress and anxiety if reopening plans aren’t openly communicated. To avoid losing employees’ trust, or even risk churn, business leaders need to be as transparent as possible about their hybrid work strategies. Some businesses are taking it a step further by involving employees in the planning of their organization’s hybrid work model. 

Whether employees choose to work in the office, continue to work remotely, or blend both in-office and remote work, communicating and listening to employees’ needs and concerns is fundamental in keeping workers engaged and motivated. In fact, according to staffing business Walters People, 74 percent of employees feel that their managers need to be more empathetic to work-life balance. At all costs, managers need to avoid communications that even suggest that workers will be expected to return to the office. Instead, they need to provide staff with a clear vision of how the business will embrace and adopt a hybrid work environment. 

Focusing on inclusivity

The pandemic has caused massive disruption, but it has also been a force for change. Many businesses previously reluctant to embrace remote working had no choice but to do so. It needs to be accepted that the hybrid model is becoming a permanent state, and those employees who continue to work remotely must be supported and recognized in the same way as those in the workplace. It may be that training is needed to ensure that the organization, from the top down, understands both the advantages and the challenges of remote working, and how to support and manage hybrid teams. There will be resistance from the traditionalists, and there will be resentment from those who have to come back to the workplace, but the road to change is rarely smooth. 

The pandemic has proved that remote working can work because there was no alternative. In fact, the Flex study found that for those working remotely full-time, 60 percent said they are more productive at home than they were in the office. That being said, companies must support their employees in establishing a structure for their workday to prevent burnout. Only 66 percent of respondents said they are ensuring they take a break every day, and a quarter of respondents reported that they found themselves working longer hours since they started working remotely.

Now, as the world takes tentative steps back to freedom, it will become clear which organizations are embracing enterprise communications to ensure business continuity for their organization - in particular as there is likely to be further disruption beyond the pandemic, whether it’s the implications of climate change, cyber security or global regulatory shifts. It will also become apparent of those that are successfully maintaining a happy and productive workforce by building on the situation that was forced upon them and continuing to implement the positive outcomes.  

By focusing on inclusivity and communicating with honesty and authenticity, business leaders will be able to take the first steps in breaking down the traditional barriers to flexible work. To not just survive but thrive in the new world of hybrid work, organizations will need to keep the lines of communication open, promote a truly flexible work culture, display an increased level of trust in their staff, and continually acknowledge the needs and preferences of employees as they evolve.

Clément Wehrung, Product Strategist, Fuze

Clément Wehrung holds the role of Product Strategist at Fuze.