Is the Remote Work Honeymoon Over? Insights for Business Leaders
During the pandemic, the popular office perk — remote working — became a business staple. While companies had little choice but to adopt this model out of necessity, employees adapted fast and came to appreciate its many benefits. Between 2021 and 2022, employers toyed with the idea of “remote work forever,” where this newly implemented model would become sustainable and beneficial for all. The pandemic has made working from home the norm for millions of employees. However, the future of work has moved into the public and policy interest spotlight. The benefits of remote working are clear: Respondents mostly cited the elimination of commuting (men: 51%, women: 58%), time flexibility (49%) and lower costs (men: 26%, women: 28%), amongst others1
But now, in mid-2023, this is no longer the case. Companies are increasingly abandoning the practice of flexibility in the workplace. And while employees can switch between in-office and home-based work, the rules are getting stricter. As a result, the workforce and employers are often at odds, leading to not-so-great outcomes.
Cutting Through the Hybrid Hype
On paper, hybrid working seems to strike the perfect balance between employees’ remote working preferences and their managers’ needs for Facetime. Several companies started this model by requiring one or two days in the office, characterised by flexibility trends such as hotdesking.
With time, however, more and more teams have increased the number of hours spent in the office and shrunk time at home. Moreover, in-office time is now mandatory, with severe consequences for non-compliance. In my experience, this model has several flaws:
1. Hybrid work restricts remote hiring
One of the most significant benefits for employers was the ability to hire across different locations without the need to ask for or pay for relocation. However, with hybrid working, you must employ within commuting distance of the office. It means that companies lose out on top talent from all over the country. Investment in building leadership & development programs for remote workers requires focus and investments. Recruits seem to ask more frequently about leadership development and formal mentoring programs. They need clarity and help to navigate the career development challenges of working remotely and having the visibility necessary for continued growth.
2. Hybrid work continues to be plagued by the same challenges as remote work
Remember Zoom fatigue? Frequent video calls and mental stress, as well as cognitive pressure on employees, were one of the significant challenges faced during the pandemic. With hybrid work, employees often find themselves on video calls with colleagues working from home. The most commonly touted benefit of in-office time — i.e., in-person interactions — is absent. The shift in sentiment is that in-person working helps build better relationships.
3. Hybrid work makes it almost impossible to find a rhythm
Just like circadian rhythm determines the healthy functioning of the human body, our ability to settle into a work routine makes us more productive, happy, and creative. With hybrid work, employees cannot find their feet with real-time-only collaboration or stick to an asynchronous model. It can also exclude employees from essential discussions. Employees often encounter considerable interruptions, miss more lunch hours, and put in longer days than they did back at the office. On average, remote workers clocked a whopping 16.8 more days a year than their office colleagues,
On top of this, most employees now feel that policies around hybrid work are less than transparent. It can erode trust and cause attrition. Finally, Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai have also made it clear that being in the office is where the best, most creative, and most productive work is performed.
The Reality of Back-to-Office Policies
As a leading publication pointed out in a recent article, returning to the office or RTO is now about “more stick, less carrot.”
Companies tried to attract employees to a more office-oriented working model for a while. Salesforce, for instance, announced that it would donate $10 per day on behalf of any employee who enters the office. However, this was short-lived, and companies now turn to structure measures.
For instance, Google has stated that in-office attendance would count as part of employees’ KRAs when evaluating their performance. BFSI principal Citigroup Inc. has also instructed managers to inform employees of the consequences they may face for not turning up at the office at least three days a week. TCS has ended its permanent remote work policy, and social media giant Meta has also rolled out the three-day office working policy.
In most cases, employees have little choice; turning the dial back on the flexibility promise is impossible; however, it was discussed during the pandemic. And the adjustment period has not been easy.
Flexibility and the Talent War
A recent survey looks at the effects of mandated office returns on talent acquisition.
● 42% of companies that mandated office return saw a rise in attrition.
● 29% of companies enforcing office returns are struggling with recruitment.
● 76% of employees are ready to quit if their companies discard flexible working policies.
● Minority groups are 22% more likely to quit, signalling an impact on DEI.
The challenge with the end of the remote work honeymoon is two-fold. First, employees face a sense of disillusionment, as permanent remote work options turned out to be not so permanent after all. Also, the degree of autonomy they have come to expect in a professional environment is constantly decreasing.
Second, employees find that turning back the clock is not so easy. Once the pandemic ends, it is not just a simple matter of returning to pre-pandemic work policies, with all its red tape around the occasional WFH. The last three years have indelibly transformed employee experiences and expectations, especially regarding top talent.
Thirdly, the most ambitious and productive companies prioritise in-person work; the vast majority of employees will visit offices each day. However, persons who continue to work remotely from their homes may struggle to get the same recognition, promotions, and lucrative moves, unless they have extra talents.
The only way out, as they say, is through; companies need to gauge employee sentiment, work closely with HR teams, and roll out differentiated policies that address all needs.
To discuss the implications of these changes in working models, email me at Arvind@am-pmassociates.com.