By: Michael McQueen
Among the most significant and lasting changes created by COVID last year was the sudden shift to remote work. Return to offices this year have been varied, and where we will collectively end up in our work life in years to come is proving difficult to predict.
Numerous polls of employees and leaders have been conducted in attempts to predict this future of work. According to research from the Boston Consulting Group in late 2020, 63% of employees reported wanting to continue work from home for at least some of the work week and only 15% want to return to the office full time. In contrast, employers and leaders are aiming to have one-third of their employees working back in the office full time as soon as possible.
Major influential organisations are similarly divided when it comes to deciding whether to return to the office, especially in the tech world. Much has been made of assertions from the likes of Google, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest that their remote work will be the default for the bulk of their workforces. Pinterest’s willingness to pay $90 million to break an office lease in August 2020 speaks volumes. However, the very same week Pinterest broke their lease, Facebook signed up for 730,000 square feet of premium office space in mid-town Manhattan. For their part, Google have announced audacious plans to expand their office footprint in both New York and San Francisco and CEO Sundar Pichai made it clear that physical offices would continue to play an important role in the company’s operations. Bloomberg’s London offices even offered staff a £55 a day stipend in September 2020 to encourage staff to return to the company’s London office.
The fact that employers are actively looking for ways to coax staff back to offices points to the appetite employers have for getting bums back on the seats they occupied pre-COVID-19. In anticipation that a gap between employers and employees’ expectations would likely emerge post-pandemic, the German government took the surprising step in October 2020 of publishing a draft law making working from home a legal right.
While the reworking of work does offer some powerful benefits in terms of flexibility and lifestyle, there are some implications that will need to be considered. The challenges businesses and workers will experience with ongoing remote work are best summarised in 5 key areas.
Among the most pressing issues for many leaders is how to maintain corporate culture and a sense of belonging in remote teams – especially as new employees join a team over time. It’s all well and good to codify and espouse the behaviours and values that define an organization but culture is ‘caught not taught’. New employees get the clearest sense of how an organisation works by observing the behaviour and decisions of others.
Although various studies in the early stages of the pandemic pointed to productivity gains, whether these are long-term or accurately reflect reality remains to be seen. Many studies produced conflicting results. Research in late December 2020 found that 25% of businesses experienced a significant drop in productivity when staff were working remotely. However, the same study showed that 25% of businesses experienced a rise in productivity and the remaining half found remote work made no difference to staff output.
Research from early 2021 gives some indication of how varied the productivity experience for employees is. When polled as to why they’d choose to work from home if given the choice, 26% of employees said they were more productive when working from home. However, 42% of employees who reported wanting to return to the office cited productivity issues as being their key driver.
3. Collaboration and Serendipity
The impacts of remote work on organic collaboration and incidental interaction are also important to acknowledge. As The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern points out, “While remote work has many advantages, building trust between employees isn’t one of them. Online, there is no water cooler, no nearby coffee shop for informal brainstorms, no place to grab a drink after work.”
To this point, a noteworthy 2017 study by Matthew Claudel at MIT found clear evidence of the positive relationship between proximity and collaboration. This is not to say that collaboration can’t be done within a dispersed and remote team but there are real benefits to people being in the same physical location and the cross-pollinating of ideas that naturally follows.
4. Leadership and Management
Dealing with performance issues is always a tricky thing for managers and leaders. However, when the relational capital and trust is strong, having tough conversations with team members is generally easier. Understanding the circumstances of a team member’s life which may be affecting work is much more straightforward when you’re interacting with them in person. While many people have experienced greater levels of authenticity in online interactions with colleagues in their own homes, it remains difficult to read body language and mood through a screen.
5. Generational Disconnection
Very few imagined that a generation of digital natives would have struggled with adapting to remote work, but that is precisely what happened. Even though tech savvy Millennials and Gen Z’s may have had no trouble with the functional aspects of working from home, the practical and psychological implications for younger generations were a different story entirely.
In research conducted a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, 95% of Gen Z and 93% of Millennials reported struggling with remote work. Four in five of this younger cohort reported feeling more disconnected from their workplaces and colleagues – a figure that was significantly lower for their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts. The impact on training and mentoring for young employees is also a factor to consider. Stifel Financial Corp Ronald J. Kruszewski points to the fact that junior employees learn the ropes “…by sitting beside more experienced colleagues and watching them work. That’s hard to do remotely.”
To add on to all of these challenges, the Zoom fatigue and general disillusionment felt across all industries and sectors cannot be ignored. In a telling recent statement, the CEO of Zoom himself, Eric Yuan, admitted to experiencing Zoom fatigue. Having tired from constant meetings, reaching as many as 19 back-to-back meetings in one day last year, he no longer schedules them so close together. Zoom, like many other companies around the globe, will be turning to hybrid work format moving forward, where employees will be required at the office 2 days a week and can work the rest from home.
The jury is still out as to what the balance of remote and in-office work will look like in a post-COVID economy. The hybrid format is being widely accepted as the way to go. Regardless of this balance, remote work is certain to continue being part of our work lives for decades to come, and the challenges it brings cannot be overlooked by businesses looking to thrive.
 Petty, A. 2020, ‘Bosses and employees divided over working from home rules’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December.  2020, ‘Covid-19 has forced a radical shift in working habits’, The Economist, 10 September  2020, ‘Covid-19 has forced a radical shift in working habits’, The Economist, 10 September  Elliott, D. 2020, ‘Germany drafting law to give people the legal right to work from home’, World Economic Forum, 14 October.  Petty, A. 2020, ‘Bosses and employees divided over working from home rules’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December  2021, ‘Edelman Trust Barometer’ Edelman.  Stern, J. 2021, ‘Tech That Will Change Your Life in 2021’, The Wall Street Journal, 1 January.  2020, ‘Covid-19 has forced a radical shift in working habits’, The Economist, 10 September  2020, ‘Over 90% of Young Workers Having Difficulty Working from Home, Survey Finds’, Smartsheet, 22 April.  Cutter, C. 2020, ‘Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great All’, The Wall Street Journal, 24 July.  Cutter, C 2021, ‘Even the CEO of Zoom Says He Has Zoom Fatigue’, The Wall Street Journal, 4 May.
Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.
About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.