After more than 18 months at home, workers worldwide have started to trickle back to the office. The “great return,” however, has been slow. Plans have been delayed and confusion has set in as companies navigate local COVID rules, concerns over the Delta variant, and employees’ needs and expectations.
Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon earlier this year called work from home an “aberration.” JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon took a similar tone, saying he was “done with” Zoom meetings. The major banks were among the first to begin bringing their workers back to the office, at least on a rotational or part-time basis.
Microsoft, meanwhile, postponed its return indefinitely last month amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, saying it will instead focus on a site-by-site approach. Others, including Facebook, Twitter and PricewaterhouseCoopers have announced they’ll allow many employees who can (and want to) to work from home permanently.
This patchwork of the “great return” models has many questioning whether there’s an optimal approach – for workers and the bottom line. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, economists and analysts say, one thing has become clear: some version of remote work is here to stay post-pandemic, with the future of work centred on hybrid.
Not only does research show remote work boosts productivity, but workers are also demanding work-from-home days post-pandemic, according to Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University who has studied work from home for years.
Bloom and a team of researchers have conducted monthly surveys of 5,000 Americans and found that most US employees on average want to work from home at least two days per week after the pandemic ends. Employees who say they’re more efficient in a work-from-home setting cited saved commute time and a quieter work environment as the primary reasons.
This indicates that in order for firms to stay competitive, they will have to offer some sort of remote work option, says Bloom.
He recommends companies try a three-two hybrid model in which all employees on specific teams work the same three days in the office and the other two at home.
“Think about a typical office week and think about what we do,” Bloom told Al Jazeera. “For a typical worker 50 percent of that is activities that are social and best done face-to-face.”
These activities – large team meetings, business lunches and other social events – can take place during the three in-office days, while work that requires a quieter setting, including writing emails or reports, preparing presentations, analysing data and one-on-one meetings, can be reserved for the work-from-home days.
Let workers decide?
While companies still deciding their return approach may want to poll workers to gauge their expectations, the important thing, Bloom said, is that organisations establish a uniform policy that applies to all employees (and managers) or specific teams. In other words, businesses should not let employees decide which days they want to be in the office or at home. Bloom points to three specific reasons for this.
First, workers, when surveyed, consistently choose Monday and Fridays as their preferred work-from-home days, according to Bloom. This could present problems for companies looking to reduce the number of people in the office at any given time.
A mixed model also runs the risk of creating “office in-groups” and “home out-groups”, Bloom said. Workers who choose to work from home on a certain day may feel excluded from side chats during meetings or other conversations that take place in-person.
Finally, and most importantly, mixed models can risk diversity goals. Women, Black and Asian workers, as well as employees with children under the age of 12 and workers with disabilities have a “significantly higher preference” for working-from-home days than other groups, according to Bloom.
Research shows remote employees may be at a disadvantage for promotions when compared to their in-office peers. A 2014 study of 250 employees at a large multinational company in China found that remote employees had a 50 percent lower rate of promotion than their office colleagues after 21 months.
“I could see a future whereby single, young men that live right next to the office come in everyday move ahead in the organisation and people with young kids, disabled people, people living further away … decide to take their two days to work from home and actually use them, and end up falling behind,” Bloom warned.
The hybrid ‘work-from-anywhere’ model
Other experts agree that a uniform hybrid approach, especially at the team level, is ideal, but some argue the three-two model limits workers who want to embrace and feel most productive in the “work-from-anywhere” lifestyle.
One hybrid model that may work for some companies is a 25 percent (or some other percentage) in-office model that doesn’t mandate employees spend a certain number of days a week in the office, according to Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School. Instead, teams could decide to spend three weeks a quarter in the office, three months a year, or some other model that works best.
This allows employees to enjoy the benefit of working where they want, while also allowing on- or off-site gatherings where employees can socialise, teams can meet and workers and managers can conduct business better suited for face-to-face interactions.
“I’ve seen [this] model really expand in the past year and I see [it] becoming really strong in the next year,” Choudhury told Al Jazeera.
India-based Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), for example, has announced plans to implement a version of the model. By 2025, only 25 percent of TCS employees will need to work in the office at any given time, and no employee will need to spend more than 25 percent of their work hours in the company’s facilities, according to Choudhury, who has conducted research on the firm.
Requiring workers to be in an office full time “makes no sense” to Choudhury who said the evidence just isn’t there. In a post-pandemic world, companies that require employees to come back to the office five days a week, will likely lose talent and risk diversity, he warned.
The great ‘redesign’
Overall, it’s important for companies “to understand what being productive means” to the organisation, according to Anna Gurun, associate director at HSM Advisory, a UK-based consulting firm focused on the future of work.
“The elements we look at are energy, focus, coordination and collaboration,” Gurun told Al Jazeera.
Companies must also think about how these elements are impacted by place and time, which now includes flexibility – a shift in thinking among workers and employers from two years ago. Because this “can be very different from employee to employee and from role to role,” employers must maintain a sense of fairness, she said.
While many models exist, Gurun and other experts agree that the moment is ripe for a work “redesign” on a broad level.
At the beginning of the pandemic, “there was a kind of unfreeze when it comes to ways of working, and things are starting to refreeze again,” Gurun said. “It’s just trying to decide: do you want them to refreeze in an intentional, purposeful way, which you’ve designed, or just in a haphazard way based on assumptions?”