EIGHT YEARS ago Google’s then finance chief, Patrick Pichette, recalled being asked how many of the tech giant’s employees telecommuted. His answer was simple: “As few as possible.” Despite the fact that Google was busy churning out apps that enabled remote work, his comment was also unremarkable. From Silicon Valley and Wall Street to the Square Mile in London, La Défense in Paris, Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and Hong Kong’s Central, the world’s business districts welcomed millions of office grunts every workday. Congregating in one place was believed to spur productivity, innovation, camaraderie. It enabled bosses to keep a beady eye on their underlings. Work from home was something to be done only if it absolutely couldn’t be avoided.
In March 2020 it suddenly could not. The covid-19 pandemic forced governments around the world to impose strict lockdowns. Overnight, most of the world’s offices became off limits. To survive, companies everywhere embarked on a gigantic experiment in home-working. City workers swapped suits for jogging trousers and city-centre flats for the suburbs. In a corporate change of heart that typified the era, Google gave each employee globally $1,000 for home-office furniture, offered them virtual fitness videos and cooking lessons, and urged everyone to “take good care of yourselves and one another”.
As vaccination rates rise in the rich world the home-working experiment is being unwound (see chart 1). But the speed of the unwinding, and its scope, has become a matter of hot debate among chief executives, and between them and their staff. The strategies that emerge out of these debates will shape not just what happens in the next few months but also the longer-term future of office work.
One change is already obvious. The universal anti-remote-work mindset of yesteryear is gone, replaced by a range of attitudes that vary by industry and region. At one extreme, some companies now expect all workers to be back at their desks. At the other, certain firms are doing away with offices altogether. Most businesses fall somewhere in the middle.
The most ardent supporters of the status quo ante can be found on Wall Street. David Solomon, boss of Goldman Sachs, has called remote work an “aberration”. His opposite number at Morgan Stanley, James Gorman, recently quipped, “If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office.” Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, has conceded that “people don’t like commuting, but so what?” The three bank bosses worry that remote workers are less engaged with the company, and potentially less productive.
Whether or not they agree with the Wall Street titans deep down, their counterparts in Europe see such intransigence as an opportunity to lure disaffected bankers who prefer greater flexibility. UBS, a Swiss lender, is reportedly about to allow two-thirds of its employees to pursue “hybrid” work, which combines some days at home and some at the office—in part as a recruitment tool. NatWest, a British bank, expects just one in eight workers back at the office full-time, with the rest on hybrid schedules or primarily home-working. People at Germany’s Deutsche Bank will work remotely up to 60% of the time. Noel Quinn, chief executive of HSBC, has described drifting back to pre-pandemic patterns as a “missed opportunity” and would like the Asia-centric bank’s staff to embrace hybrid arrangements.
Many technology CEOs seem to share Mr Quinn’s sentiment. They fret that strict return-to-office mandates will put off restless software engineers. Dylan Field, co-founder of Figma, which helps firms create and test apps and websites, worries that employees will jump ship if the rules are too restrictive. Tech workers may indeed be getting more footloose, with quit rates seemingly higher and poaching more rampant than usual. Perhaps in recognition of this, in June Facebook said that all of the social-media giant’s full-time employees could apply for permanent remote work. Companies such as Spotify, a music-streamer, Square, a fintech firm, and Twitter have told many of their staff they can work remotely for ever if they please.
Across regions and industries evidence suggests that people like the ability to work from home at least occasionally. A poll of 2,000 American adults by Prudential, an insurer, found that 87% of those who worked from home during the pandemic wanted to be able to continue doing so after restrictions ease. According to the same survey, 42% of remote workers said they would search for a new job if they were asked to return to the office full-time. Only one in five American employees say they would seldom or never want to work from home (see chart 2). In a recent poll of more than 10,000 European office workers, 79% said that they would back legislation prohibiting bosses from forcing people to work from the office.
Young workers, often seen as casualties of remote working, have warmed to flexible schedules. Members of Gen-Z, now aged 16-21, were more likely than any other age group to cite personal choice rather than employers’ policies as the main reason for continuing to work remotely, according to a study by Morgan Stanley. At the same time, many workers of all ages are still keen to come to the office every now and again—not least to enjoy reliable air-conditioning during what is shaping up to be a scorching northern summer. Salesforce, a business-software giant itself implementing a work-from-anywhere model, found that although nearly half its employees are opting to stay home most of the time, four in five want to maintain a physical connection with the corporate office.
The public sector, often the largest employer in a country, faces similar considerations. Britain’s tax authority is offering all employees the right to work from home two days a week. In America the federal government predicts that many civil servants will want to maintain flexible schedules after the pandemic. Ireland, which wants 20% of its 300,000 public servants working remotely by the end of the year, is offering financial support to encourage them to relocate outside cities. It will create more than 400 remote-working hubs, allowing staff to work closer to home. Indonesia has set up a “work from Bali” scheme for civil servants to help revive the tropical island’s tourism industry.
All this suggests that hybrid arrangements will persist in most places (with the possible exception of Wall Street). They present their own challenges, however. They blur the lines between work and family life. Virtual meetings can be even more tedious than in-person ones; people who have admitted to Zoom fatigue include Eric Yuan, the video-conferencing app’s billionaire founder. And hybrid schedules make managing office space tricky, especially at a time when many companies, including HSBC, are planning to reduce their office footprint.
Given a choice, most Australian workers would prefer to work from home on Mondays and Fridays, according to EY, a consultancy. Even if managers’ suspicions that this is a thinly veiled effort to extend the weekend prove unfounded, that means that offices would be far busier on Wednesdays, the least popular choice for home-working, than at the start and end of the work week.
Some firms still intend to let people come in whenever they want. Others are getting inventive. Mr Field of Figma gives his staff a choice: work remotely full-time or, if you come in at least twice a week, get a desk in an office. Snowflake, a data-management firm, will let individual units decide how to organise themselves. Many companies, including giants such as Apple, have got around the problem by mandating days when employees are required to be present.
The sudden reconfiguring of work life is leading to friction. Workers who want more flexibility are finding themselves at odds with employers calling for a return to something closer to pre-pandemic normal. Some of Apple’s employees have criticised the tech giant’s requirement to work in-person three days a week as tonally “dismissive and invalidating”. The AFL–CIO, America’s biggest trade-union federation, is facing health-and-safety complaints from its own staff over its measures to bring workers back to the office in the absence of improved ventilation and amid fears of continued risk of infection while commuting on public transport.
Such disagreements are spilling over into boardrooms. Some shareholders, including big institutional investors, are keen to promote flexible working not only to retain talent but also to burnish companies’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials. S&P Global, an analytics firm, says that under its assessments, the ability to work from home is one measure of employees’ health and wellbeing, which can influence up to 5% of a firm’s ESG score. This is roughly the same weighting attached to risk and crisis management for banks, or human-rights measures for miners. It may affect things like gender and racial diversity. Studies find that mothers are likelier than fathers to favour work from home. Research by Slack, a messaging app, found that only 3% of black knowledge-workers want to return to the office full-time in America, compared with 21% their white counterparts.
That is a lot for companies to ponder, even as they deal with short-term controversies, such as whether or not to bar unvaccinated workers from the office. Disruptive though it was, last year’s abrupt transition to remote work may, ironically, prove considerably smoother than the shift to whatever counts as normal in the post-pandemic era. ■
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A version of this article was published online on June 28th 2021
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “A hybrid new world”