Working from home one year on: valuable lessons have been learnt and now it’s time for employers to listen

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow

When the working from home announcement was made last March, my heart sank. Although logically I knew that it was the most sensible action to take to reduce virus transmission, I wondered how I would be able to adapt to this dramatic way of working. A year later, although I am now finding a routine, I am yearning for an office, to see my wonderful colleagues, and to escape my ‘home-office’. However, when David Solomon, the boss of Goldman Sachs, described working from home as an aberration, it got me thinking whether the situation is as bad as he suggested, and what organisations can do to help employees.

In some ways David Solomon could be right. Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimated that just 12 per cent of working adults worked regularly or sometimes from home pre-pandemic, and one month later this proportion had reached 44 per cent, representing the most extensive and rapid shift in working patterns since 1939. So, yes this is a departure from the ‘norm’. However, what I disagree with is the extent of ‘flexibility’ that employees have had. Many called this the ‘working from home experiment’ and whether now is the time to embrace this new form of flexibility. But employees have not had the choice to be flexible. This hasn’t been a typical working from home experience, this has been working through a pandemic where organisational and government restrictions have been forced on employees, and many have had to struggle with home-schooling and caring and adapting to an office set up to not compromise musculoskeletal health as well as other anxieties about the virus itself.

An argument David Solomon puts forward for the return to the office for Goldman Sachs employees is because the firm’s culture is innovative and collaborative, a place where apprentices can learn on the job, and this has been more difficult to achieve through lockdown. My colleague Stephen Bevan has previously written about the Conversational Company, where the notion of collaboration and conversation exists; where knowledge exchange and other forms of social interaction can be an ‘engine room’ of great ideas and intellectual capital that can add value to organisational performance, sustainability and competition. Our IES homeworker wellbeing survey and our Working after Lockdown report also provided some indication that employees missed the social interaction that the office provides. The reduced ‘water cooler’ moments, increased social isolation and difficulties in contributing to new ideas, organisational learning and organisational connectedness were frustrating aspects of working from home.

However, evidence suggests that employers were aware of these risks, with our IES survey showing that 80% of respondents had contact with their line managers between 1–5 times a week, and 62% interacted with their colleagues in some way up to 5 times as week. For some, the new tools for virtual collaboration have not filled this gap, partly as a result of ‘zoom fatigue’ that can inhibit conversations, but also because the inflexibility of these meetings, the lack of the informal post-meeting follow-up and debriefing cannot or does not occur as often.

But does this mean, as David Solomon is suggesting, that after the pandemic has passed everything should go back to ‘as it was’? Or can organisations embrace any learning from this last year when discussing the best routes forward? It is important to listen to what employees want, and that seems to be flexibility. Our Work after Lockdown research indicated a strong support for hybrid working post lockdown. Hybrid working can be defined as choosing to work in different spaces in a typical week, and can allow for discretion and flexibility in the place and timing of work. Even before the pandemic, research was indicating that younger employees found flexible working more attractive than a pay rise when considering future roles, and so to enhance recruitment and retention this could have been the way forward for some organisations anyway and the pandemic has solely served to accelerate this change.

Organisations may be concerned about productivity and hybrid working, however self-reported measures of productivity have indicated that throughout lockdown the majority of employees have been just as, or even more productive than usual, as a result of having autonomy of when and how tasks are completed, reduced distractions and being able to invest time in work rather than commuting or losing time between meetings. Can a hesitancy with regards to embracing more hybrid working be more symptomatic of a culture where employee trust is not forthcoming? Some organisations throughout the pandemic have discussed or even trialled the use of monitoring software, which can have negative implications for trust and productivity. Could enforcing a full-time return to work be seen as a way to physically monitor employee productivity based on ‘hours worked and not quality of work done’ instead of developing employee trust?

So, what can organisations do? I would argue that the principals of ‘good work’ should be embedded. Now is the time for employers to engage in consultation with their staff, to recognise that no two employees would have had the same experience of lockdown, and employees may appreciate a voice in what happens next. Organisations should recognise that employees have adapted quickly over the last year, and that ‘true flexible working’ may be an increasingly common feature of the workforce as a result of the autonomy it provides. Questions still remain about the socialisation and collaborative opportunities when working from home, but promoting hybrid ways of working where training, learning and development can still occur may be one way of overcoming this.

Discussions about the future of the workforce and workplace are set to continue over the next few months, but l urge organisations to include employees in these discussions to enable a smooth transition from this lockdown to whatever comes next.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.

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