The great enforced global experiment in working from home is coming to an end, as vaccines, the Omicron variant and new therapeutic drugs bring the COVID-19 crisis under control.
But a voluntary experiment has begun, as organisations navigate the new landscape of hybrid work, combining the best elements of remote work with time in the office.
Yes, there is some push for a “return to normal” and getting workers back into offices. But ideas such as food vouchers and parking discounts are mostly being proposed by city councils and CBD businesses keen to get their old customers back.
A wide range of surveys over the past 18 months show most employees and increasingly employers have no desire to return to commuting five days a week.
The seismic shift in employer attitudes is signalled by Google, long a fierce opponent of working from home.
Last week the company told employees they must return to the office from early April – but only for three days a week.
That’s still way more than tech companies such as Australia’s Atlassian, which expects workers to come into the office just four days a year, but it is a far cry from its pre-pandemic resistance to remote work.
Hybrid work is here to stay. Employers will either embrace the change or find themselves being left behind.
Gains in productivity
Google began – under pressure – to soften its opposition to remote work in 2020. In December of that year chief executive Sundar Pichai told employees:
Its chief concern has been protecting the social capital that springs from physical proximity – and also perhaps with keeping employers under surveillance.
But longstanding (and widespread) management concerns that employees working from home would lower productivity have proven unfounded.
Even before the pandemic there was good research showing no productivity penalty from remote working – the opposite, in fact.
For example, a 2014 randomised trial involving about 250 Shanghai call centre workers found working from home associated with 13% more productivity. This comprised a 9% gain from working more minutes per shift – due perhaps to fewer interruptions – and a 4% gain from making more calls per minute – attributed to a quieter, more comfortable working environment.
Research in the past two years supports these findings.
Harvard Business School professor Raj Choudury and colleagues published research in October 2020 that found allowing employees to work wherever they like led to a 4.4% increase in output.
In April 2021, Stanford University economist Nick Bloom and colleagues calculated a the shift to remote working resulted in a 5% productivity boost. Though their working paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, was not peer reviewed, it was based on surveying 30,000 American workers, which is a decent sample size.