Since the 1980s, Silicon Valley has been at the epicentre of innovation and driving change –through technology and its ripple effect on culture. Companies originating there set the pace; the rest just try to keep up. But since the pandemic shook up the way we work, these businesses at the pinnacle of modern progress are stumped when it comes to remote working. In fact, none of them appear to be backing the same horse. Despite the likes of Twitter setting their stool out early in the pandemic, stating no-one would have to return to the office if they didn’t wish to, Google sent shockwaves recently when it announced it was “inviting” employees back into the office, with WFH only an option for a maximum of two week stints. Even more traditional sectors, such as banking, are more amenable to remote working, with HSBC and JP Morgan stating that thousands of their employees would be based permanently from home.
The answer, cried the future-gazers, was hybrid working. Here, employees would be based in a blended workstyle, in a mixture of working both from the office and from home. Frustratingly, this is in fact just an example of offering reheated office perks, as opposed to a revolution.
In our opinion, being truly flexible goes beyond offering hybrid working as a cure-all. For me, the only viable, long-term solution is a remote-first approach to work.
Holding on to tired practices
As we went into the first UK lockdown last March, we heard a lot of concern about productivity levels as laptops were packed up and taken home for the foreseeable future. But, since then, workers have proven to their bosses that they are both capable and willing to work efficiently and effectively from home – with 58% reportedly feeling more productive since working remotely. So why are companies like Google in such a rush to get everyone back into the office once more? IBM even announced its proposed system of remote working in March 2021, which leaves 80% of their workforce working at least three days a week in the office. This was, apparently, based on a fear that it will affect employees’ career trajectory as remote workers would not be able to manage people effectively or help build company culture.
Ironically, this reveals attitudes which could instead cause even more damage to workers’ career progression. It risks reverting back to old stereotypes of not trusting employees and not giving them credit to work effectively and efficiently – like adults – without being micromanaged.
Furthermore, it reduces the pool of talent employers have access to. Forcing employees to work from one centralised location limits the workforce to those from the periphery – so businesses are not able to hire talent from the rest of the UK, let alone across the world. It also indirectly hinders the diversity of your workforce, by enforcing bygone and unnecessary restrictions on who can work for you, i.e. only those who can commit to the office 24/7, without any other pulls on their time, family or otherwise.
Accepting the role of remote working
Supporters for a hybrid-style of working have dominated the conversation for the past few months. Many businesses are calling this their new approach, extolling its virtues of the best of both worlds. But it has only been theoretical up until now. What’s more, each business’ definition of hybrid working differs from one to the other. Whatever the definition, in practice, it creates more problems than it solves. Managing part-remote workforces and helping them to build a successful culture in a hybrid environment creates a disadvantaged party in those that are remote.
It’s an unnecessary burden for employers and employees alike. That’s why remote-first is the best solution. The pandemic shone a light on the best ways of working and encouraged leaders to reflect. Work that was once “only” ever meant to be done in the office is now fine to do remotely and is considered the norm for many. The success of the transition to remote working encouraged the likes of Spotify to put their hats in the “work wherever” ring early on.
The flexibility and better work-life balance offered by remote working does not only come from the ability to work wherever is most comfortable, without needing to commute. The money saved from overheads or rent could even go towards new, improved and more meaningful employee perks that offer a replacement for the in-person interaction in a better way: a summer beach break or ski trip for example.
Benefitting from long-term flexibility
Choosing this way of working also avoids a split, or even tiered system, between those in the office, and those not, when it comes to using resources, networking and collaborating. It is not about putting everyone at a disadvantage. Businesses simply need to work to make remote working a better approach for everyone.
Key to building a remote-first working model is trusting and empowering your employees to meet up for in-person collaboration when necessary, rather than forcing it with permanent office space. The ability to do this only comes from thinking through a remote-first lens as those that adopt a hybrid approach would consider the office a natural meeting spot. Taking a remote-first approach also means businesses can make budget available for flexible collaboration space to meet the needs of the employees at any time and wherever they are. When done well, the benefits of remote working are substantial, according to WEF. They include higher job satisfaction thanks to the greater flexibility, greater trust between employers and employees to effectively do their job, teamed with the greater ease of doing so, through growing adaptability using digital tools that enable remote work.
By embracing remote systems, companies are setting themselves up for future success. Build the processes that allow for staff to really use remote work to their advantage and enrich all areas of their lives. For example, once “where” employees are working has been addressed, the next logical step is “when” best suits them. While it’s important to promote a good work/life balance, more flexibility around when employees open up their laptops gives businesses additional opportunities to employ a broader, more diverse workforce.
A silver lining to the pandemic was the light it shone on how we had been working, including its lack of long-term stability and sustainability. As a result, business leaders have been handed the opportunity to revolutionise their employees’ ways of working, offering them the freedom to move away from the decades old 9 to 5 routine and settle into working and living anywhere. All that’s left for them to do is take it.
The calls for flexibility were present prior to the pandemic, but were easily muffled out. Now, the entire workforce is demanding change and long-term flexibility, and control of their working practice. If businesses want to walk the walk when it comes to offering forward-focused approach to work, they need to pave the way for employees to determine their own career paths.
Fortunately, the technology is there to not only support remote workers, but to help them excel. Time is ticking, however, for the companies refusing to accept and establish a better style of working, now and tomorrow.