As much of the world adapts to remote working in the wake of coronavirus, many employers are taking stock of how and where they will ask their employees to work in the future and what potential impacts any revised practices will have on business output.

Many organisations are launching ‘soft returns’ to the office this summer in order to trial a return to face-to-face working before putting firmer arrangements in place from September. The potential barrier to any decision for UK businesses is the fluid nature of government announcements on freeing up/reimposing restrictions and whether or not this will delay or accelerate their plans.

What is clear is the pre-pandemic consensus of a 9-5 and 5 days a week in the office has broken down and is replaced by a range of attitudes based on location and sector. Some companies such as US investment banks are keen for a return to the status quo ante whilst some in the tech sector are offering total remote working. The accounting and legal sectors are tending to take the middle ground, which asks people to work from the office 2-3 days a week with the rest from home.

Benefits of working remotely

Reduced commuting costs

The daily commute to and from the office could vastly reduce or become a thing of the past for many if remote working becomes the norm. This would make the annual cost of commuting much lower or completely non-existent in some cases. Usage has by no means returned to pre-COVID levels on public transport or our roads and if a shift to remote or hybrid working becomes widespread, then the number of commuters is unlikely to reach pre-pandemic levels again.

The benefit for employees of less commuting is a significant saving on the amount they spend on travel – whether that be fuel in their cars or annual passes for buses and trains. It’s certainly a cost-saving which many employees would welcome at a time when the cost of living continues to rise.

A key issue will be whether firms will be willing to pay premiums for staff to work in high cost locations but live in low cost areas. The most obvious example of this is London with its additional weighting payment.

Creating more time

The daily commute takes time out of people’s days; whether it’s a 10-minute walk or a 45-minute commute by car or train – and all of this time adds up across a week, month and year.

All of the time saved from commuting is time which people could instead invest in their own interests outside of work – which will ultimately give them a greater feeling of fulfilment. Happier employees means greater productivity and potentially an improved work-life balance – something many are longing for at a time when workplace expectations and pressures continue to increase.

Greater flexibility for personal commitments

Greater flexibility in relation where people work might prompt employers to take a more agile stance about working hours if there’s no compromise on productivity.

Some employers are still restrictive when it comes to leaving work for personal commitments such as doctor’s appointments or childcare. Perhaps this more flexible world we now find ourselves in will see more employers embrace this need for a greater work-life balance for their people. This approach won’t be feasible for everyone but for office workers flexible start and finish times would be a welcome introduction for many.

Reducing office space and overheads

The world has woken up to the idea that the economy can continue to function remotely. With a newfound confidence in our ability to work from home and maintain productivity, many businesses are considering reducing their office spaces to suit the ‘hybrid’ model – something the Evening Standard reported on in relation to EY’s shift earlier this year.

Some businesses might choose to base a handful of teams in the office and others at home depending on their roles and responsibilities – with occasional contact days for meetings. However businesses choose to adapt to remote working, it does mean that many will likely be looking for smaller, but more flexible office spaces with an emphasis on breakout areas and collaborative spaces in the near future. This shift will in many cases reduce operating costs and drive up profitability – while giving town planners plenty to think about when it comes to the future of our towns and cities.

Challenges of leaving the office

Who works in the office and who works from home?

Adopting a hybrid approach will raise some important questions for employers and their employees – including who will work from the office and who will work from home? How do employers decide?

The Huffington Post shared an article recently which puts the spotlight on the fact that the return to work might not be as we’d hoped it would be. Greater freedoms might mean that employees want to adapt their working arrangements around children or other personal commitments. But what if employers can’t accommodate every request? This could lead to discontentment and complaints from employees about the days they’re needed in the office versus being based at home – disrupting what was once a harmonious working arrangement.

Some employees might need to be in the office more than others to aid their development, for example trainees and apprentices. If they’re expected to balance working from home with being in the office, then training and development could take twice as long. Deciding who works where, and when, is a potential headache many employers will need to navigate carefully in order to please everyone.

Stifled creativity and networking?

Businesses rely on creativity in order to deliver their products or services. Video calls serve a purpose in the short-term but, as we have all discovered, they don’t replace a proper creative session around a table. Video calls come with awkward pauses, and hand gestures and body language become harder to understand, leading to “Zoom fatigue”.

Likewise, networking is never as effective remotely. Face-to-face interactions make networking and forming new relationships easier – enabling people to build a rapport through clear communication, body language and free-flowing conversation. Shifting all networking events online could stifle the power it has and the opportunities it brings for commerce.

Blurred working hours for employees

Many are making the case that the shift to working from home is blurring the line between personal and work life – despite the argument that it should create a greater work-life balance. Case studies have recently been shared online of people who have experienced greater expectations on them by their bosses to work outside their usual hours during the pandemic.

The blurring of working times and hours seems to be creating an environment where it is accepted – or expected – that employees can ‘hop onto their emails’ at any time of day or night. This can lead to negative impacts on employee wellbeing and mental health as cited in a recent article from the BBC. It is the responsibility of employers to give guidance as to what is acceptable and continue to respect boundaries with their people. Only then will employees remain motivated and be willing to go the extra mile.

Monitoring the impact on mental health

Concerns over employee mental health and wellbeing have increased during lockdown. Many people have worked remotely in solitude and taken on the stresses of work with limited support and guidance. Offices provide the perfect place to build friendships, interact with others and discuss problems as they arise. However when individuals are based at home, a feeling of isolation can quickly set in.

If ‘hybrid’ working becomes the norm, then employers must invest in the wellbeing of their employees from a distance. It will become their duty to conduct regular phone or video check-ins and implement other systems and processes to ensure that workforces remain happy and healthy from a distance.

All the while there will still be those employees (around 10% according to some studies) who want to work five days a week in the office. The challenge for employers will be how to satisfy their needs when offices will only be partially used.

It definitely seems that we will not return to the working patterns of the pre-Covid era. The short-term trends point to most employers in tax allowing people to work two to three days a week from home. Although there are obvious benefits and many employees want this arrangement, there are clear challenges. Being cognisant of the challenges of working flexibly and involving employees in developing policies will allow companies to build strategies which make the move to flexible working a success.