For many, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has rested on one question: Can I work from home or do I have to be in the workplace? National lockdowns, employees shielding or self-isolating, has pushed tens of millions of workers around the globe to work from home. As businesses were forced to embrace the workforce experiment that had struggled to become mainstream before COVID-19 hit, by April 2020, 86% of those working from home were doing so because of the pandemic.
In some sectors, remote work was fairly common – even in a pre-COVID world. In some, however, it is practically impossible.
As many businesses transitioned to 100% remote work due to COVID-19, others were devastated. Workers in hospitality, leisure and non-essential retail were faced with the very real possibility of being furloughed or being made redundant. With bars, restaurants, gyms and non-essential retail forced to close; employers have had a difficult time deciding the fate of their loyal employees.
In this article, we take a look at some of the cases for and against working from home becoming the future of how and where we work.
Yes, it is the future
The benefits of working from home are plentiful: from providing employees with more flexibility to allowing businesses to hire from anywhere in the world; some form of remote work is quickly becoming a key factor for many job seekers.
Research by FlexJobs found that 65% of employees report wanting to work full-time post-pandemic. To boot, a staggering 27% of workers would willingly take up to a 20% pay cut to work remotely.
For most office-based businesses, working from home is entirely feasible – and achievable. Not only is it a huge cost-saver for businesses but employees, too. Being able to work from anywhere, some could choose to move out of large cities with a high cost of living that is close to an office location to be nearer to friends and family having more disposable income.
Companies that were not as tech-savvy before the pandemic are likely to be fully equipped for remote work today. With extended periods of remote work and lockdowns, employers have had to quickly adopt digital tools to enable their employees to maintain operations and continue to do their jobs. This digital transformation is here to stay and it only stands to empower employees to effectively work from home, without any dips in productivity. A US study by HR and workplace benefits consultancy, Mercer found that 94% of employers said their company productivity was actually the same (67%) or higher (27%) than before the pandemic, despite their employees working from home for most of the year.
Working from home allows us all to do our bit for the environment, too. During periods of lockdown, global air quality has improved significantly due to the marked reduction in commuter traffic. Research by the American Geophysical Union found that pollution levels dropped by as much as 38% across Western Europe and the United States during COVID-19 lockdowns.
No, it’s impossible
And yet, there are some among us that thrive in an office environment. Certainly, the distinction between our professional and personal lives become increasingly blurred in a remote environment. For employees that live alone, coming into an office may be the only form of social interaction they have on a given day. Transitioning to 100% remote work, even after the pandemic, could have a damaging impact on employee mental health as they become increasingly isolated from their peers.
In some industries, remote work is impossible. The vast majority of employees working in sectors such as healthcare, policing and grocery are unable to work from home; the only real exception being those in back-office functions such as finance, HR or marketing.
At its peak, the total number of UK jobs furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was nearing 10 million (claims made as of midnight on the 13th December 2020, gov.uk). With the value of claims rocketing to over £46bn at the end of last year; it is clear that working from home simply isn’t a viable option for a large proportion of the UK’s workforce.
Throughout the pandemic (and beyond), employees in customer-facing, essential and manufacturing roles have been the backbone of keeping the nation going. Providing essential groceries, emergency and care services; what we’ve come to know as ‘key workers’ simply can’t work from home.
Despite the clear cost-savings of remote work, employers must bear in mind the importance of in-person interaction as a means of fostering a culture of mentoring, collaboration and development. Notwithstanding the struggles some employees have in facilitating working from home such as a lack of workspace and too many distractions at home.
Maybe, with a hybrid model
In the same study by FlexJobs, 31% of employees surveyed want a hybrid work environment – that is, a blend of remote and office-based work. Some employers may have already transitioned to a hybrid model during the pandemic, welcoming employees back on rotas or at staggered times to minimise unnecessary contact and to maintain social distancing guidelines.
As a method of working, hybrid work combines the best of both remote and office-based work as employees can decide when and where they work. Providing the routine and socialising many of us have craved during these prolonged periods of lockdown, coupled with the ability to be flexible.