Most workers started 2022 in the same position as during the height of the pandemic – hunched over laptops in makeshift home offices. Many will have forgotten that work-from-home guidance was still in place during the first few weeks of the year (following a spike in the omicron variant of Covid) as the dates of the numerous changes to lockdown restrictions have become warped in our collective memories.
But this return of remote working was short-lived. Government advice to work from home was lifted on 19 January and government rhetoric swiftly changed, as the then minister for government efficiency, Jacob Rees-Mogg, called for civil servants to return to their desks.
This debate was also played out in the corporate world, as managers and staff engaged in a tug of war over the benefits of office and home working. Business leaders attempted to persuade people back to the workplace, talking about the positive impact it has on collaboration and corporate culture. Meanwhile, employees have been reluctant to lose the flexibility that remote working provides.
This difference in opinion was seen most clearly during Apple’s repeated efforts to call personnel back to its $5bn (£4.2bn) Californian HQ. CEO Tim Cook asked staff to come back three days a week in May, but this proposal was rejected by staff who claimed they were just as productive from home. A second return-to-office mandate was issued in August and met a similar response.
Most businesses have now settled on a flexible arrangement, with two or three days of office time per week becoming the norm. Data on London office occupancy rates suggests that Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are now the most popular days.
Similarly, the Pret Index – a record of the number of customers at the coffee chain, which is located primarily near offices and train stations – shows that commuter numbers are returning to normal, following a significant decline throughout the pandemic. After a steady ascent throughout the year, the number of transactions was at 83% of pre-pandemic levels in the City of London by mid-July.
The rise of quiet quitting
Central to the hybrid working dilemma is productivity paranoia. A report by Microsoft revealed that 87% of staff feel productive working in a hybrid setting, in stark contrast to the 85% of leaders who say they are no longer confident their charges are being productive while at home.
Managers’ productivity fears were manifested in the form of the biggest workplace buzzword of 2022 – quiet quitting. A new emphasis on work/life balance this year saw people spread the virtues of doing the bare minimum on social media. According to TikTok, videos with the hashtag #QuietQuitting picked up 144.2 million views.
Another new corporate term is WFA, or work from anywhere. As the world gradually returned to normality, following the global pandemic, employees were quick to capitalise on the lifting of travel restrictions. Digital nomadism became more prevalent as companies introduced policies that allowed staff to work for portions of the year abroad.
Working from anywhere takes off
Businesses such as Facebook, Revolut, KPMG and Airbnb have all introduced work-from-anywhere policies. A global survey of workers from Lonely Planet and Fiverr found that more than half (54%) would now identify as “anywhere workers”, further emphasising the declining importance of location in our working lives.
While 2022 brought people the freedom to choose where they toiled, there has also been an increased emphasis on when we work too. This year, the UK was host to the world’s largest four-day-week trial, which saw 70 organisations and 3,300 staff make the switch to a shorter working week.
The results of the scheme were largely positive, with 86% of the companies involved saying they would stick to a four-day week beyond the end of the trial. Others have stated that it would be “impossible to go back to normal” as the results showed productivity had either been maintained or improved in 95% of cases.
But as the UK slips into a recession, the world of work is likely to change again. Whether companies will still be as willing to experiment with four-day weeks or flexible working policies in more stringent economic circumstances remains to be seen. What we do know is our workplaces will continue to evolve in 2023.