Remote, hybrid, office? Which will be your ‘new normal’?
To help business leaders decide how their future workplaces might best operate, three experts with very different views on the subject argue the pros and cons of fully remote, hybrid and office working.
After 18 months of enforced homeworking for many people, it’s difficult to foresee a future in which remote and hybrid working won’t feature. However, many businesses are keen to coax staff back to the office at least for part of the week – Covid-19 restrictions permitting – while others have spoken out against working from home, including Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon who called it an “aberration”.
So, is hybrid working likely to last, or will there be a snapback to old operating methods? Here, three experts debate whether fully remote, hybrid or office working is the best option for the future.
Fully remote working
Darren Murph has written the manual on remote working, literally, publishing Living the Remote Dream: A Guide to Seeing the World, Setting Records and Advancing Your Career in 2015. Four years later, in July 2019, he was appointed head of remote at technology company GitLab, one of the world’s largest fully remote organisations with more than 1,300 employees spread across 65 countries.
For Murph, the past 18 months have proved that remote working is the future. “The pandemic has forced organisations to grapple with reality: distributed work is here, it’s happening, and it’s no longer a choice or an argument for the vast majority of industries,” he says. “Covid-19 accelerated a trend that began decades ago, as society leverages the internet to live better lives while driving business results. The benefits are many – to the employee, the employer and the world.”
Some of the advantages, Murph argues, are a more diverse and inclusive workforce, greater efficiency in workflows and a broader global coverage in servicing clients. He also believes being fully remote makes businesses more resilient and more able to preserve continuity regardless of whether the office is open or closed.
“Businesses will be better equipped to weather future crises by empowering results that are decoupled from geography. They’ll find it easier to hire diverse teams and elevate introverted voices that have historically been squashed,” he says.
While Murph acknowledges that “all-remote isn’t for everyone” and can make onboarding recruits more challenging, he believes the pros far outweigh the cons. “Knowledge workers have proven that they can drive results without the crutch of the office,” he says. “Rather than employees needing to justify why they should work from home as opposed to the office, we’ve entered a world where employers must justify exorbitant waste in terms of commute time and real estate to accomplish digital tasks.”
Offering his three top tips for businesses seeking to optimise a remote-working model, Murph suggests the first step is to hire a dedicated remote-work leader. “Companies need to realise this is a full-scale organisational transformation and, if you want it done well, it can’t be a part-time job,” he says.
Murph also recommends that companies audit their values and documentation hygiene to ensure both are ready for a distributed workforce. Finally, he suggests starting to shut down office spaces. “Nothing sends a clearer signal that your future will be driven by how not where work happens than a shift away from offices,” he says.
Samantha Fisher is head of dynamic work for Okta, an identity and access management company. Explaining what dynamic working means at Okta, she says: “It’s about personalising the working experience and enabling employees to work in whichever way makes the most sense for them. It’s not just a case of where employees are located – at the office, home or elsewhere – it’s about workplace design, people engagement, technology, talent acquisition, morale and company culture.”
At the start of the coronavirus crisis, 30% of Okta’s 2,400 employees were already working remotely. “We found that this flexibility increased empowerment, satisfaction and productivity,” says Fisher. “The pandemic accelerated the need for more flexible frameworks. Over the past year or so, employees have benefitted from a better work-life balance and reduced commuting costs, as well as greater autonomy which has led to more empowerment.”
Appointed Okta’s first head of dynamic work in January 2021, she was tasked with building organisational culture more broadly, anchoring equity, social connection and productivity, and enabling employees to work from anywhere successfully. “I spend a lot of my time working with cross-functional teams, thinking about the programmes, services and experiences we offer while in the office and how we can translate these for a hybrid environment and/or reposition services in a way that enhances experiences at any location,” she says.
Fisher stresses the importance of “community building”, explaining that the workplace is a vital part of the business ecosystem and a key element of organisational culture. “I look at developing creative and holistic solutions that augment talent strategies, optimise technology enablement and support shifts in workforce operations,” she says.
Okta’s The New Workplace Report: A Business Balancing Act – published in June 2021 and based on a survey of more than 10,000 office-based workers across eight European countries and 12 industry sectors – found 42% of respondents wanted a mix of home- and office-based working, 17% wanted to work from home permanently and just 16% wanted to work in the office five days a week.
But what’s needed to make hybrid working successful? “For organisations to provide flexibility and equity in their workplace environment, you need executive support, investment in technology, a focus on culture and experience, and leaders to build and drive long-term strategy,” says Fisher. “It’s a fully cross-functional initiative and requires both passion and heart to curate a dynamic working environment.”
Chris Grazier, an office agency partner at Hartnell Taylor Cook and president of the Bristol Property Agents Association, is confident that office working will thrive again. But he urges organisations to be smarter with their workspaces rather than using the trend for hybrid working as a way to downsize and, ultimately, cut overheads.
Grazier admits that the democratisation of video conferencing during the pandemic has been “a revelation for all businesses”, including in the property industry in which he has operated for almost three decades. “The flipside,” he says, “has been staff isolation, the effect on teamwork, the inability to mentor junior staff and the loss of creativity that springs from face-to-face or group working.”
Now, after a year and a half of Zoom calls, there is a collective craving to return to the office and to network and collaborate without an awkward time delay or mistakenly being on mute. “The office is where business culture is formed,” says Grazier. “It’s both good for the employee, who can build some separation between home life and work, and it connects employers with employees in a way that a Zoom call never can. And despite headlines touting that the home is the office of the future, over the past few months we have witnessed businesses returning staff to the workplace.”
Indeed, data showing the floor space taken up in Bristol city centre in the past three quarters, including Q2 this year, reveals more ‘Grade A offices’ – high-quality workspace, refurbished or new – have been occupied than non-Grade A spaces. “This is a complete reversal of previous trends, and it hints that businesses are focusing on less but higher-quality space for their new offices than they did for their former ones,” Grazier says.
Echoing concerns from business leaders about tracking workers’ productivity away from the office, Grazier believes that by investing in smarter workspaces, staff will want to return. “I’d recommend that organisations use less space but improve the quality,” he says.
Grazier also points out that many organisations are emerging from the pandemic with a decent balance sheet, thanks to government support, offering them a unique opportunity to upgrade their offices. “Don’t try to save money if you are moving,” he advises. “Try to spend that money more wisely by creating an environment that draws on the strengths of teamworking and positive culture.”