https://www.bbc.com-(Image credit: Alamy)
By Peter Yeung
We assume remote work is here to stay – but some of the loudest voices in the corporate world are rallying to get employees back in offices.
As populations get vaccinated, and many countries prepare for something of a return to normality, companies that have been forced into remote-work arrangements for the past year now face a complicated decision. Should bosses let workers stay at home, bring everyone back to the office or find a solution in between?
Businesses are answering in different ways. Some have been quick to herald a completely new world of work, like file-hosting service Dropbox, which went “virtual first”, in 2020, pointing to the benefits of “non-linear workdays” and “employee experience”. But others, like tech giant Facebook and insurance company Aviva, are opting for a “hybrid” model, offering greater flexibility and independence for workers while maintaining certain structures.
Yet some employers, particularly within the finance industry, suggest the long-term role of remote work has been overstated, and that the office will continue to serve as an important hub. “It’s not a new normal,” Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon said at a Credit Suisse Group AG conference in February. “It’s an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.” Jes Staley, chief executive of Barclays, voiced similar sentiments in January, describing remote working as a short-term measure that was not sustainable.
The structure of the post-pandemic work world therefore remains up in the air, despite some workers’ assumptions that office life has changed forever. It may be hard to know exactly what set-up an individual employer may choose when the time comes, but understanding why opinions are so diverse – and why some sectors are keen to have employees back in house – may help workers prepare for a future that may look different than they anticipated.
‘Not ideal for us’
The pushback from the finance sector has noticeably emerged in the last few months.
Solomon said the investment bank, which is currently in the spotlight for its working culture, had operated throughout 2020 with “less than 10% of our people” in the office. But although admitting the pandemic had helped push digitalisation, creating more efficient ways of business, the Goldman Sachs CEO raised fears over the impact on collaboration and the company’s 3,000 new starters. “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us,” he explained.
Barclays’s Staley said it was “remarkable” that remote working had worked as well as it had. But at a meeting at the World Economic Forum (WEF), Staley said that going forward, he had concerns. “It will increasingly be a challenge to maintain the culture and collaboration that these large financial institutions seek to have and should have.”
Mary Erdoes, head of asset and wealth management for JPMorgan Chase & Co, voiced concerns over the long-term impact of remote working at the same meeting. “It is fraying. It is hard,” she said. “It takes a lot of inner strength and sustainability without the energy that you get from being around other people.”
It will increasingly be a challenge to maintain the culture and collaboration that these large financial institutions seek to have and should have – Jes Staley
What’s clear is that employers and employees now know far more about remote working than they did at the start of the pandemic. Although all recognise there are positives, such as more flexibility for workers and potentially lower overhead for employers, concerns also abound about the impact remote work could have on trust, company culture, how young people’s careers progress and how employees collaborate. Each company is carefully assessing the best path for them.
The more generalised opposition to remote working stems from “old-school” perspectives from “older, greyer, C-suite executives”, according to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), a research and consulting firm focused on the future of work. “They have a mentality of ‘butts in seats’,” she says. “Managers don’t trust employees to work untethered. Especially in investment, which is very metrics-orientated – it can be a worry that workers aren’t working.”
But Lister adds that the role of mentorship is more important in finance – compared with the more laissez-faire approach of tech – which could be a factor. “It’s very difficult to onboard new employees or cultivate young employees who need mentoring in the hallways and elevators,” she says. “We haven’t found a way to replicate that virtually.”
Nicholas Bloom, a management expert and economics professor at Stanford University, believes the mindset in the finance industry is based on the goal of preserving company culture as well as employees’ job motivation. This emphasis on working culture, he adds, is due to the “top-down” hierarchies more common in legacy organisations. “They don’t want gig workers,” he says. “And they don’t want employees checking in from a Greek café or Thai beach resort.”
But Bloom says, since the pandemic struck, other more legitimate fears about remote working have surfaced: reduced productivity, due to the current lack of space and privacy and, for parents, the presence of children; loss of informal interactions that allow creativity; and the mental burden of employees always having to be switched on digitally.
‘Practising what they are preaching’
Leading voices in the tech industry have been backing remote work and the advantages that it brings since fairly early on in the pandemic, however. They cite evidence that working from home can result in increased productivity as well as providing better work-life balance, a wider workforce talent pool for hiring and greater employee inclusivity and retention.
Mark Stuart, co-director of Leeds University’s Digital Futures at Work Research Centre, says part of the reason for the tech industry’s early support for remote working was that many companies were already experimenting with it. “Tech companies were doing it anyway,” he says, “while for other sectors like finance, there is more effort needed to bring about those changes” because companies are often larger and older.
They don’t want gig workers. And they don’t want employees checking in from a Greek café or Thai beach resort – Nicholas Bloom
Computer manufacturer Dell’s workforce was already 25% remote pre-pandemic, and that is set to continue further. “Yes, [remote working] is absolutely here to stay,” CEO Michael Dell told CRN in March. “We’re not going to dictate the answer for other companies, but what we definitely see is this hybrid, work from anywhere situation is going to continue.”
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has been keen to point out that his confidence in the shift to remote working is based on technology already in development. “We’re working on a lot of remote presence technology and products,” he told The Verge in May. “So, if you’re long on VR and AR and video chat, you have to believe in some capacity that you’re helping people be able to do whatever they want from wherever they are. I think that that suggests a worldview that would lead to allowing people to work more remotely over time.”
Alan Felstead, a professor at Cardiff University, who led a report into homeworking commissioned by the Welsh parliament, says that besides the widely touted arguments for remote working, the tech industry has another very obvious motive: profit. “Tech companies obviously have a vested interest in this,” he says. “Unlike in other sectors, vocally supporting remote working is helping them to sell their products. Tech companies are practising what they are preaching.”
But Stanford’s Bloom also argues the typical employee for a tech company is much more inclined to want to work remotely – one of the reasons why he believes the industry has gone ahead with working from home. “You can imagine who they employ,” he says. “They are techy men in their 20s and 30s who are happy to do it.”
Expect some nuance
There’s certainly widespread demand for flexibility in the workforce. According to software company Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work report, 97.6% of those surveyed would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their career.
But whether workers will return to public transport and al-desko lunches, or transition to a new world of weekly virtual work socialising nights, very much depends on the sector you work in, your job role and, more arbitrarily, what your boss wants, according to experts.
Despite opposition to remote work in the majority of the finance industry, some executives have expressed a midway view. “Going back to the office with 100% of the people 100% of the time, I think there is zero chance of that. As for everyone working from home all the time, there is also zero chance of that,” Daniel Pinto, COO of JPMorgan Chase & Co, told CNBC in February.
At the same time, even tech chiefs are taking a more balanced approach. In March, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said that Google plans to invest more than $7bn (£5.07bn) in offices and data centres in the US this year. “Coming together in person to collaborate and build community is core to Google’s culture, and it will be an important part of our future,” he said in a blog post. The company also expects employees to work in-person for at least three days a week after the planned return to offices on 1 September, The New York Times reported.
“Newspaper headlines are written on key companies and there’s a tendency to generalise,” says Stuart. “Differences have been overstated. The reality is much more nuanced and rather than sector it will depend more on the nature of work people do, the working patterns they have, their occupational profiles.”
The message: don’t assume that remote work is going to stay – or go. But there are unlikely to be hard-and-fast rules.