The “new normal” is a term that has become as disliked as it is necessary. Society appears to have fundamentally changed and it likely cannot, and perhaps should not, return to the way it was in the before times.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Initially resistant to follow suit with the lockdowns implemented across mainland Europe during March of 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first UK lockdown on the 23rd. A day after the Coronavirus Act 2020 legally came into force on the 26th, he announced he had contracted COVID-19 and would be admitted to the intensive care unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in central London ten days later.
More or less overnight many employees found themselves legally obliged to remain at home, their employers scrambling to implement robust digital workplaces in response to the new restrictions. According to the Office for National Statistics (2020), by April 46.6% of employees in the UK were reporting they had been working remotely, to some degree, in the past week.
The proportion of UK employees who work “mainly“ from home has generally increased over time, up from 4.3% in 2015 to 5.1% in 2019, with a further 12% reporting having worked from home in the week prior (ONS, 2019). Surveying in May and June of 2020 by the Working from Home During COVID-19 Lockdown Project, run by the University of Kent and the University of Birmingham, found 86% of employees had worked from home and 70% were working flexitime. In contrast, only 16% of women and 18% of men had been working remotely at least several times a month in the European Working Conditions Survey of 2015 (Chung et al., 2020).
Lockdowns offered unprecedented opportunities to trial home working at scale, and developments that may have previously taken years were condensed into a matter of months. Whilst remote working may not be, or even become, the norm for a great number of people, a cultural shift has taken place that cannot be so readily undone.
Rise of the Hybrid Work Model
CIPD (2021) describes hybrid working as a type of flexible working. In its most basic form, organisations that allow employees to work both in the office and remotely from another location follow a hybrid work model, with policies existing along a spectrum in terms of flexibility.
Whilst remote working has been a possibility for many years, its dramatic increase in reaction to mandated lockdowns was propped up by the rapid deployment of newer digital solutions relating to videoconferencing, document-sharing and expansion of cloud-based computing capacity (McKinsey, 2021a).
Several tech giants have already implemented permanent hybrid working models:
- Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced employees could work from home “forever” in a company-wide email in May 2020 (The Guardian, 2020).
- In October 2020, Microsoft introduced policies allowing employees to work from home less than 50% of the time, or work remotely full-time with manager approval (BBC, 2020).
- Spotify announced its “Work From Anywhere” initiative in February 2021 (Spotify, 2021).
- CEO of Google and Alphabet, Sundar Pichai, sent an email in early May 2021 implementing a hybrid model and opportunities for fully remote depending on role and team needs (Google, 2021).
The list continues to grow as more and more employers implement various iterations of the hybrid working model as the benefits for both employers and employees are increasingly realised.
The Workplace Is Where the Work Is
A lot of work now takes place in a digital rather than physical space. Deloitte (2021) posits that the workplace (at least for some people) has transcended beyond a tangible location where the workers go or where the worker is and now exists in a digital environment and within the digital tools workers use to collaborate and get the work done.
Before the crisis, 99% of executives expected their employees to be present on-site for the majority of their workweek but now, in a post-pandemic world, the majority (80%) expect that employees in roles that aren’t essential to perform on-site will only come to the office one to four days a week (McKinsey, 2021b). Another recent survey of Fortune 500 CEOs revealed that the majority (53%) now believe the hybrid approach (2-3 days on-site/at home) is optimal, but only 3% would want four days or more remote working. The remaining 39% still consider having workers on-site four days a week or more as optimal for their business (Fortune, 2021). Gartner (2020) also found 82% of company leaders intend to permit some degree of remote working, with 47% saying they will allow employees to go fully remote, or grant flexible working days (43%) and hours (42%).
Most employees also report preferring to have a more flexible working model in the future, with those preferring a hybrid model up 22 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels to 52% post-pandemic. Around 30% go so far as to say they are likely to switch jobs if they are returned to fully on-site work (McKinsey, 2021c). People have become used to this “new normal” and many now want control over where, when, and how they work and expect businesses to accommodate it. Flexible and home-working used to be somewhat of a perk, but it has now become an expectation.
Are We Ready?
One of the issues we face transforming the world of work in this way is that we seem a little unprepared for such a reality. Despite intentions to adopt a hybrid approach going forward, 68% of executives in the previously cited survey (McKinsey, 2021b) have no detailed plan communicated or implemented. In an earlier employee survey (McKinsey, 2021d), 28% of employees also state they have only had vague communications surrounding their organisation’s vision of post-pandemic work, and 40% are yet to hear about any vision at all. Around half of the employees (47%) feel this issue is a cause for concern and are anxious about their future because of it.
According to detailed analyses undertaken by McKinsey (2020), more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office. Soberingly, more than half of the workforce has little or no opportunity to undertake remote work due to the nature of their roles. Often lower-paid and more at risk from automation and digitisation, remote work also risks accentuating already deeply ingrained social inequality.
It seems it is no longer a question of “if” the hybrid work model can be successfully implemented, it is a question of “how” we move forward.
How are we going to adapt and consider everyone’s needs? How can we meet and overcome these challenges? How do we redesign and optimise our digital and physical workplaces? How can we mitigate the unequal impact it will have on those who stood not at the frontline of the hybrid working revolution, but those who stayed trapped in their physical workspaces, masked and exhausted, to keep the world turning?
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this new future of work. We’re keen to know how you and your company have adapted and plan to move forward. Find us on LinkedIn and send us a message with your experience, or contact our team to find out how we run the show here at Purposeful and how we could help you in creating your own digital workplace in preparation for whatever the new normal will bring.