Covid released the hybrid-working genie – now it won’t get back in the bottle
- It’s all gone horribly wrong! When Covid struck, big tech said ‘stand back and hold my beer, we’ll let our people work from home and show you how it’s done’
- And Lo, the lights stayed on (with the help of the telecoms industry) and it all worked better than many had dared hope
- Then it turned out that many employees and managers liked working from home so much, they wanted it to continue
- So where are we now?
By the middle of 2020 – several months into the Covid-19 pandemic and the widespread adoption of working-from-home (WFH) policies – it became clear that the enforced homestay had stimulated some deep thoughts amongst many ‘screen workers’ (those of us who sit in front of computer screens for a living) about the nature of work, work/life balance and so on. While many office workers couldn’t wait to get back to their offices, another cohort were hoping (or expecting) that a new flexible work environment would follow the pandemic. And many thought that a hybrid arrangement might become the new normal: Working from home for part of the time and working in a communal office-like setting for the balance was the expected solution. Flexibility was key and all manner of social and economic issues were enlisted in support of such a change – it was thought that widespread WFH might ease childcare problems, improve sustainability, help to stem climate change (all that wasteful commuting), address some mental health issues (due to fewer hours chained to a computer), and so on.
Big tech in the US was quick to get on-trend and many of the most prominent encouraged the idea that working from home (technology enabled, of course) could be cool and progressive. There was even evidence that workers could remain as (or more) productive than before, depending on the nature of the work and the apparent capabilities of the individuals involved. So how has that worked out for the big tech players that rushed for the doors in 2020?
Let’s pick on two: Apple and Alphabet/Google. Neither is in any way representative of the broader industry, but both are regarded (and indeed regard themselves) as being at the cutting edge in terms of staff motivation, retention and the use of technology.
Enter the ‘wokeforce’
In 2020, change and greater flexibility were already transforming the structure of work in many places and contexts. We had the rise of the ‘gig’ economy, where workers engaged in flexible arrangements, often with more than one employer. It was a big and growing industry and was already involved in a wide range of occupations from home deliveries, motorcycle courier services, taxi driving and restaurant work to nursing shifts and… well, just about anything you need to pay somebody to do.
And working from home was also on the rise, albeit slowly.
The difference between gigging and working
One distinguishing factor between the gig economy and the developing home-working phenomenon was that WFH usually involved permanent employment status while gigging didn’t. But they also had at least one important thing in common: Both relied on communications technology to make them viable. At the very least, the gig worker needs a smartphone – ideally with several ‘gigs’ of data available (no, mother, that’s not why they're called gig workers) – enabling them to stay in the loop and to know the details of their job assignments. The classic home-office worker probably needed a smartphone AND a broadband-connected laptop, so that working practice shift provided an opportunity for both broadband service providers and equipment vendors.
Microsoft was one company able to capitalise on the situation. Its second annual Work Trend Index report, Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work, contains a wealth of data on how working patterns, including employee attitudes to work, evolved during the pandemic. (See Microsoft announces new research and technology to make hybrid work work.)
As a result, it has been developing new features across Microsoft Teams, Microsoft 365, Surface Hub and Microsoft Viva to empower hybrid work and address employees’ new expectations for the workplace.
Many other companies have also been jumping on the home-working bandwagon to supply the necessary terminal equipment or networking gear. For service providers, home working appears to strengthen the case for Software as a Service (SaaS) adoption in place of conventional on-premises IT systems. SaaS connected via 5G (where it’s broadly available) arguably provides the optimum platform for hybrid office/home working.
However, as the pandemic recedes – replaced in the public mind by more pressing concerns such as recession and the Russia/Ukraine war – it’s still unclear as to what degree home working will replace office working in the medium term, if at all. Will a large proportion of office workers settle back into the old office routine if required? Or are a significant number still reluctant to return, given the persistent Covid risks such as new strains, while motivated by the growing appeal of home working and an appreciation of its various advantages? Will the demand for more flexible working arrangements continue to mount as remote work adoption continues? And will a desire to adopt them spread rather like the virus that caused the turmoil in the first place?
All these are still open questions.
The large US tech firms seemed to set the pace and encouraged home working as a virus countermeasure, safe in the knowledge they knew enough about the technology to finesse remote working arrangements, since they, and their employees, were very much in their technical element.
Apple, in particular, had been at the forefront of many of the technologies enabling the shift to flexible working and, along with other big tech players such as Google, Facebook, Skype and Amazon, it sent its staff home. Those home-working directives were mostly (but not always) issued on the understanding that, at some point, employees would be required to return to the office. Twitter was an outlier – it sent its employees to work from home indefinitely, if that’s what they wanted.
What’s happening right now is some quite startlingly vociferous pushback against home working from two directions. On one side are the home-working sceptics, often following on from Covid scepticism and anti-lockdown sentiment. Then there are the employers that are imposing rigid return-to-work schemes – the home-working enthusiasts are dismayed at such directives which, they say, ignore workers’ demands for flexibility. As they see it, hybrid home and office working must take account of an employee’s need to mesh other requirements of a busy lifestyle with work-time obligations. If working hours are set well in advance, this doesn’t work and they intend to dig their heels in.
Meanwhile, at least in the UK, the home-working sceptics are increasingly pushing a narrative that WFH is just a convenient cover story for old-fashioned malingering. The UK sceptics’ cheerleader is government cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg (often referred to as the minister for the 18th century due to his penchant for anachronistic formal attire and antediluvian attitudes), who talks of the need to return to work, as sceptics often phrase it, implying that working from home isn’t real work.
What’s at stake for employers?
For Apple, the collaborative advantages of a set workplace was regarded by top management as part of its secret sauce and the enabler for high-value collaboration. When setting out on the home-working journey, the timeframe for the pandemic was unknown so it was necessary to be vague regarding a likely return date – serendipitous collaboration with random colleagues at the water cooler would just have to wait. It would still be there when the employees all returned.
In November 2021, following a series of postponements due to new strains of the virus emerging and a subsequent clamour by reluctant-to-return employees, Apple CEO Tim Cook eventually announced a plan for a phased introduction of a hybrid work ‘pilot’ due to begin on 23 May 2022. Not everyone at Apple was thrilled and a protest letter debunking many of management’s claims and expressing disappointment at the Cook plan was circulated.
Now the pushback at Apple has apparently worsened, with an independent staff survey maintaining that four out of five professionals are considering looking for another job in the next three months. As a result, Apple has announced a modification to its return-to-the-office plan... yet again. As things stand it will continue with a two-days-per-week-in-the-office mandate instead of three.
Over at Alphabet, meanwhile, CEO Sundar Pichai had also hatched a hybrid return-to-work plan, which currently envisages around 60% of Google’s employees working together in existing offices for a few days a week, while 20% work in new offices and 20% work remotely.
Like Cook, Pichai harbours an almost mystical belief in the ability of a carefully curated office or campus environment to catalyse technical advance and competitive advantage. In a communication to employees, he stated: “For more than 20 years, our employees have been coming to the office to solve interesting problems – in a cafe, around a whiteboard or during a pickup game of beach volleyball or cricket. Our campuses have been at the heart of our Google community and the majority of our employees still want to be on campus some of the time.”
This is not exactly how many Google employees see things, although so far there hasn’t been a major falling out between management and employees.
WFH, it seems, was easier to organise than anyone would have ever thought possible (albeit prompted by a deadly virus), but designing new rules for hybrid work arrangements is proving to be much more difficult.
In my next article on the WFH trend, I’ll be looking at the technology demands of home working and what developers and vendors are doing to overcome the main challenges.
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