Business Unusual - The Future of Work

Several years ago Bill Gates predicted that “the competition to hire the best will increase in the years ahead. Companies that give extra flexibility to their employees will have the edge in this area”. Is the largest ever work from home experiment the catalyst to a permanent transition to flexible working? Or, will we return to a traditional working arrangement in a post-pandemic world?

Business leaders have made bold changes to their workforces over the past nine months but the traditional office sector remains bullish about the future. Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey told workers in May 2020 that they would be able to work from home “forever”. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced that as many as half of the company’s more than 48,000 employees would work from home within a decade. If Dorsey’s and Zuckerberg’s stated plans transpire to be bellwethers, what will become of the company office? Kennedy Wilson chief executive Bill McMorrow dismissed the idea that remote working would replace the traditional office in the future. On a first quarter earnings call with analysts in May 2020, McMurrow commented that while there would be “extended discussions” in relation to remote working, he added that “over the long term, it’s not really going to amount to anything”. Whether or not permanent change is indeed afoot, a number of recent studies have highlighted the benefits of remote working for both employers and employees.

Whatever the position of business leaders, workers are clear on their preference. According to a July 2020 sustainability index from AIB, 26 per cent of the population were working from home as a result of Covid19, and of those 80 per cent do not want to return to working in the office five days a week. Asked for their preferred working arrangement when normal working life resumes, the highest percentage (24), said they would like to work two to three days a week from home with the remainder spent in the office. In another study published in August 2020 by Amarách Research for the trade union Fórsa, 86 per cent of respondents said they were interested in working remotely. Having had a taste for working from home, workers in Ireland do not appear to have a strong desire to return to a traditional arrangement. In May 2020, Forbes reported on a recent study of thirty thousand users by a California-based company which tracked a 47% increase in worker productivity when employees worked from home. In addition to increased worker productivity, the work from home model enables companies to reduce their physical office footprint, and recruit talent from a wider geographic catchment area. For employees, telecommuting part of the week offers a more sustainable way of working. Employees can opt to live away from high cost urban zones, and pressure is relieved on road and rail infrastructure. The challenges and risks inherent in working from home; social disconnect from colleagues and overworking, can be managed effectively by clear internal company communication and smart use of technology. Interestingly, over three quarters of those surveyed for AIB thought that it would be better for employers if employees continued to work remotely. If this sentiment continues, companies which have operated successfully on a work from home model during the pandemic have some big decisions ahead.

The past nine months have demonstrated the incredible adaptability of companies and employees. While it may suit some employees to work from home five days a week, most studies show a preference for a mix of in-office and from home working. It seems reasonable to predict that post-pandemic, companies will offer the option of a blend of home and office based working on a permanent basis - to the mutual benefit of employer and employee. Businesses that do not offer that extra flexibility to their employees, may struggle to recruit the best.