After rushing through the first two acts of the pandemic-era drama that might be called "the future of work", offices around the world now seem unsure how the story ends.
The pre-pandemic expectation was that workers should be present in the office every day and some employers strove to remake office spaces as semi-social venues, where employees played table football while they brainstormed or sipped free coffee at an onsite cafe.
That state of affairs mutated into the work-from-home experiment at the start of the pandemic and now, as cases recede and general confidence returns, long-term resolution to the questions of where and how we work remain in flux.
We now have a situation in which experts talk about one road ahead and employees imagine another. The final curtain to this three-act play is unlikely to fall any time soon.
In public, most office workers say that hybrid work is the future.
This is a scenario where we imagine popping into the office one or two days a week to catch up with colleagues, collaborate on projects and connect with associates, before spending the rest of the week working productively from home. It sets the idea of work in a radically transactional place, where you go for specific aims and outcomes, far removed from the open-all-hours, good place to hangout idea of the immediate pre-pandemic world.
Hybrid working has been seen as the best hedge to deliver the collaboration that organisations and employees crave, while still preserving enough of the flexibility that has proved so beneficial for staff who may be juggling multiple commitments at home and work. Employers have pretty much ceded that ground already, but will they do so indefinitely?
In the apex predator world of big-tech, several companies have deferred a final decision on a return to the office or said that hybrid work is the future or, in other cases, have made it clear that there is no need to come back to the workplace at all. And where Silicon Valley leads, others often follow.
As The National reported this week, Amazon, Apple and Facebook have all postponed their back-to-the-workplace plans. Google and Microsoft, meanwhile, have said hybrid work is an enduring option, while Twitter told staff there was no need to work from the office.
Privately, I suspect, many employees all over the world use the term hybrid work as shorthand for the idea that they are open to the suggestion of working from the office again, but are unlikely to do so any time soon.
This is despite the fact that the data, in the UAE and elsewhere, supports the idea that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and, by extension, a regular return to the office should be achievable.
UAE officials said this week that the country had “overcome the most difficult part of the challenge”. There are about 4,400 active cases in the UAE currently, with less than 150 new cases identified in each of the past six days.
With vaccination rates high, infection outcomes generally good and cases falling, these are now the more hopeful days we all wished for when the pandemic began.
The high watermark of the pandemic that we saw at the start of 2021 has receded rapidly since the summer. So too has the compulsion to shelter at home in the eye of the storm.
Despite the positive data, workers remain reticent about the grand return. A recent survey found that 70 per cent of employees in the UAE and Saudi Arabia were “out of practice” for office life.
Another survey listed a litany of reasons why employees were uncomfortable about going back to the workplace: about 60 per cent said they were worried about noise levels in the office and how that could make them less productive, for instance.
Recruiters suggest that the so-called great resignation will be upon us if employers switch off work-from-home options. Half of the employees in the UAE were reported by another survey to be planning to change jobs next year if they were pressured to go back into their workplaces.
Six months ago, I wrote here that hybrid work was the most likely destination point given that the flexibility it offers helps businesses retain staff and provides workers with options.
What the past few months illustrate to me is that a more revolutionary version of hybrid working may yet emerge in the longer term.
That alternative hybrid world may involve workers being specifically recruited or designated to workplace or remote-working contracts.
The inherent advantages of such a system are that expectations are set for employees – there is no anxiety about whether policies may suddenly pivot, for instance – while employers can expand the talent pool from which they draw from and adjust compensation according to where the employee is actually based, rather than where the company has its headquarters.
So, the future of work may well be hybrid, but not the drop-in, drop-out world that has been suggested. Rather, it may be one where some employees are in the office all the time and others are working remotely every day.