Two recent stories help illustrate the crossroads many offices and workplaces have reached, more than a year after the onset of the pandemic prompted shelter-at-home orders to be instituted around the world.
What began as a needs-driven experiment in working from home, has become a recurring way of life for millions of people, even as movement restrictions have lifted in some countries and vaccination rates have surged in others.
The first story reported on new research among employees in the UAE, who say they are happier and more productive when they work from home. According to Avaya data, 51 per cent of those surveyed identify themselves in that way.
While that is the narrowest of margins – pollsters would say it is too close to call – the numbers do support strong anecdotal evidence that some of the challenges of the past year have been eased by the convenience of working from home and avoiding the time-sapping rituals of employment, such as undertaking long daily commutes.
The second story found that several companies in Dubai are setting up pop-up workspaces in hotels and restaurants as a way to replicate staff interaction and strengthen team spirit, both of which are hard to generate in a world where business is almost entirely conducted on screen.
As The National reported, many employees say they have thrived working remotely, but crave human contact and genuine collaboration. "You can't do that on Zoom calls," one company executive said. Quick and efficient decision-making is harder too, when workers are scattered across the virtual world.
Video conference calls and instant messaging platforms have been transformational in helping businesses adapt to changing circumstances but, like any technology, they have their limitations. It is not surprising that so-called “Zoom fatigue” has become an issue, although that terminology does unfairly catastrophise one platform above all others.
Taken together these two stories provide a snapshot of how this will all play out.
Many workers do not see themselves returning to their offices every day of the week or at all in some cases, but do miss the camaraderie of the workplace. Given this, most workplaces will end up with a compromise solution of hybrid working, in which we spend part of the week with colleagues in the office and the rest of the week being productive at home.
This third way of working should represent a boon for both employers and employees.
More flexible working practices will help businesses more easily retain staff who may be considering leaving work because, for instance, they cannot access adequate childcare solutions for their kids or they have to spend more time at home as primary caregiver for a member of their family. They also more broadly empower employees, offering choice and flexibility, which will, in turn, help businesses keep their most talented and most productive workers.
And, if employees genuinely feel they are better at their jobs when they work remotely, then businesses could experience a post-pandemic bounce in the months to come as recovery gains traction.
The Avaya research revealed that 64 per cent of workers surveyed have the technology to work from anywhere, which takes the discussion into another area entirely.
Quite rightly, many employees will say if I do not have to be in the office, then do I really need to be in the same city, emirate or even the same continent as my employer, as long as I can work effectively?
This same conversation is playing out globally. Earlier this month, Revolut, a British financial technology company, said its employees could work abroad for up to two months a year, after previously announcing a switch to the hybrid model of working.
There will be plenty to sort out if this more extreme version of remote working is our destination point.
Firstly, the great experiment in working from home was triggered by a health crisis, which is beginning to recede as lockdowns are lifted, but what we will be left with is a generational shift in workplace practices without the structures necessarily being in place to support it.
That means that employment contracts may require radical redrawing, as few will currently allow for long-term remote working or staff conducting their duties from another country. International tax authorities might also have a view on the residential status of a remote worker if they are operating from one territory while being employed in another.
Just as employees might ask if they need to be in the same city to undertake their work, employers may argue that their workers will be free to be domiciled wherever they want, but their allowances and salary expectations may have to be adjusted to reflect that change of circumstances. Housing bubbles may begin to pop up in the most unexpected corners of the world. Similarly, the requirement for annual air tickets to home countries, a staple of many contracts here, could be dispensed with if the employee is already working from their home country.
So, if expectations surrounding working from offices are changing, then so must the terms of engagement, especially so now that the temporary shift to remote working last year looks like becoming a more permanent settlement.
Only two things seem certain. First, the next challenge for businesses is to work out how to foster greater collaboration and connection between remote workers. If they don’t, then workplace stagnation will set in and productivity will decline over the longer term.
And secondly, the busiest department in your organisation over the next 12 months is likely to be human resources, as employers seek to find solutions to this changing face of work and employees look for their demands to be met. Inboxes in HR departments will rarely have contained more pressing work than they do now.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National