Is working from home here to stay in the post-pandemic world?

Many employers and employees have embraced hybrid system thanks to lifestyle, productivity and financial gains

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When the coronavirus pandemic emerged and millions of employees were told to work from home, many probably thought that it would be temporary.

Yet, three years on, the world of work looks very different for some people whose jobs can easily be done with a computer, an internet connection and a phone.

While Elon Musk has banned it at Twitter, WFH or hybrid working — splitting the week between the workplace and home — has become the "new normal" for many.

Certainly, more employees are looking for jobs that can be done remotely.

Some people want three days at home, two days at work, just to get some benefits from being away from home
Prof Stephen Wood, University of Leicester

Research from ResumeOK, a career website, said demand for these roles in the UK was up nearly 900 per cent in October this year compared with 2019.

However, there has been pushback. Last year, James Cox, a UK recruitment business owner, accused job applicants of wanting to "doss on the sofa with your laptop in your dressing gown/PJs".

It's not only the pandemic that has led to the growth of home working: advances in technology — notably Zoom, Microsoft Teams and file-sharing — are also key.

Even five years ago, the technology did not work as smoothly, says Prof Stephen Wood, a work psychology and employee relations researcher at the University of Leicester in the UK.

"You don’t get so many glitches," he says. "People have become more confident using them."

Flexible working arrangements

The extent to which staff work from home varies across the world.

Prof Nick Bloom, of Stanford University in the United States, recently suggested that WFH or hybrid working was more common in North America and Northern Europe because many jobs in these regions are in business services and can be carried out remotely.

In Africa or lower-income parts of Asia or Central America, where manufacturing and agriculture account for a greater proportion of employment, WFH is often not possible.

Even in highly developed Asian nations, the culture of going in to the office appears stronger. A survey from Japan published in July found 29.1 per cent of companies had staff working from home, down from 37 per cent the previous October.

Middle East law firm Al Tamimi and Co says in an online briefing document that "the UAE is shifting to more flexible working arrangements", while a survey from the property company Savills published in May found that seven out of 10 Dubai employees had returned to their offices for at least some days of the week.

Among the potential benefits of WFH or hybrid working Al Tamimi and Co highlights is flexibility, which makes it easier for staff to deal with issues such as childcare.

"Some people want three days at home, two days at work, just to get some benefits from being away from home," Prof Wood says.

Connecting with colleagues

Surveys have suggested that many employees enjoy the peace and quiet of working from home but there is the risk of social isolation.

In research she and colleagues carried out, Prof Irena Grugulis, professor in work and skills at the University of Leeds in the UK, found that more experienced call centre employees were keener on WFH than younger colleagues were.

"The people who enjoyed it were the long-established ones because they already had lots of connections with their colleagues, they already had the skills and they gained discretion and freedom," she says.

"The people who tended to suffer were the newer hires, who didn’t have people to ask when they had problems."

Most evidence suggests that, on average, productivity is not lower when staff work from home.

Prof Bloom has suggested there is a productivity gain of about 3 to 5 per cent from hybrid working, while Prof Wood thinks staff may produce higher-quality work at home because they have fewer interruptions.

Aside from potential gains in productivity or work quality, employers benefit from reduced property costs. In August, Jacob Rees-Mogg, then a British government minister, announced plans to sell £1.5 billion ($1.79 billion) of state-owned offices because more staff were working from home.

It remains to be seen whether WFH or hybrid working will retain its ubiquity in nations where it has survived the end of the pandemic and even spread more widely. Prof Grugulis for one hopes that hybrid working will remain popular.

"I suppose you will find the good firms far more open to a form of hybrid working than the firms that want to exert tight control," she said.

Updated: November 20, 2022, 3:19 PM