Do tech improvements and staff demands mean working from home is here to stay?

Extreme weather this week has highlighted the importance of remote working to keep the economy moving and boost safety

Advances in technology and employee expectations make working from home a hot topic. PA
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UAE weather live: Emirates hit by severe storms

When the UAE was hit by record rainfall this week, many employees were told to stay at home rather than face potentially dangerous conditions travelling to work on flooded roads.

Remote work for federal employees has been extended to the end of the week and the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation has urged private sector companies to adopt flexible work patterns in light of the hazardous travel conditions.

While in recent days some UAE staff remained at home out of necessity, for many remote working is standard practice come rain or shine, with employees permitted to stay away from the office for some or all of the week.

This has especially been the case since the Covid-19 pandemic, when working from home became the new normal and many employers chose not to require staff to return to the office full time.

The return-to-office mandates signal mistrust or lack of trust
Dr Mark Shuai Ma, associate professor of business administration at Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh

That a significant proportion of employees now work from home regularly – or can switch to doing so easily, as was the case in the UAE recently – reflects improvements in technology.

"The technology for remote working is much more mature and people know how to do it and most people have experience with remote or with flexible working, so people’s productivity will be much higher," said Dr Mark Shuai Ma, an associate professor of business administration in the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh.

As well as file sharing and online meetings, such as through Zoom, there are myriad services for companies whose staff work from home, including instant messaging and project management tools.

According to survey figures from the US, in 2023 about 28 per cent of full-time employees had a hybrid work pattern, spending some days in the office and others at home, while nearly 13 per cent worked solely at home.

Back to office drive

The option to work from home may be offered to a greater proportion of staff in Europe and North America, because business services jobs account for a larger share of the economy here than in some other parts of the world.

Numerous organisations are bringing staff back to the office and some high-profile business leaders have criticised working from home, with Elon Musk, who runs Tesla and X, even branding it "morally wrong".

There have been reports that more companies plan to introduce what are sometimes termed return-to-office (RTO) mandates, although staff often are not required to spend as many days in the office as they did before the pandemic.

The computer company IBM recently said that managers must spend at least three days a week in the office, while Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, is among those to have mandated five-days-a-week attendance.

As reported in The National, two thirds of companies surveyed last year by the financial services company KPMG said that by 2026 there would probably be a return to office-based work.

However, according to a recent paper by Dr Ma and Yuye Ding, also of the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, there could be dangers for companies that enforce RTO mandates.

In their study, which analysed US companies, they found "significant declines" in satisfaction among employees who had been compelled to return to the office.

This decline in morale, the researchers found, came without any clear benefits to their companies’ financial performance from having staff back in the office more often.

Why ditching remote work may not be the smart move

Indeed Dr Ma said that lower job satisfaction associated with having to come into the office "could translate into lower motivation and productivity", so forcing staff back into the workplace may not be "a smart move".

"The return-to-office mandates signal mistrust or lack of trust," he said.

"The employees are performing really well, but the manager is saying, ‘You’re not being productive, you’re being lazy'."

Allowing employees to decide whether or how much they work from home is a benefit that can be offered without any outlay by the employer, unlike with cash bonuses or stock options, Dr Ma said.

There seems to be greater demand from job applicants for the chance to work from home. According to ResumeOK, a careers website, the demand for remote jobs increased 10-fold between 2019 and 2022.

However, the extent to which staff want to, or should, work from home may vary with age.

Some observers think that more youthful employees are best advised to go in to the office, with Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing in New York University’s Stern School of Business, saying at a summit last year that they "need to be out of the house".

"You should never be at home. That’s what I tell young people. Home is for seven hours of sleep and that’s it. The amount of time you spend at home is inversely correlated to your success professionally and romantically," he reportedly said.

Call for hybrid working model

Stephen Wood, professor of management at the University of Leicester in the UK, said that young people mostly want "at least a hybrid" work pattern with some attendance in the office.

"They know … that having interactions is the best way of inducting into a job and getting used to the norms of a job cannot be done working from home. Most youngsters want a bit of interaction," he said.

For middle-aged employees, there may be stronger reasons why they want – and perhaps need – to work from home, for example, if they have to look after children or elderly relatives.

"They have much more pressure on their daily lives," Dr Ma said. "Adding another hour or two hours of commute is too much."

Sometimes, though, going in to the office can tie in well with the lifestyles of people who have children, Prof Wood said.

"For some women, it’s easier to organise their life when they don’t work from home," he said.

"They drop off their children, go to work, then pick them up.

"The desire to separate work and home life [can be] quite strong. There are plenty of people who want to segment their work from their home and some may get fed up working from home."

Dr Ma said that many older staff were heads of "empty-nest families" after children left home, and could feel isolated if they worked remotely all the time.

An additional reason for such staff members to go to the office is that they may be ideally placed to mentor younger employees.

The ideal situation, according to Dr Ma, may be to allow employees the choice of how many days a week they go into the office, with most likely to decide to spend two or three days at home.

"Some research suggests people need to be in a quiet environment for at last 45 minutes in order to have some deep thinking. That’s easier to do at home or in a quiet place rather than in an office where there are people chatting," he said.

"You could allow teams or individuals to decide where they want to work each day, but the teams could go to the office together to exchange opinions, which facilitates higher creativity and productivity."

A version of this article was first published in February 2024

Updated: April 18, 2024, 3:50 AM