The WFH ‘New Normal’ is nothing of the sort

At least, not yet. The world is still in the very abnormal grip of a pandemic, and even with widespread vaccination we will be defending ourselves against the fear of further outbreaks for months, if not years, to come. But there are signs – most recently in statements from Salesforce – of what it might look like.

For now though, this is very much the new abnormal. Sure, there’s plenty of surveys that reveal – to the great surprise of no one, bar a cadre of distrustful managers wedded to presenteeism – that the majority of workers would like a degree of flexibility in where they work. But most people who are working from home are doing so because that’s the law.

They may be enjoying the compensatory effects – no wasted time commuting, more time with family – but especially in our crowded cities, how many have adequate dedicated workspace? How many employers have ensured their WFH venue meets occupational health and safety requirements, not to mention the needs of information security, data privacy and all the rest?

WFH’s unanticipated downsides

As well as the cost of all that, what will the long-term effects of WFH be on company culture? Gender equality is another issue, with women unsurprisingly having to shoulder much of the burden of home-schooling alongside their usual workload. And while many companies say they’ve successfully ‘on-boarded’ new staff, these are generally experienced execs who are changing company, not first-jobbers who don’t yet know how to operate in the work environment.

There’s also a huge amount of variability. Some people, and perhaps more importantly some tasks, are ideally suited to working individually and/or remotely, while others are not. And of course there’s personal circumstances – working in the bedroom of your flatshare might be OK once in a while, but it’s rarely going to be healthy as a long-term option.

But as I said, there are signs of how things might look in the future. Salesforce’s announcement is notable not for the “permanent remote work” option that many news reports eagerly seized upon, but for its acknowledgement of the need for flexibility.

Yes, the company will allow its staff to work remotely if they wish, but it knows not everyone will want to or be able to – it expects a small proportion to remain office-based, working there four to five days a week. In addition, even those who work remotely most of the time may still want or need to come into an office the rest of the time – the expectation is one to three days per week “for team collaboration, customer meetings, and presentations.”

Permanent remote-work, or a hybrid and flexible future

Other companies appear a little more cautious and even sceptical, but they still talk of a hybrid and flexible future. Google’s parent Alphabet, for example, warns in its financial report for 2020 that remote and hybrid working may increase costs, reduce employee and vendor productivity, and adversely affect its capabilities in a broad range of areas, includes sales and marketing, product support and financial controls. CEO Sundar Pichai has told staff that, once they return to their offices, hopefully in September, they’ll be expected to come in at least three days a week.

In short, pretty much the only thing that’s clear is that the future of work will be a lot more flexible and remote. The days of the mega-HQ might be numbered, but there will still be a need for office-type facilities – and employers need to do a lot more adjustment and adaptation before we can consider hybrid working to be the ‘new normal’.

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