Working from home – has the bubble burst?

How long will we continue working from home if Zoom, the poster child of remote working, has ordered its employees to return to the office?

It shouldn’t surprise us that another global business is reassessing its current workplace strategy. Yet, Zoom, the company in question, normalised home working for millions – first at pace, then sustainably. Zoom has now called for employees to return to the office twice a week, under what it describes as a “structured hybrid approach”, which leaves everyone wondering: does it know something we don’t?

Zoom is synonymous with video calls but has never advocated a 100% remote workstyle. As a technology provider, it helped the global workplace think differently about how and where to work when flexing to meet outside influences was critical. However, the idea that a business offering a remote collaboration tool should lead by example is flawed. Rather, we should afford it the same flexibility it gives its customers as it flexes to accommodate business needs.

We’re in uncertain times for flexible and hybrid working models. Since the Covid-19 pandemic when businesses across sectors had to pivot to embrace remote working, many are continuing to operate entirely remotely, or at least on a hybrid model.

Global players like Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, and Apple seem intent on returning workers to the workplace. Morgan Stanley CEO, James Gorman, said earlier this year that working remotely is “not an employee choice”. Meanwhile, Airbnb has embraced a ‘work from anywhere’ approach, Dropbox is a ‘virtual first’ employer’, and Hubspot offers three flexible working options: home, office and flex.

Remote and hybrid working has delivered advantages for both employers and employees over the past few years. Companies can recruit from a broader, more diverse talent base, which has benefits for innovation and avoiding groupthink. Some have seen uplifts in productivity, as workers have fewer interruptions when working from home, and save time without the daily commute.

Nonetheless, there have been challenges too, particularly for younger generations that benefit from being surrounded by more experienced colleagues. There is always the chance that teams won’t collaborate as effectively remotely compared to in person; and championing a shared sense of company culture is arguably more difficult when remote working is in play.

Business leaders are now left wondering whether they can offer the best of both worlds, by embracing flexibility in other ways. Employees are increasingly demanding work patterns that better suit their lifestyles. Organisations run the risk of missing out on talent altogether if they’re not offering flexible work terms and one of their competitors is.

Take term-time contracts as an example. Research has found UK families spend £2,200 per year for one child’s care during school holidays throughout the year. The campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed revealed that almost a third of parents they polled reported that the cost of childcare over the summer break alone either equated to or outweighed what they earn.

However, for businesses, term-time-only contracts can have a high impact on staffing resources and associated costs. How does a company get this level of flexibility right? How can employers meet an individual's needs alongside those of the wider team? And how can they do that while keeping an eye on business objectives, and maintaining a shared sense of purpose and strong team culture? 

It’s a conundrum that’s brought challenges to businesses of all sizes. Leaders working with remote, flexible and hybrid models must:

  • Encourage productivity without giving in to micromanaging
  • Keep morale high without reading body language
  • Develop diverse talent without day-to-day workplace interactions
  • Support innovation without face-to face-collaboration

All while aiming to reduce costs and increase profitability. It’s no small ask, particularly if you’re at the startup end of the spectrum.

As CEOs, we must balance the needs of individuals with our business objectives and then select the right workstyle to achieve them. This will look different to a global manufacturer than to a retailer or a tech startup compared to an SME. This is precisely why we should be guided by our strategies and people rather than popular opinion.

At this tipping point, when the back-to-the-office drums are starting to sound ever louder, forward-thinking organisations should march to their own beat. Leaders and department leads should pause, reflect, and select a home, office or hybrid working pattern that suits their business needs and culture.

When the right balance is struck, organisations will succeed in building a strong company culture, a high-performance environment where people feel they can thrive – from wherever they’re working. That might include some flexibility, but it will also recognise that some interactions, like collaborative sessions, team-building events and employee onboarding, are often more effective in person.

Having clear expectations around remote working is essential, and modern businesses should outline this in a policy that is subject to review if necessary. We’re in uncharted territory, but if decisions are made based on firm corporate and employee needs, we’re heading in the right direction.

Rather than declaring the remote bubble burst and returning to the rigid work policies of the past, let’s embrace a more flexible future – but on our terms, not anyone else’s.