The expectation was that we worked 9-5 (ish), five days per week, from the office. In some companies, working from home was acceptable for one or two days. But this was for the few, not the many.
There were several reasons why, including:
Lack of connectivity
For the majority, video calls were rare. Tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack were in their infancy, largely used for gossip and quick check ins, rather than a tools to encourage and enhance productivity.
Lack of trust
The second – and probably most common – reason for a reluctance to sign off home working was that it was generally seen as a free day off. With a general lack of trust from managers towards employees, it certainly wasn’t seen as enabling a more productive workforce.
Along came covid and we all went home
As with so many things, these assumptions were turned upside down during the pandemic when working from home became the norm for many people. The previously sparsely used technology became essential. In fact, it became a real differentiator. Online meetings became the only way to connect and both video calls and chat functions helped employees stay engaged, remain productive and keep in touch.
Businesses large and small, alongside many media commentators, predicted the death of work and productivity. But something remarkable happened. Instead of stagnating at home, this new setup made employees even more productive. This was in no small part down to the fact that a home-based setup enabled employees to spend more time with family and loved ones. Employees who had commuted for decades opened their eyes to a whole new experience of work.
This element in particular drove engagement and in some industries (Tech in particular) created a wealth of new jobs. Before, employers would narrow their talent pool to a specific location. With a home working approach, they could fish in a far larger pool, meaning a much more diverse workforce, including candidates who couldn’t otherwise make the daily commute, like people with disabilities, single parents and people from other countries. In the event, many large employers expanded their search overseas and successfully created regional hybrid teams.
The rise of the hybrid work model
During 2020 and 2021, employees across the world showed that home or hybrid working created better, more diverse teams. They showed that they were not only productive, but highly engaged. Crucially, they showed that they could be trusted.
This applied to employees of all stripes. From entry to director level. From the very youngest to the very oldest. As employers around the world extolled the virtues of home and hybrid working, the commentariat predicted the death of the office, itself a harbinger of the Great Resignation, where employees stand down in droves, in search of a life sunning themselves on tropical beaches around the world.
Back to the office with you
As soon as the WHO announced the end of the pandemic, a new panic set in. Instead of looking at the overwhelming evidence, employers started ‘enticing’ employees back to the office. Some offered a new range of perks. Others, the big banks for example, were less subtle.
Some did a volte face and changed their position entirely. In these cases, from promising home and hybrid working as standard, the entirety of their workforce is back in the office, 9-5 ish, five days a week. They claim ‘security’ as justification. But it’s clear this is merely an excuse, given the pandemic years. A more likely explanation is control and lack of vision by top management, the majority of whom are male and 50+.
In other industries the move has been more gradual. The tech giants, for example, were initially reluctant to take this step, preferring to let employees come by themselves. However, the tightening of the economy and the global labour market has emboldened the biggest companies to gamble on large scale unemployment discouraging employees from pushing back, let alone resigning, in protest.
Looking ahead to 2024: A new frontline in an ongoing battle
The attitude of employees has changed. They’ve seen the light. Now, they’re no longer happy with the pre-pandemic state of play. They’re no longer willing to cede all control to their employers. Despite the tricky times, they’re pushing back. En-masse.
Most recently, workers went on strike in the US in protest at returning to the office. Increasingly, we see more employees choosing their mental wellbeing over a crushing career at a large multinational.
This will be the frontline in 2024 and beyond. But who will win? The employees choosing family, work-life balance and good mental health? Or large corporations personified by outspoken CEOs who insist on total control and a return to the Victorian workhouse era?