Will workers ever return to the office?
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London Bridge Commuters
John van der Luit-Drummond is editor-in-chief of International Employment Lawyer

As an increasing proportion of the global population is vaccinated against covid-19, debate has begun over when workers will return to offices or whether virtual working has permanently shifted how businesses will operate in the post-pandemic world.

Although social distancing and covid-19 lockdown protocols keep employers and employees apart, millions of virtual meetings continue to take place worldwide every day. For some, the successful adoption of remote working is seen as a triumph of human adaptability and technological innovation, and a trend that will reshape the business landscape. For others, it is merely a pragmatic solution to an unprecedented global crisis and one that will eventually be relegated to a footnote in the history books.

Speaking at a virtual rail industry event in February, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he did not believe conferences of the future will be held remotely and that “the British people will be consumed once again with their desire for the genuine face-to-face meeting that makes all the difference to the deal”.

The prime minister’s comments echo that of Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon who, speaking at a Credit Suisse conference last month, said remote working is “not a new normal” but “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”.

Solomon is no outlier in the financial services sector. Barclays chief executive Jes Staley also told journalists in February that home working was “getting old”, while, in October 2020, JP Morgan’s chief executive Jamie Dimon questioned how a company can maintain its culture and properly train new employees remotely.

By considering cutting office space, however, other banks including HSBC, Deutsche Bank, and Fifth Third Bancorp have seemingly acknowledged the success of virtual working. French bank Société Générale has gone a step further, saying its UK-based workers need only spend 10% of their working week in the office. They are not alone.

One in four organisations said they will allow workers to decide when and how often to enter the office

Technology giants, including Spotify, Salesforce, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter, are all preparing for greater virtual working post-coronavirus. Even if the tech sector is better placed for a workplace revolution, many employers accept that flexible working trends look set to continue in the short-to-mid term.

A recent survey from the Ius Laboris legal network found that 69% of 500 law firm clients based in 25 countries expect greater employee flexibility when it comes to remote working in the next 12-18 months.

Just over one in four organisations said they will allow workers to decide when and how often to enter the office in the months ahead, while a quarter of respondents plan on splitting employees into teams working in the office on alternate days. Around one in five employers said staff will need to be in the office on a part-time basis.

Monitoring and managing remote employee performance remains the leading challenge for employers with around half of survey respondents citing it is as their top concern. But what about the employee perspective?

A survey of nearly 1,500 workers in 46 countries by Harvard Business Review found a majority are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing, with unsustainable workloads, the absence of a supportive workplace community, and the blurring of the line between work and home cited as key causes.

The findings are supported by a separate study from Stanford University that discovered that meetings conducted by popular video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, leave workers feeling more exhausted than face-to-face meetings.

Publishing his findings in Technology, Mind and Behavior, Professor Jeremy Bailenson concluded that video conferencing leads to excessive “highly intense” close-up eye contact, that constantly seeing yourself during video chats is fatiguing, and the whole experience adds a greater cognitive load on users.

81% of respondents said they would attend in-person conferences and business events when safe to do so

“Zoom fatigue” may well account for the results of a new survey of 1,000 American workers who are eager to return to face-to-face meetings and business events.

Produced by APCO Insight for events industry coalition Meetings Mean Business, the survey found that even after adapting to the new digital workplace, 81% of respondents said they would attend in-person conferences and business events when safe to do so. The survey mirrors similar findings from April 2020, which showed that 83% of respondents working from home missed attending in-person meetings and conventions.

A return to the office would solve many problems for employers and employees alike. A familiar working environment allows greater controls over management, motivation, and discipline of staff, as well as offering more assurances around health and safety and data protection concerns. Meanwhile, workers may feel more stimulated in the office, have a greater chance of collaboration with colleagues, and improve the delineation of their work-life balance.

It seems unlikely, however, that companies will immediately reverse course on remote working once the covid-19 risk dissipates. There is money to be saved by reducing your real estate footprint. A policy of compulsory staff vaccination is still a question requiring careful consideration, as is the damage to staff morale in forcing productive workers back into the office. Companies risk losing talent if too dogmatic a position is taken or they may find themselves facing off against a rising tide of minority unions.

Nor is it likely the “new normal” will continue as it has these past 12 months, as it is clear remote working does not work for every business or employee. Instead, hybrid, flexible working seems the most likely outcome, with employers and employees compromising and adapting to specific business and industry needs.

Even so, this middle path will present a challenge for policymakers around the globe, as well as employment lawyers tasked with advising clients on the future of work.