As many companies across the world have adopted working from home as their new normal, it’s almost hard to imagine a world where the office-based 9-5 was once a staple of our daily routines.
And looking back, it’s even harder to imagine how an overnight change, at the time presumed to be temporary, has had such a seismic impact on the way that we work.
In a 2020 blog just a few months after the start of the pandemic, we explored the future of the office as we know it and contemplated the idea that our old way of working may be obsolete. Two years later, following the removal of Covid restrictions in the UK, many familiar aspects of our former way of life have effectively returned to normal. And yet, very few of us are spending the same amount of time in the office as before.
Where once many considered the obsoletion of the office as a question, it appears almost as a certainty now. YouGov studies have revealed that almost 80% of business decision makers don’t believe we’ll ever see a return to office-based working on the scale we once knew it, and around 70% of the general public are in agreement.
But how did working from home become the norm post-Covid? Though many anticipated a mass call by employers to return to the office as soon as possible, many companies have embraced the flexibility. Moreover, how has hybrid working evolved and emerged – and most importantly, has it been a success?
What is hybrid working?
Prior to the pandemic, the vast majority of British office workers found themselves based in a physical premises five days a week.
However, thanks to Covid, companies were forced to vacate these spaces and full-time remote working became the norm.
Between these two extremes, there is a third way – hybrid working. This sees workers spending their time split between home and the office. The arrangement is seemingly a compromise as employees grew accustomed to the perks of their new working arrangements, which included the elimination of lengthy commutes, freedom from the distractions of the office environment, and for some, a better work-life balance.
Since workers have experienced home-working during the pandemic, evidence suggests it has become a priority for many employees, with 59% of those surveyed by Zurich Insurance stating that they would prefer to work remotely for more than half of their week. And for some, it’s even a resigning matter.
As the US job market sees what has been dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’, the UK appears to be following suit, with around one third of workers considering a career change. Many of these cite inflexible working practices as reason for their desire to leave. And in spite of a turbulent job market, the post-pandemic climate indicates that with employee opinions leaning in this direction, it is staff, and not companies, who are leading the way on this issue – at least, to a greater extent than ever before.
How have businesses embraced hybrid working?
In a 2019 survey, only 5% of UK employees reported regularly working from home, whilst less than a third had ever experienced remote working at all.
But in 2020, almost half of the UK workforce were now operating remotely. Circumstances which arose out of necessity became a sort of social experiment, to test the limits of a system which had long been resisted by many employers.
These were hardly ideal circumstances. Coupled with the effects of isolation and the ever-present threat of the virus, many employees found full-time home working to be ultimately detrimental to their mental and physical wellbeing. In spite of this, the odds were generally in the favour of the virtual office concept.
Research conducted by the CIPD in April 2021 indicated that the new working arrangement had not had a detrimental effect on productivity for the majority of companies. Their report revealed an increase in employers conceding that homeworking boosted productivity, with over two thirds reporting no difference or even a boost to their output thanks to their new remote setup.
The report also revealed some of the key factors which contributed to this, as well as the lessons which can be learned from the circumstances of the pandemic. For instance, training was shown to play a major role, with 43% of companies who offered training to remote workers seeing a greater increase in productivity, compared with 29% who did not offer the same.
The same report by the CIPD indicated that employers were reflecting too not only on the locations from which their staff worked, but their hours too, with many considering how they could offer flexibility in the working day.
So what makes a successful hybrid working model?
Working from home clearly has demonstrable benefits.
But as the above report also revealed, employers can’t be passive in their approach to remote working. This mode of operating requires collaboration, co-operation, and genuine action to make it a viable system.
And moreover, a fully remote office presents its own challenges. Alongside the innate benefits of working from home, its potential pitfalls include home distractions, technological issues and difficulties with communication.
But plenty of workers – and their employers – would agree that a hybrid working model can offset these issues. By providing physical workspaces which foster collaboration, whilst granting employees the flexibility of working from home, instils trust whilst maintaining oversight
And it’s not just staff who benefit – additional perks for employers include lower costs on overheads. With less time spent in the office, running costs are cut for many businesses, whilst others have abolished their physical premises completely in favour of hired spaces.
Furthermore, others are adapting their existing spaces to better suit a hybrid working model – not just with better remote technology, but with their approach to physical and mental wellbeing too. Korean fintech co Hana Bank are moving to a “restorative workplace” – a space that’s designed to “help workers leave the office feeling better than when they arrived.” In other words, hybrid working doesn’t have to be isolating – it can be transformed into a nurturing environment.
But what works best? Is a hybrid system truly a model for the future? Are physical working spaces a necessity? Or can remote working be successful?
Well, it depends. There are merits – and drawbacks – to each of these formats. And its impact can depend on a number of factors, including industry, and the attitudes of individual companies and teams.
For instance, whilst workplaces saw general success with the shift to remote during the pandemic, the same cannot be said for many educational organisations. A switch to online lectures saw many university students isolated and alienated as their campus universities, unprepared for the change, scrambled to organise and provide resources such as digital learning out of necessity.
But is a lack of structural organisation to blame? Whilst traditional campus study is the most common route for students, distance learning can be highly effective when carried out correctly, with adequate support and resources – at ARU, our students can attest to that.
And of course, for many distance learning courses, there are in-person elements which resemble a hybrid model in themselves – such as our Audiology (top-up) BSc Hons. As with our courses, hybrid working is designed to foster a work-life balance, and the evidence suggests that remote working, coupled with flexibility, nurtures this in both the world of work and in education. Even UCAS have come to embrace the change, committing as recently as April 2022.
Will we ever return to the office full-time?
There are those that argue that virtual offices and hybrid working models were always destined to be the future of the workplace, a change that was only hastened by the circumstances of the pandemic.
More recently, research by TravelPerk revealed that 76% of workers are now operating under a hybrid model post-Covid, spending around 1-2 days working from home and the rest of their time in the office.
With companies embracing the set-up seemingly en masse, the statistics are in favour of the theory that hybrid is the future. But there are of course those who believe the arrangement won’t last – Laszlo Bock, Google’s former HR chief, is amongst them.
For Bock, hybrid working is the beginning of a progression which sees companies gradually encouraging employees to spend more and more time in the office until eventually remote working is phased out.
And so we return to the very same question we were asking in our May 2020 blog, but from the other side: is the office obsolete? Whether you side with Bock and believe we’ll one day return full-time, or are part of the hybrid revolution, the evidence suggests that it is not.
Want to know more about the future of the workplace? Take a look at the following blogs: