Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans spent only 5 percent of their working time at home. But of those who say their jobs can mostly be done from home, 70 percent are now working from home either all or most of the time and 54 percent say they would want to continue to work from home after the pandemic subsides, according to Pew Research. And, according to Gallup, 45 percent of remote workers have experienced an increase in job quality since the pandemic.
A strong business case exists for maintaining a work-from-home culture. According to a 2021 report from Global Workplace Analytics, a lasting shift to remote work could save employers over $500 billion per year; it could also reduce employee turnover, improve overall business efficiency, and have added benefits for the environment. Why go back to the office at all?
As vaccinations roll out and lockdowns are lifted, employers and employees alike are rethinking what work looks like in a post-pandemic world. And while the work-from-home experiment is unlikely to end completely, it will be entering a new phase.
With over a year’s worth of data and hands-on experience, it’s now possible to build a hybrid work structure, one which keeps the best parts of office culture and the best parts of work-from-home culture.
When it comes to decisions on how to integrate new modes of operation, the future is rarely binary—it’s often hybrid. This is also the most likely outcome for the post-pandemic work environment. Workers will rotate in and out of offices and shared spaces, maximizing face-to-face time and adapting flexible scheduling. According to a report by PwC, most executives believe that the shift to a hybrid workspace will begin in earnest in the second quarter of 2021.
Of 133 executives surveyed in the PwC report, less than one-in-five said they wanted to return to the office as it was before the pandemic started. There’s still no consensus on the exact split of a hybrid approach: a majority of responding workers expect to work from home three days a week after the pandemic recedes, while executives believe roughly three days a week should be spent in an office environment.
More importantly, executives and employees will need to reconsider which tasks and functions operate best face-to-face, versus remotely. Surveyed executives and employees agree that the chief purposes of an office are enabling collaboration and providing a place to meet with clients and colleagues. But they differ in their view of remote work’s productivity and office-based efficiency. As hybrid office environments evolve, they will become more flexible, individualized, and nimble, adapting to the needs of both executives and employees.
The pandemic’s work-from-home culture gave everyone hands-on experience with digital collaboration. Some businesses were caught flat-footed as data-driven managers were forced to adopt a more personable communication strategy and affable managers who relied on the water cooler had to instead train themselves in digital tools and automated scheduling. Moving into the post-pandemic hybrid work environment will require both workers and executives to further prioritize collaboration across different offices, teams, and time zones.
Just as digital collaboration became a necessary skill during the pandemic, so did a rudimentary understanding of cybersecurity practices. Remote work generally means employees are logging in from less secure environments and with less secure equipment. Employees in a hybrid office environment will need strong skills in maintaining digital hygiene, while executives will need to ensure that hardware and software are optimized for security in both office and remote environments. According to a report by McKinsey, dynamic security infrastructures and security-focused employee training will be critical for all businesses in the new hybrid work environment.
As the workforce and the workplace change, so will the culture of work itself. With a renewed focus on adaptability, businesses can redesign a hybrid work culture that incorporates the best parts of both the physical and digital spaces. According to Deloitte’s Future of Work Post-Pandemic Report, the main thrust of this cultural shift is that work is no longer centralized in physical structures and is instead decentralized across individual people. This creates a renewed emphasis on the human dimension of work: interpersonal relationships, employee benefits, and social responsibility.
Adapting to a hybrid work culture requires businesses to simplify their organizational structures, design new processes around experience, and treat their own employees as customers of the work environment. Governmental policy could step in here, as well: current labor laws and employee protections were designed for half a century ago. Today’s courts are already quibbling over the legal definitions of words like office and desk, and, according to The Economist, legal filings mentioning the phrase “work from home” are 200 percent more common now than before the pandemic.
There’s a societal shift taking place in the work culture, too. Working from home has gone from a niche category to a mainstream category and will soon move towards a more balanced integration with daily life.
As the pandemic recedes, working from home won’t be seen as a contingency plan, nor as a mandate, but instead as one of several options. The concept of work itself won’t be tethered to any specific place. Even the phrase “working from home” could quickly become outdated; in the future, it may be another way of simply saying “working.”