As inflation bites and businesses fret over a potential economic downturn, the outlook for flexible working has looked a little more uncertain in recent months.
According to figures from the UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS), just over three in 10 workers currently work remotely at least some of the time. Those who are able to work from home in some capacity report better work-life balance (78%) fewer distractions (53%) and being able to get more work done (53%).
Understandably, employees want to hold onto these hard-earned freedoms. Employers, however, may have different plans.
According to a recent report by A.Team and MassChallenge, 55% of tech leaders plan to ask staff to work from the office more in the next 12 months. What's more, 53% of leaders said that an economic downturn "would make it easier to require employees to return to the office." As hiring slows and job cuts loom, some employers may well use this as an opportunity to reverse – or at least limit – remote working.
No doubt many leaders will be paying attention to how major tech companies are reacting to the situation. Apple, for instance, has laid off a number of recruiters and plans to curb hiring next year to help it weather an uncertain economic climate. Meta, Microsoft and Google have also announced plans to slow hiring, and all four tech giants have made moves to get their workers into the office on a more regular basis in recent months.
Asking employees to return to the office as a reaction to financial uncertainty feels more like a return to what feels familiar than a practicable way of overcoming the challenges ahead. While doing so might help leaders regain a sense of control and run the business as a much tighter ship, it's not necessarily going to help improve productivity or engagement. ONS data suggests that 78% of employees who work from home in some capacity report a better work-life balance, and taking this away will not win employers any favours.
Workers might also choose to return to the office if working from home gets significantly more expensive.
In the UK, for example, energy bills are rising fast. Utility bills are already creeping up as a result of working from home, and as we approach winter, many employees will be forced to choose between costly heating bills, a cold house or a commute – none of which hold much appeal.
Whether or not employees will save money by working from the office five days a week is another question. Commuting can be expensive, and if parents suddenly have to start thinking about childcare, it may be that working remotely remains the cheaper option. Either way, it's going to be adding to a complex balancing act.
For their part, leaders should consider how their decisions in periods of economic uncertainty impact employees. Bills might be rising, but salaries are dragging behind. Yes, leaders have a business to run and the bottom line to think about, but if they mandate a return to the office that puts staff on the financial backfoot, it's not going to solve any of the problems they're trying to address.
No matter what the coming months bring, there is no putting the genie back into the bottle when it comes to hybrid working. Recessions can have the effect of freezing people in pace or encourage firms to revert to what feels safe. But what worked before may not work in the future and companies should think about what they might lose by returning to old ways of working.
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