It's coming up to two years since a global pandemic tore up the traditional model of work, and many of us are still getting used to it.
While some companies have seen employees trickling through their doors again, others continue to spend the week logged in to work from whatever corner of the house offers the most comfort. Meanwhile, the idea of remote, flexible or 'hybrid' working becoming the norm continues to divide opinion.
One thing that's clear as we head towards 2022 is that nobody has all this figured out yet. Yes, many companies have started putting together plans for how and where employees commit their time to them in future, with more flexibility around remote working set to be an enduring theme. But we have yet to see how this plays out in the long term, or whether organizations can sustainably reconfigure their workforces in a way that satisfies employees' new expectations of work, while meeting the strategic and commercial needs of the business.
SEE: Setting goals for remote workers is hard. Here's what managers need to know
Then there are the more immediate issues we need to address, with many employees still facing the same WFH headaches now as they were back in the Spring of 2020. Here are five things we need to right with flexible and hybrid working in 2022.
One lesson that employers learnt early in the pandemic is that good work can be delivered regardless of where employees are logging on from, and that hours spent online is not necessarily an indicator of productivity.
That said, hard work is inherently tougher to notice outside of an office environment. This makes it trickier for employees to get ahead, and is one of the reasons that workers have reported finding career progression so difficult over the past two years.
Women are disproportionately affected by this: while they are more likely than men to be attracted to remote-working jobs – largely thanks to the increased flexibility they offer – this also makes it more difficult for women to be noticed by (predominantly male) company decision-makers.
Women are already more likely to be overlooked when it comes to advancement opportunities; remote working could lead to even greater imbalances unless organizations can provide equal footing to both at-home and in-office workers. Managers will need to pay more attention to the output of their workers, rather than basing their assumptions on how many days a week they spend in the office.
Hybrid, flexible and remote working are closely intertwined, but they are not interchangeable terms. Hybrid working refers to the idea of splitting time between working in an office and working from home or another remote location, whereas flexible working tends to incorporate models of work that offer more freedom around how and when employees work. This can include flexible start and finish times, split shifts and non-traditional working weeks.
When it comes to setting their future working policies, employers need to be absolutely clear about what it is they offer. Businesses shouldn't, for example, say in a job ad that they offer flexible working, when in fact they require all employees to work the hours of 9-5 and mandate in-office work days on Monday and Friday.
Exactly how flexible businesses get with their working models remains to be seen, but it's likely to be a key battleground in the fight for tech talent. Employees are no longer swayed by salary alone, and businesses that can restore some harmony to employees' work-life balance stand a greater chance of securing the talent they desperately need.
An uglier side to the shift to remote working is the more invasive methods used by employers to keep tabs on what their employees are up to while working remotely. According to research by professional trade union Prospect, more organizations than ever are using software tools designed to track the activity or productivity of workers in their own homes, including creepy technology that monitors employees through their computers' cameras. In the UK, a committee of MPs and peers is so concerned about the rise in automated surveillance that they have called on the government and Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to take urgent action to regulate its use.
There's no denying that remote working creates challenges for management, but exactly how businesses choose to tackle this will set the tone for remote working in the coming months and years. Employees want remote working because of the freedom and flexibility it offers, both of which will be undone by hard-handed – and borderline unethical – methods of making sure that workers are doing what they are being paid to do while working from home.
SEE: Finding remote work a struggle? Here's how to get your team back on track
Here's the rub: most employees want to do a good job, and to be trusted to work independently. Companies who don't demonstrate this trust risk souring the relationship with their workers, who might ultimately decide to go elsewhere.
Striking a balance between direction and autonomy in the remote-working domain is tricky, and something that many managers are still trying to figure out as we head towards 2022. But organizations should use this as an opportunity to get creative about how we think of the management challenge, rather than turning to a questionable technological solution.
Are you paying employees based on how much you think they're worth, or where they've decided to live? This has proved another divisive topic in the complex conversation around remote work, and one that many organizations will be contending with as they draw up their post-pandemic workplace policies.
It's a tricky one. Salaries usually take into account where the job is located and the associated cost of living, meaning a developer role based in London or New York will typically carry a higher salary than one based in a rural town. If an employee chooses to relocate to a cheaper city, should their salary be adjusted accordingly?
SEE: Google staff could face pay cuts if they work from home permanently
Some argue that remote workers should be paid less if they are no longer spending money on the daily commute or exorbitant living costs. The opposing argument is that remote working already benefits employers by reducing costs. For one thing, they are no longer having to spend as much money on heating and powering offices – whereas employees' utility bills go up. Companies also save on office rental and upkeep if they choose to downsize.
Employees are unlikely to suggest they should be paid less for doing the same job somewhere else, though some might willingly take a pay adjustment if it means more freedom over how and where they work. And yet, lowering salaries impacts workers far more than keeping them the same affects the companies paying them – meaning companies who do decide to lower salaries for remote-working employees need to make clear their justification for doing so.
While there are many benefits to being able to work from home, the pandemic also demonstrated the negative consequences of working in the same place we eat, sleep and relax.
The always-on culture that surrounds modern working, in which employees are increasingly answering calls and firing off work-related emails outside of office hours, was already leading to increased rates of burnout and anxiety. When COVID-19 lockdowns bit in 2020, employees felt even more pressure to be reachable at all times as work demands increased and restrictions prevented them from going elsewhere.
SEE: Email overload? These new 'right to disconnect' rules could be the answer
Remote working may make work more flexible, but it also makes it easier for employees to take their jobs – and any job-related stressors – home with them. If we want to make flexible working sustainable in the long term, we need better protections to stop the boundary between work and private life blurring, or disappearing completely.
Some countries are already taking steps to tackle this issue. Portugal, for instance, recently introduced a law that makes it illegal for employers to contact their employees outside of their regular working hours, except in exceptional circumstances. Policy makers want a similar 'right to disconnect' law introduced EU-wide, which would protect digital workers from any repercussions from not responding to workplace demands made outside of their contracted hours.
We don't need to wait around for new laws to bring about positive change: all it takes is a bit more awareness from employers about how and when they're communicating with employees, and encouraging them to practice good working habits.
The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. A member writes it of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.