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Is the old way of working dead?

Remember those days? You’d get up extra early in the morning to avoid the rush hour chaos. You’d skip breakfast if you had to and grab a quick coffee on the way to spruce you up. More often than not, the leisurely trip to the office would be interrupted by train delays or traffic, making you arrive to work in a less relaxed state than when you left. Starting at 8am, you’d work until 5 or 6pm, clock out and face the same rush hour madness you experienced in the morning.

For some workers, the old way of working is still their current way of working. But for others, it’s something that needs to stay locked away in the past. According to Gallup, 90% of workers don’t want to return to the old ways of working. The hybrid arrangement is in, the old way is out. But why is this? Was working at the office really that bad that people don’t ever want to go back? Or are there benefits of working from home that simply can’t be matched at the office?

It’s a combination of both.

During the pandemic, workers were asked why they’d like to keep working from home once the pandemic was over. Understandably, not having to commute came out on top. One is really able to appreciate the impact commuting has one one’s physical and mental well-being when you don’t have to do it anymore. And there are likely very few people out there who get some sort of pleasure being stuck in traffic or a in a crowded train carriage.

A crowded train station
The not so fun experience of a crowded train station.

Other reasons included having more flexible working hours, increased productivity and somewhat strangely, being able to dress more casually than they would in an office environment; indicating that many businesses could benefit from being less strict on their dress code or that some people simply like working from home in their pyjamas.

But while there’s been a particularly strong emphasis on working from home, it’s worth noting that it’s a hybrid arrangement that people want most. A May 2023 Gallup poll of U.S. full-time, remote-capable employees found that 20% preferred to work on-site, 29% preferred to work exclusively from home and over 50% wanted a hybrid approach. Workers still value going to the office, if only a few days a week.

For some, the office makes a big difference. Feeding off the energy of a dynamic, energetic work environment is world’s apart from sitting in their living room with their laptop. Some have struggled to stay motivated and concentrate on their work without the familiar environment of colleagues around them going about their own tasks. Universities, coworking spaces and businesses have incorporated design thinking into their buildings to
stimulate creativity and collaboration, in particular, providing group spaces for co-creation. ‘Free-flowing’ hallways also stimulate ’emergent social exchange’. In other words, walk past a colleague in a hallway and you may get a chance to have an informal, productive discussion that’s instrumental to the progress of your project.

Clusters, defined as global economic hot spots where new technologies germinate at an astounding rate, such as Silicon Valley are credited with innovation because talent and expertise are pooled together. Informal interactions and knowledge sharing by people of the same and different companies play a part in stimulating innovation and creative exchange. The point is that people in close proximity has a beneficial impact. Can Zoom and other digital technologies replicate this? Companies that went fully remote during the pandemic looked for ways to do so. Informal chat rooms, community message boards and regular all-staff meetings were trialled. But for some, it just wasn’t enough. They need, at least for a few days a week, the energy of a buzzing office environment.

Colleagues working together in an office
Most remote-capable employees prefer a hybrid approach, spending some time on-site and some time working from home.

Despite an overall employee preference for hybrid working, many companies are still pushing for greater time spent in the office. Investment management company BlackRock requires staff to work at least 4 days per week in the office. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy sent a memo to Amazon employees outlining that the company should go back to being in the office together the majority of the time. “Collaborating and inventing is easier and more effective when we’re in person. The energy and riffing on one another’s ideas happen more freely”, he said. And Apple has been threatening staff with action for not returning to the office 3 days a week, despite an employee pushback in 2021 whereby a letter addressed to CEO Tim Cook and the Executive Leadership team stated, “For many of us at Apple, we have succeeded not despite working from home, but in large part because of being able to work outside the office. The last year has felt like we have truly been able to do the best work of our lives for the first time”.

The pandemic certainly put a spotlight on the pros and cons of in-person office working, however the employer-employee battle of where to work has been going on for years. In 2013, newly appointed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned all work from home arrangements, alienating many employees in the process. A decade later some CEOs are mandating return to office policies, perhaps partly driven by a fear that working from home is associated with employee detachment to the company they work for. For many CEOs and senior leadership teams, this is an uphill battle, not only because a hybrid arrangement is widely preferred, but also because Gen Z are pushing back against traditional work in its entirety. Not only is returning to the office ‘outdated’, but so are 9-to-5 schedules. The old way of working may not be dead, but is in for the fight of its life. Till now, the battle rages on.

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