Remote working vs back to office: Benefits are clear, but there could be trouble ahead for some

A middle aged man in casual attire sat at his computer desk speaking to colleagues via a split-screen video chat application

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It’s clear that remote working has become a pretty popular option for many people, and some new research shows just how widespread it has become.

The latest edition of McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey queried 25,000 Americans in spring 2022 and found that over half – 58 percent – had the option of working from home at least one day a week.

One in three said that, if they wanted, they could work from home five days a week.

And when workers are given the option of remote working, 87 percent of them will take it.

“This dynamic is widespread across demographics, occupations, and geographies. The flexible working world was born of a frenzied reaction to a sudden crisis but has remained as a desirable job feature for millions. This represents a tectonic shift in where, when, and how Americans want to work and are working, “the researchers said.

Unsurprisingly according to McKinsey, the “vast majority” of employed people in computer and mathematical occupations report having remote-work options, and 77 percent report being willing to work fully remotely.

The researchers noted that even those industries with lower overall work-from-home patterns “may find that the technologists they employ demand it”. And once one part of the workforce is allowed to work remotely it becomes harder to say ‘no’ to the rest.

Still, it’s not all positive news about hybrid working. After all, for most workers it’s still a new model and has plenty of issues to be resolved. McKinsey’s research found that those working in a flexible model were most likely to report multiple obstacles to getting things done – followed by those working fully remotely. Those working in the office were least likely to report problems.

Still, it’s also clear that new ways of working aren’t limited just to the US.

A new CIPD survey of 1,000 UK employers also suggests that the experience of working through the pandemic has led to a shift in attitudes.

It found that six in ten (59%) respondents thought business leaders are more likely to trust people to work from home and be productive following the pandemic. Previous CIPD survey data suggests that the shift to more homeworking had increased productivity rather than decreased it.

But there is – for some employees at least – a potential cloud on the horizon.

Some bosses are still looking at reducing pay for remote-only workers.

As the CIPD notes: “A potentially divisive issue for the future of hybrid working is whether those who have to attend the workplace should attract a premium pay to compensate for additional commuting costs”.

The CIPD believes there are significant inclusion and equality risks associated with differentiating pay for hybrid and office-based staff, because it can risk indirectly discriminate against people with disabilities or long-term health conditions and those with caring responsibilities, who are more likely to be women and older workers.

It will also potentially widen existing pay gaps and make it harder to recruit people who do not live locally, which will restrict the talent pool that employers can tap into, the HR body warns.

The majority of employers recognize these downsides since most organizations (68%) have not reduced pay or benefits for employees who are predominantly working from home.

And only 4% of organizations have actually reduced pay or benefits for employees who are predominantly working from home, although it is slightly higher in the public sector at 7%.

More worryingly, 13% of respondents said their organization was planning to do this, rising to 15% in the public sector.

Then again, about one in 10 organizations have actually contributed to cover the costs faced by employees who are mostly working from home.

Fortunately, while some politicians are keen to get civil servants back in the office, it seems that many other employers are being more nuanced in their response.

That’s sensible; while many workers are enjoying the flexibility of full-time or regular remote working, others want and will benefit from being in a setting where they can enjoy working with, and learning from, their peers. What’s clear is that the one-size-fits-all model of everyone in the office, all the time, is no longer the answer.

Finding a path through that can support all the valid needs of employees and still improve efficiency and productivity is challenging but possible.

And it’s exactly the sort of challenge that decent managers should be taking on.

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