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“An aberration that we are going to correct as soon as possible” and “I don’t see any positives” are just some of the comments influential CEOs have made about remote working

Though these opinions aren’t shared across the board, our data shows the office remains a critical component of most businesses’ future plans.

Whether it’s hybrid or full-time, for the most part, professionals will be expected to attend the office in some form. 

Across the nine markets we surveyed, 1 in every 2 employees said their company’s work arrangements in the next stage of the pandemic will be fully office-based, and a further 3 in 10 said they’ll be hybrid. 

Clearly the future of work isn’t fully remote.

Our research has identified two key focus areas to help businesses navigate a smoother return.

Design working practices that promote trust and empower employees.

1. There’s no one-size-fits-all anymore. 

Pre-pandemic, remote work was something of an occasional luxury, with only 24% of professionals saying they were broadly permitted to WFH in 2019. Today, this number stands at 36%. 

While a significant increase, it feels smaller than it could be given the events of the past two years.

But in reality, even within sectors that are fully capable of functioning outside the office like technology and communication and management training, it’s still less than half the workers who are broadly permitted to WFH. 

So, although remote working kept businesses afloat during the pandemic, the office is still where employees are going to spend most of their time going forward. 

Across the nine markets we surveyed in October, half of workers say they’ll be fully office-based, apart from the UK where that number stands at 34%. 

What business leaders need to bear in mind here is not everyone will be on board with that, and employees’ opinions are polarized when it comes to the space they prefer to work from.

When we ask professionals what their future working preference is, we see a hybrid setup (where they spend most of their time WFH and a few days in the office per week) come out on top (32%). 

This is a testament that people do want to return to the office, but keep their remote working options open. 

The second most popular options (24%) are to still come to the office but spend more days WFH, or to work exclusively remotely. 

The key takeaway for companies here is that one-size-fits-all approach won’t really cut it. 

It will also depend on where you’re based and the COVID-19 situation in your country as we’re already seeing U.S. companies delaying their office returns following a surge of cases. 

Our data also shows almost 3 in 10 in Japan are totally fine with returning to the office full-time, while over a quarter of U.S. employees are set on working exclusively remotely.  

The bottom line is even though a return to the office is desired by both employees and businesses to some extent, the future of work will certainly require a nuanced approach. 

Business leaders need to show trust in their workforce by giving them the freedom to decide what works best for them.

2. First and foremost, employees want flexibility.

One of our key predictions for 2021 in our Connecting the dots report was that strictly sticking to the 9-5 model of work would inevitably sap employee productivity.

And now, a year later, we see in our ongoing GWI Work research across 10 countries that flexible working (for example, empowering workers to choose when they start and end their day) has even slightly dipped from Q2 2020.

Today it’s only 3 in 10 employees who are broadly permitted to work flexibly, with office workers less likely to be allowed to do so (27%). 

But what employers might not realize is that flexible working isn’t just a perk anymore, it’s key to helping workers feel more comfortable returning to the office. 

Out of the nine different factors we asked employees about, flexible working times where people can arrive later and avoid rush hour tops the chart (43%).

The fact that the figure jumps among those who feel uncomfortable attending (47%) and it’s far ahead of other measures like mask wearing, distancing, or ventilation means businesses should pay particular attention to reviewing their ways of working. 

They need to keep in mind that when it comes to attending the office, flexible working isn’t so much about going to the gym or picking up the kids from nursery; for most, it’s about feeling safe.  

Our GWI Work data confirms this as well; when we asked professionals in the same markets what they want businesses to do to help them in the next stage of the pandemic, more flexible working and ensuring workplace safety carry the same weight for professionals (46%).  

This means businesses need to put the same effort into empowering professionals to choose their working times as they do on making sure they’re safe. 

Address employees’ social anxiety as much as their safety.

1. Discomfort around returning to the office is linked to social anxiety.

Nearly half of those who work at a company that may have some form of office-based work in the future are comfortable coming back, bearing in mind an additional 20% have already returned. 

So actual discomfort rates are quite low among workers across different demographics, and most are looking forward to spending time with colleagues face-to-face. 

This begs the question what exactly makes people uncomfortable.

It’s quite telling that social anxiety and not worries around safety is the factor standing out the most among those feeling uncomfortable with in-office work. 

Social interactions in the past two years have been reduced and it’s no surprise that comfort levels are, for the most part, being dictated by how anxious people feel being around others again. 

Even among those describing themselves as social or outgoing, it’s still 3 in 10 who are most worried about feelings of social anxiety when it comes to returning to the office. 

Employers shouldn’t underestimate this as the figure jumps to 42% among those with a mental health condition. 

Forcing employees who are already struggling mentally to an in-office environment won’t have any benefits for the person nor the business.  

It’s vital that leaders not only acknowledge but also normalize the issue and make small steps into easing people back in – each at their own pace. 

Investing in software solutions like Spill or Happify, for example, is also a fruitful way to support your workers’ wellbeing and help them overcome concerns.   

2. Productivity and social interactions are closely interlinked.

Improving efficiency and productivity has always been a top initiative for businesses.

In fact, for a third of decision makers this is key to driving growth in the next year, surpassing things like improving innovation (28%) and better marketing (27%). 

But at the same time, WFH productivity has proved one of the most fascinating paradoxes emerging from the pandemic.  

On the one hand, the number one benefit workers cite when it comes to remote working is having more time on their hands. 

On the other hand, though, their top challenge has to do with trouble focusing due to distractions which ultimately harms productivity, and hence workplace satisfaction.

So it becomes increasingly obvious that ultimately, people need structure and social interaction to be productive – something that the office can provide.

And our Zeitgeist data from October supports this. For young professionals especially, increased productivity is what they’re looking forward to the most when it comes to returning to the office. 

The bottom line is employers shouldn’t be afraid of asking professionals to return to the office in the future.

Our data clearly shows this will most likely be beneficial rather than harmful so long as it’s done with the necessary considerations in place.

Even when we look at the link between searching for a new job and future workspace, those WFH are more likely to jump ship than professionals returning to the office. 

The important thing is that leaders remember to:

  • support individual needs while easing people back in, and remain agile with the COVID-19 situation;
  • address issues that might be making professionals uncomfortable, like social anxiety;
  • review working policies in a way that flexible working is not only permitted but encouraged.
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