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Dave Hewett
Dave Hewett Engagement Lead

Our Thinking Wed 4th August, 2021

Tech leaders–discover why going back to the office isn’t going to work

While some companies have already set out their return to work plans in detail, others are still feeling their way to a solution.

Here we combine our own investigations with the reports of others, to help create a picture of the technology sector. 

This will help tech leaders start to understand what measures need to be put in place to answer their business and employee needs, to ensure they have happy, functional and productive teams.

Given the choice, would you prefer to return to the office? 

We conducted some primary research by asking one simple question. With 843 responses from our wider network and the overwhelming rejection (95%) of full-time office working, striking the right balance between fully remote, hybrid or office-based is not as easy as some would think.

The majority of respondents are looking to work three days or less in the office, with the largest cohort preferring just a few days a month. These results are echoed In the Leadership IQ study, The State Of Working From Home In 2020, When asked about their ideal working situation, only 9% of employees said they want to return to working in the office full time. The other 91% would like at least some time working from home, with 39% saying they’d like to work from home 3-4 days per week. Another Publicis Sapient study made similar discoveries, finding that 85% of people would prefer to continue working from home at least a few days of the week in the future.

In Gartner Forecast analysis: Remote and hybrid workers, worldwide, the analyst predicted that, by the end of 2021, 51% of all knowledge workers worldwide are expected to be working remotely, up from 27% of knowledge workers in 2019.

Breaking down the data brings even more insight.

When we analysed the survey by amount of experience, role, and country or region, the results provided us with much more to consider. Across the board, the preference is for a hybrid model, with colleagues coming into the office ‘as needed’. There is a slight preference amongst non-managers to work remotely, from which we might infer that experienced practitioners understand they can get the vast majority of their work done anywhere.

The sub-group of managers that showed a stronger preference for a weekly return were those that were Director or CXO, where 55% wanted to return weekly.

This could be due to several reasons.  C-suite leaders worrying that camaraderie and creativity will deteriorate, according to a recent Forrester study. Some still mistrust what they cannot see, and are concerned that productivity is lower when working from home. And 70% of decision-makers said employees in the office are more trustworthy.   Others know that their tech stack still isn’t up to the task. 56% of employees say they are more productive working from home, whereas only 5% of decision-makers surveyed believed the same. Whatever the reasons, there is an incongruous difference between what senior executives and the rest of the workforce believe.

Attitudes differ by region.

When the responses were broken down by country and region, the final list covered Europe, North America, ANZ (Australia & New Zealand), India and the UK. While the responses from Europe, the UK and India all broadly resemble one another, the ANZ responses show a marked difference. This can possibly be explained by this being a smaller data set (30 respondents) but could also be due to the success of their initial control of COVID-19, which meant that these countries have not had the same experience of extended periods of working from home.  However, according to global recruiter Indeed, Australians with working-from-home arrangements appear to be on a permanent foothold, with the popularity of the arrangement rising even as workplaces reopen. So, despite regional differences, in every country, over half of workers would prefer a “hybrid model.”

Different departments have different preferences.

When we break our analysis down and compare IT roles against non-IT such as marketing, business operations and legal, the trend showed a significant difference in preference. By its very nature, the IT departments are early adopters when it comes to tools and alternative working practices. Not every department exploits the same potential opportunity to gain value from remote working. Anecdotally, this has shown throughout the pandemic, with the adoption of best practices and tools unevenly distributed. This has resulted in different video and whiteboard technologies having been favoured by different departments within the same organisation and simple, yet important working practices such as switching your video on during meetings are not uniformly practiced.

 

So how are the world’s biggest tech companies planning for the future of work?

As suggested earlier, the tech landscape and approach to office/home/hybrid working is mixed. Taking a look at Silicon Valley in a recent Insider report shows the variety of options available, meaning it may bear little resemblance to the thriving hub we knew before the pandemic. While some companies, like Twitter and Slack, have said employees never need to return to the office, others, like Microsoft, are reportedly adopting a hybrid model where employees report to the office only a few days per week. To incentivise staff to come back to the office, companies like Amazon and Salesforce are adopting new benefits to help out working parents, like subsidised backup childcare and extended paid leave. And while Facebook is allowing employees to work from home permanently, if they leave the Bay Area for a less expensive city, they’ll likely face a pay cut starting in January.

Forrester analyst Andrew Hewitt believes that there needs to be a structured approach to this new world of work “The extended enterprise is the larger trend, … and that requires a robust change-management program for users, managers, and IT.”

“For knowledge workers, there’s no putting this back in the box,” said Matt Martin, CEO and co-founder of Clockwise “Full 100% in office, 40 hours a week, that’s out the window. I don’t see a world where it comes back.” he told CNBC this month.

A bit of navel gazing discovers that the Equal Experts network prefers remote working.

The 130 responses from people within the Equal Experts network gives a snapshot of what experienced practitioners preferences are (as an average Equal Expert Consultant holds over 17 years of industry experience). Further analysis of the data showed that this pattern remained when we included all companies in the survey and filtered for senior practitioners with 20+ years of experience.   With the typically high levels of experience and low management overhead, it is no surprise to see that responses skew towards high levels of autonomy as compared to the less experienced cohorts.

The impact on talent acquisition and retention.

The talent market is shifting as it becomes increasingly essential to provide working arrangements and policies that support preferences. In a recent McKinsey “future of remote work” survey, ~30% of employees say they are likely to switch jobs if returned to fully on-site work.  This is echoed in a recent EY survey, where more than half of employees globally would quit their jobs if not provided post-pandemic flexibility. This showed that nine in ten respondents wanted flexibility in where and when they work, with millennials twice as likely to quit as baby boomers. Other studies also show that this flexibility is expected post-pandemic, especially with higher-income employees.

In addition, companies are increasingly willing to accommodate this position.  One large Equal Experts client has told their suppliers that “our IT third party partners and their employees and agents should NOT be based on-site”.  Other large clients have confirmed their intention to continue to work in a remote-first manner. Almost all of 50 of the UK’s biggest employers questioned by the BBC have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time.

At the time of writing, the IT job market is strong with demand outstripping supply. This, coupled with an increased preference for remote work, and the willingness of major employers to declare that beyond pandemic work will continue to be remote, will make it abnormally hard to find and retain top local talent.

Conclusion.

Ultimately, the question of how many days we want to spend in the office isn’t about in-office vs hybrid vs fully remote working – it’s about trust. To show this, organisations should consider shaping policies that require teams to come in ‘as-needed’ rather than a specific target of at least “3 days a week,” trusting their teams to do the right thing.

The way ahead is neither simple nor straightforward. There remains great potential for friction between managers and their teams about in-office working patterns, if expectations are not aligned. When considering the structure of your remote-working policies, consider expectations and impact on different departments.  Applying individually tailored policies across different departments, or even teams, might help address the needs of the different groups. And as mentioned above, for knowledge workers, ‘there’s no putting this back in the box,’ so organisations must listen to what their people are telling them to ensure that they attract and retain the best talent.

Now it’s clear that full-time office working is a thing of the past, the organisations that stand to be the most successful are those who recognise and embrace this change.

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What’s your view? Want to know more about Equal Expert’s approach to remote-first working? Get in touch using the form below. We’d love to tell you more about it.

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