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Remote working in 2023 – Mass return to the office or staying at home

Person remote working on beach with laptop and hat on

The rise in the acceptance of remote working as standard practice has been one of the biggest shake ups in the workplace for many years. We also need to remember that it is also still in its infancy as a working practice. On top of which, to say the situation surrounding employment in general terms is complex at the moment would be a big understatement. So, looking at the coming year, what will be the likely influencing factors around remote working for employers?

Productivity and the return to the workplace

People commuting to work

There seems to be no way to talk about the impact of remote working in the workplace without using what feels like over dramatic sounding language. It is of those things that has just become part of the fabric of daily life seemingly without any real fuss or fanfare. It feels like the pandemic enforced work from home, remote working then continued and now, 3 years later, it has quietly become accepted practice. Which is odd when you think that we have accepted that the ‘get up, go to work, come home’ routine as the only way to work for hundreds of years. I struggle to think of anything that has been such a fundamental shift in the way we see what constitutes the working world. Perhaps you would need to look at something as big as the advent of computers to find a comparison. Remote working represents a base line change in the practice of employment.

For some employers remote working raises as many concerns as it does advantages. There are concerns surrounding employee engagement with company values, the mental and physical wellbeing of the team and of course, questions about productivity and efficiency. Working from home is certainly proving to be a viable option for many employees and employers right now, but it could be argued that we are still in a sort of ‘honeymoon’ period. Given time, remote working may prove to have ongoing issues, particularly surrounding productivity. There have been several high-profile news stories over recent months about businesses (and one government minister) withdrawing work from home options and many of them are citing productivity as at least partly motivating this decision.

Three women walking through an office working 9-5

According to a recent article from the BBC, there is some compelling data suggesting that Tuesday to Thursday is becoming the ‘in-office’ working pattern for hybrid workers. I cannot help but hear some of the more traditional employers I have met over the years being rather cynical about this. They would have visions of employees being unable to resist the temptation of a long weekend or at the very least ‘sneaking’ an early finish and late start. However, isn’t there a further fundamental question here? Isn’t all this concern based in the traditional view that the working day is 9 to 5 and that anything outside that is unusual?

Can an employee demand to work from home as flexible working?

Well, in short, no. There is often some confusion about the difference between remote working and the right to ask for flexible working. I may come back to this in some depth in another article, but for now the bottom line is that flexible working is, according to the .gov website:

‘…a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.’

Woman working at her laptop in a yoga pose

The key point is that working from home is a potential component of a flexible working agreement, not a demand in itself. At the moment an employee must have 26 weeks continuous service to apply for flexible working, but that is about to change. In December 2022, the Government announced plans to allow all employees to request flexible working from day 1. The important point relating to the employer concerns about productivity though, is that the application for flexible working must be reasonable for the circumstances of their employment. At what point during the employment the request is made is not a factor in this. It is still the employer’s decision whether to grant it or not and, as long as that decision is justified, they can decide what is considered appropriate for the workplace.

Dealing with remote working in the real world of 2023

The letter of the law may well be fixed, but the reality of being an employer in a competitive recruitment space can be a different thing. Flexible and home-based working have become very common, and candidates may well expect them. This expectation is only going to grow if current trends continue. If you have a vacancy for a role where there is a shortage of candidates, then not offering remote working may well reduce your applications. A looming recession may well result in more available candidates, but so far there has not been the mass of redundancies that usually accompanies an economic downturn. So, for the short term the pressure to offer a better deal for candidates could well bolster the work from home trend.

People working at a table with their hands raised in a fist

For 2023 at least, unless there is a sudden and dramatic change in circumstances, employers with remote workers should really look at adopting measures to ensure targets and productivity benchmarks are being hit. That may well mean accepting that time at the desk is not really an effective measure of how well a remote employee is performing. Changing to goal and task completion metrics as a measure of success is usually a viable solution. I accept that this is perhaps easier said than done. The ideal result of this kind of change is to turn ‘time at the desk’ into the more remote worker friendly ‘goal achieved’ approach throughout the organisation, and then implement that in an appropriate way. If you can achieve that and maintain it, the concerns about remote working should be reduced significantly.

Call us on 01604 261380 and let’s talk about how you can address productivity concerns of your people working at home or look at the best options if you want to return to a more traditional workplace environment.