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Working from home was meant to be the answer for employees fed up with office distractions, long commutes, and general lack of flexibility. For companies, it looked like a way to give staff a perk, potentially improve productivity and save costs because the need for office space would be reduced.
Then came a rethink as the complications of remote working emerged.
As long ago as 2013, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer said she wanted workers to come to the office. In 2017, IBM called people back to the office in a number of divisions. Bank of America, Best Buy and Honeywell have also curtailed remote working for some or all of their staff.
Erica Volini, human capital leader at Deloitte Consulting in the US, says there has been a backlash against broad policies that encouraged people to work remotely.
“That’s where organisations have realised that they have gone too far, their employees have disconnected and it has impacted their customer experience.”
The crude approach of companies using home working as a way to cut costs was wrong, says Peter Cheese, chief executive of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “Individuals felt they were being told they had to do it . . . Now the approach is from the perspective of a flexible working culture and why it might be a good thing.”
Organisations are learning from early mistakes when employees were more or less left to sit in their pyjamas figuring it out for themselves, while managers had little training in how to administer the work.
Ms Volini says: “Regardless of whether your employee works on-site or remotely, you need to have them working together . . . If you don’t have online collaboration tools or ways in which you can touch base, then you are not promoting that level of collaboration.”
Remote working has changed the workplace culture too. “Companies are saying they miss having people come into the office,” says Gretchen Spreitzer, a University of Michigan professor of management. “More people working out of the office means it is no longer the stimulating, engaging place to be.”
For home workers, the attractions are flexibility in organising workload, a chance to focus without distraction, and no commuting slog. Drawbacks include the need for self-discipline, possible loneliness and a sense of being forgotten about.
“It always surprises people that the idea of working from home is better than working from home,” says John Arenas, chief executive of US co-working company Serendipity Labs, which provides shared office space.
Employers are looking at ways to improve remote working. “Best practice is for companies to develop contracts based on an individual employee’s needs and capacities,” says Prof Spreitzer. In addition, some companies create a virtual break room, for example, where remote workers can join in conversations with on-site colleagues.
To help online collaboration, Fiona Cannon, director of diversity and inclusion at Lloyds Banking Group, says the company has introduced a live digital tool called Hive, where employees can connect with colleagues across the business, and runs “Ask me anything” sessions: “It has created real innovation and the ability to get things done quicker.”
Some companies are experimenting with booking slots in shared office spaces. These give remote workers a more work-like environment, but with less of a commute, while still shrinking headquarters office space.
Mr Arenas says about half of Serendipity Labs members work for companies that offer some staff an option to work there part of the time; some companies rent a dedicated space for a team as an alternative to conventional office leasing.
While shared office space might help solve remote workers’ loneliness, it does not fix the problem of an organisation that wants to improve how staff mix with colleagues in person. Some companies are experimenting with their own office environments. Vanessa Sans, founder of Barcelona-based Happy Labs, runs workshops on how best to instil a good working atmosphere. This involves emulating the physical features of co-working spaces — a mix of fixed and flexible desks, private spaces and meeting rooms — and building a community through networking events and workshops.
Bayer, the pharmaceuticals group, has installed co-working spaces in its Berlin and San Francisco offices. “These have laboratories that we offer to start-ups, and they get in contact with Bayer employees which forces an exchange of ideas and collaboration,” says Christian Giannopoulos, a benefits expert at Bayer.
Prof Spreitzer sees this as a model for the future. “Rather than giving people just a shorter commute and replicating the corporate culture, let’s put people in a new kind of stimulating, cool environment and see what emerges.”