Written by Zain Ali, Co-Founder and CEO, Centuro Global
It was once the poster child for remote working. Zoom was the technology platform people turned to in droves during the pandemic for work meetings, family catch ups and even pub quizzes. It had promised staff they would be able to work remotely indefinitely. But last month, news broke that it was calling teams back to the office – at least twice a week.
Moving to this “structured hybrid approach” has raised some eyebrows among HR managers. If Zoom can’t make a fully remote strategy work, what hope is there for the rest of us? Has the flexible work bubble finally burst?
The UK is currently the work-from-home capital of Europe, with an average of 1.5 days a week, compared with the international average of 0.9 days. That may increase in the future, with the new Flexible Working Bill, which gives employees the right to make flexible working requests.
But Zoom certainly isn’t the only organisation asking its staff to put in more face-to-face time. Amazon has called its teams back to the office for three days a week, as have Apple and Disney. Goldman Sachs has asked employees to come back for the full five days, and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who is famously anti-remote work, recently threatened “corrective action” against those who don’t regularly attend. Then there’s Elon Musk who famously told Tesla employees in 2022, they had to come in for a minimum of 40 hours a week, saying: “If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned”.
In contrast, Airbnb has a ‘work from anywhere’ policy, allowing employees to work for up to 90 days per country, that it believes will help attract talent. Similarly, the challenger bank Revolut has announced it will let employees work from abroad for up to two months a year, as part of its agile working policy,whilst Spotify allows its people to work from home, a Spotify office, or from a co-working space (or a combination of all three). “It helps us to become a more diverse place to work, a place that can flex with our people as their lives and ambitions change,” the company states on its website.
Remote working has certainly had its benefits of course. It has allowed HR managers to tap into a wider talent pool, attracted more diverse talent, and boosted morale. Many employees say they have a better work-life balance, more autonomy over their work, and are able to save money by not commuting everyday. Ironically, when Zoom did its own survey earlier this year, it found flexible work was almost as important to employees as compensation. Almost half (43%) see flexible work as a given, rather than a perk. Another study by Deloitte revealed 77% of UK Gen Zs and 71% of Millennials would consider looking for a new job if their employer asked them to go back to the office full time.
However, remote work does not come without its own set of challenges. Managers have expressed frustration that productivity has been difficult to measure and the quality of communication has declined. We’ve seen a big uplift in the popularity of remote tracking tools being used by many employers, and incidences of burnout are on the rise as the lines between work and home become blurred. Remote work can also lead to more siloed collaboration, and promote isolation, particularly where team culture is lacking.
Business leaders need to ensure their teams are happy and empowered to do their best work. They need to attract, develop and retain talent, with an eye on boosting workplace diversity. But they also need to ensure there’s a shared sense of purpose and culture, which can sometimes only be nurtured in person. Younger employees need opportunities to learn from their more experienced colleagues. And moments of inspired brainstorming and collaborative teamwork can land better when everyone is in the same room.
It’s a delicate balancing act and not one that will be solved overnight. There’s no one-size-fits-all for companies. And that’s also true of employees. Some may leave in search of the flexibility that best suits them. That may not just mean hybrid working, but term-time contracts, four-day working weeks and the opportunity to take workations. And while the thought of losing talent is scary in a skills crisis, it’s also important to remember that no business can be all things to everyone.
Businesses are still testing and evolving their approach and there will be hard decisions to take along the way. CEOs and HR managers need to take time to reflect, think about their own business needs and create policies that suit those needs, and those of their people. It’s important this is not rushed and is regularly reviewed. They need the confidence to go their own way, rather than follow the herd, and the resilience to adapt as required.
Rather than worrying about whether Zoom’s actions mean the remote work bubble is bursting, we should respect that this is what works best for their company. The future of work will look different for all of us and is far from certain but as long as we are considerate and fair in our approach we can ensure a balance that suits both the business and the employee’s needs.