As new, more infectious variants of coronavirus continue to spread around the world, “stay at home” orders and remote working remain a reality for many.

So are employees still as enthusiastic as they were six months ago about leaving the office for good?

Nope. 

Feelings have definitely shifted, especially among certain groups of professionals, with the realization that although working from the comfort of home can be rewarding, the office represents pre-pandemic normality.

Our Zeitgeist research, carried out in December across eight countries, sheds light on what workers think an ideal home/office balance could look like, and how businesses can support them accordingly.

Here are four things to keep in mind when designing back-to-office strategies if and when a new normal establishes itself.

1. Maintaining a hybrid workforce is the way forward.

Back in July we asked professionals how interested they would be in working from home permanently. We saw highs of 75% in India and 66% in Brazil.

Six months later we asked the same group what their ideal working balance would be once the pandemic was over, and only a very small minority said they’d like to work full-time from home.

Only 12% across the eight countries we surveyed don’t want to go back to the office at all.

Even the most enthusiastic countries like the U.S. (22%) and India (19%) post low figures. In fact, the balance leans overwhelmingly toward returning to the office either most of the time (27%), or all the time (21%).

These results suggest some degree of isolation fatigue among those working from home, though it’s important to look at country differences.

Employees want to work from home and in the office

That’s because the picture changes drastically when we take China out of the equation. The majority of professionals there have a strong desire to work from the office, driving the overall average up.

China’s tough measures at the start of the pandemic and its quick recovery ever since have meant that workers there only spent a couple of months teleworking, so there was less impact on their habits compared to other parts of the world.

Chinese workers also have the least concern about the virus, with only 15% describing themselves as extremely or very concerned, compared to a global average of 41%.

If we focus on countries like India, Italy, and Germany we see a strong preference toward either teleworking or a 50/50 hybrid arrangement. 

It’s clear that if it was up to employees, remote working would be here to stay post-pandemic, though enthusiasm for full-time home working appears to have diminished somewhat.

Even though 2020 saw workers swap business suits for tracksuits, remote working doesn’t necessarily mean a better work-life balance; and with a vaccine around the corner prompting hopes of a new normal, companies have an opportunity to get the balance right.

2. Parents would like to keep teleworking, but they’ll need more support.

With over 250 million children affected from school closures at the time of writing, home schooling has become most parents’ second full-time job.

22% of parents struggle with managing their children while working from home, but this hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm for teleworking.

Almost half of all parents outside China would like to mostly or fully work from home once the pandemic is over, while an additional 21% would choose a 50/50 balance.

For this group it’s clear the benefits of home working largely outweigh the challenges they experience. Parents with young children (61%), and especially moms (64%), are the group most likely to say that spending more time with their family is the biggest advantage of remote working.

But they need more support.

Parents are more stretched in their working lives

Our ongoing GWI Work research shows that parents with young children are more likely than the average professional to work late and work overtime at least once a week.

The lack of any real change in flexible working is likely a key challenge here. While remote working is up, flexible working (for example, empowering workers to choose when they start and end their day) has only seen a negligible increase. 

Businesses embraced working from home during the pandemic for lack of any clear alternative; but the fact that core hours of 9-5 haven’t shifted much is a significant issue for parents who need to accommodate childcare alongside work.

In work-from-home terms, presenteeism doesn’t necessarily translate into productivity, and for parents it can even mean an increased risk of burnout.

Instead of focusing on hours worked and physical presence, companies need to look at results achieved. This will enable them to retain the caregivers among their staff throughout 2021.

3. WFH can reduce productivity in the long run.

Increasing efficiency and productivity has always been a top priority for businesses.

36% of decision makers say these are the key to driving growth in the next year, surpassing things like finding cost-savings (33%) and improving innovation (31%).

Teleworking has so far proved effective in achieving these goals, with 77% of those working from home rating their company’s productivity as good or excellent, compared to 74% of those working in the office.

Maintaining productivity is a fine balance though, and evidence suggests it has started to fall as the pandemic goes on; our data from December supports this.

Productivity is a challenge when working from home

Across seven of the eight countries surveyed, maintaining work efficiency at home is considered more of a challenge than an advantage, with Germany (where the two are on par) being the only exception to this trend.  

And although feeling productive at home has been mostly associated with having a dedicated work space and fewer distractions, there’s more to the story than this.  

4. Social connection and productivity are closely intertwined.

Loneliness has been well-documented in the context of the pandemic, but rarely when it comes to home office productivity.

Prior to the outbreak, social connectedness and its impact on workplace productivity may have been somewhat taken for granted.

In fact, lively offices and social interactions with colleagues were once considered distractions rather than productivity enablers.

But in the current climate:

Social isolation is the biggest factor driving down productivity, together with a lack of dedicated workspace.

Outside China, 28% of professionals say one of the biggest challenges of working from home is that they’re feeling less productive, rising to 43% among those who’re struggling with isolation.

In countries like Germany, India, Italy, the UK, and the U.S., feeling isolated or lonely is one of the top three challenges employees experience when working from home – and this isn’t limited to those who live alone.

In fact, our data shows that it’s those who live with parents, roommates, or other family members that feel the most isolated, meaning loneliness isn’t so much about not having people around as about emotional disconnectedness from work.

The bottom line is that remote working shouldn’t be seen as an interim solution, but as a long-term adjustment process.

With this in mind, businesses need to remember that:

  • Designing a healthy home/office work mix will likely deliver lasting benefits in the new normal.
  • Flexible working needs to go hand in hand with remote working, especially when it comes to supporting working parents.
  • Maintaining productivity is seen more as a challenge than a benefit of teleworking, with social isolation being the biggest factor dampening it at the moment.
  • Fostering a culture of togetherness and social interactions isn’t a nice-to-have anymore, it’s a must-have for boosting productivity.
Click to access our connecting the dots 2021 report

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