COVID-19 pandemic and the future of work

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that home-working and changes to how we work will become commonplace and more acceptable in the future.

In March of 2021, Morning Consult conducted a study that found that 87% of American workers preferred to work from home on at least one day a week after the end of the pandemic. In April 2021, research from NUI Galway estimated that 95% of Irish workers did not want working life to return to its previous form; about 53% of this figure said they would like to work remotely several times a week and 32% said they would prefer to work remotely on a full time basis.

Productivity and Working from Home

As far as the productivity debate of working from home vs in the office is concerned, there is little evidence that it makes any difference. The Economist, using data from twelve surveys across nine developed countries, has found that workers feel that their productivity has been improved at best and, at worst, not significantly affected at all. Productivity was not the only reason for the positive response to home-working, with about half of the employee respondents to the survey enjoying not having to commute to work and thus saving time and money.

Employers were also asked if home-working by their employees boosted productivity within their firms. While the responses mostly concluded either more or the same level of productivity amongst employees, there were some interesting geographical variations. The survey found that only 10% of Swiss employers thought that productivity had declined, whilst over 80% of Russian employers thought that there was less productivity in their firms. In countries that have largely dealt with the pandemic successfully, working from home has not lost its appeal with employees. Data from New Zealand, which was acclaimed for its successful handling of the pandemic, concluded that from October to December 2020, 27% of people continued to work from home, while South Korea has also experienced a reduction in office attendance from the level it was at before COVID-19.

The future of the office

Despite a rise in support for home-working amongst employees, the majority of companies are being cautious on how and if this will be maintained and will largely not move towards a wide scale adoption of this model. According to The Economist special report on 7 May, employers intend to recruit with the intention of having employees working primarily at the location.They have a preference for their offices not to be left empty at large expense. Apple announced recently that it aims to return to this arrangement of requiring in-office presence rather than working from home, and has received an extremely negative response from many of their employees. Other companies such as Google, as well as the Irish civil service, have stated that they intend to maintain levels of remote working via a hybrid model and that they have no immediate plans for large-scale returns to offices yet.

However, the report by the Economist does argue that in the post-pandemic working world, engagement between employers and employees will become more important than ever. It finds that employer approval ratings largely increased amidst perceptions of better communication throughout the pandemic. By finding new ways to communicate, especially via video Zoom meetings, employees got an opportunity to communicate more frequently with more people in the organisation.  Employees found that they were invited more often to meetings with senior colleagues and had an opportunity to increase their profile within the company. Cameo appearances of children or dogs on Zoom conference calls, while frowned upon pre-pandemic, became part of everyday working life and many employees felt that they got to know and understand their colleagues better and built up stronger relationships through witnessing these interruptions!

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