Two years on after the global workforce first transitioned to working remotely as the 'new normal', here's a look at how far we've come since then —and our prediction for where we’re headed next.
It’s been two years since many traditionally in-office staff around the world first packed up their workplace belongings to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic storm from their own home offices.
In the early days of the work-from-home (WFH) transition, we all made do with the comforts and amenities we had at our disposal: kitchen tables became makeshift desks, while couches and parlour chairs (and even beds, for some) became the new conference rooms—a comfortable seat from which to join one lengthy video call after another, as we did our best to simulate the face-to-face contact we had lost.
At the time, working from home was expected to be temporary, along with the many office-like substitutions and rituals we had fashioned around the concept. Collectively, we all believed WFH might last for a few weeks, or possibly even a few months, but not more. Soon enough, we thought, we’d return to the office and life would go back to “normal.”
But the reality has been decidedly different. Weeks turned into months, while lockdowns and restrictions were tightened and then relaxed, over and over in what soon began to feel like a never-ending cycle of stay-at-home orders. What was once a temporary precaution during the initial outbreak of the virus, had become the new status quo.
Now, two years later, we’ve reached what seems to be the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Restrictions were lifted in February 2022, and in the months since, people have slowly begun to emerge from the isolation of their homes and resume some of their pre-pandemic day-to-day activities. We are back out in the world—but we are forever changed.
Over the last two years, employers and employees alike were forced to face a series of unprecedented challenges when it came to conducting business, and many had to find ways to adapt to this new normal. Now that so many of us have, will we ever go back?
The Challenges Behind Us
At this point in the pandemic recovery, we’ve become so accustomed to working remotely that it’s easy to forget just how challenging the initial transition really was.
Getting everyone WFH-ready
Getting everyone WFH-ready was a monumental task at the outset. Human Resources team members had to prepare employee communications and policies based on an unprecedented set of circumstances, while Operations and IT departments had to equip employees with the right tools and technologies to complete their work as usual—but without the usual resources that an office provides, such as its broadband network and desktop equipment.
Providing staff with new equipment
Equipping employees with the tools to do their jobs remotely came as a financial hit to many businesses. Employers had to provide working equipment to their workforce, and in cases where their teams had been using desktop computers and other office-based equipment, this meant purchasing new equipment, such as laptop computers, for many of their workers at once.
Finding new ways to communicate
Teams had to develop new ways of interacting each day. Communicating with dispersed teams proved challenging at the outset, until teams were able to devise and optimise their own approach to things like team meetings (now conducted via Zoom).
Providing teams with additional support
Managers and Human Resources teams in particular faced the daunting task of supporting their teams remotely. Under such unprecedented circumstances, many employees were under a great deal of stress as they navigated the new reality of working from home. For many, this meant juggling work and home life in new and often overwhelming ways. Employers had to ensure that their team members had access to additional workplace support, such as flexible working hours, mental health resources, and more.
The Road Ahead of Us
Despite these challenges, many businesses have adapted to the new WFH approach in startling and often commendable ways. Prior to the pandemic, for example, the concept of “workplace flexibility” often meant little more than the occasional late start to the day, such as when one had an appointment in the morning. But today, many of the flexible WFH policies that were put in place at the height of the lockdown have remained.
What’s more, employers and employees alike have begun to truly master the art of remote work. As employers have been forced to give their teams additional flexibility, many of these team members have outperformed expectations at every stage, proving that high-quality work can get done from home—and sometimes, even more efficiently than in the office. As a result, many businesses have begun to accept that the traditional 40-hour work week—as well as the notion that everyone must physically come to an office each day to do it—may be a relic of the past.
Even in the early days of the pandemic back in October 2020, McKinsey wrote about the many surprising ways that employees were fueling an accelerated adoption of technology, and they predicted that this would have long-term consequences for the ways we conduct business in a post-pandemic world. And employees, for their part, are in full support of these changes.
Countless workplace surveys around the world have drawn the same conclusion: people want hybrid work arrangements to continue indefinitely, and they feel they’ve proven that it can—and does—really work.
Businesses have been forced to adapt to this new reality by offering a better work-life balance, as well as flexibility in whether, when and how often employees should need to come into the office moving forward. As a result, business owners are having to dramatically reimagine their office spaces, from the size of the workspace they truly require, to the ways in which it should be configured to better support a hybrid workforce who may come and go, using available desk spaces as needed without ever claiming (or decorating) a permanent space.
The Future of Work is Here
From all indications, it’s clear that WFH and hybrid work models are here to stay—but to what extent remains to be seen. As employees settle into their new roles following the Great Resignation, will their employers begin to tighten in-office requirements? Or will businesses continue to offer increasing flexibility as a means of attracting top talent? Will WFH employees tire of balancing the demands of the job from home and desire to return to an office in a part-time capacity? Or will they expect the continued flexibility to decide what’s best from one day to the next?
Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: with the increase in remote work, the question of employee engagement has become more critical than ever. For businesses to succeed in the years ahead, it will likely require a renewed commitment to technology and employee engagement tools on their part. Tools and tech that enable a dispersed workforce to communicate, innovate and truly thrive.
If you want to learn more, check out our Future of Work eGuide with even more detailed information on this subject. In the meantime, let us know what you think: is WFH here to stay in the years ahead, or will businesses and employees find common ground in a hybrid model?