According to a new policy paper from the thinktank Bruegel, COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to remote work. Enabling knowledge workers to do their jobs from home or elsewhere brings benefits by increasing labour participation, avoiding unproductive commuting time (thus reducing the carbon footprint), and reducing the gender gap by enabling single parents or partners with domestic-care responsibilities to work.
The paper says that the post-pandemic new normal is sure to differ both from the pre-pandemic normal and from current arrangements. Hybrid arrangements in which part of the week is spent at the office, and part at home, are likely to become the norm. It argues:
Employers, workers, educators, trade unions and governments will need to adapt to the new normal. For employers and managers, the change emphasises the need to manage based on results rather than hours worked, and likely implies many changes in how they manage their employees.
Workers will need to be flexible in order to capitalise on the new opportunities in the evolving world of work, and to ensure they have suitable skills for remote work. Educators will need to further emphasise digital skills, and to accelerate the shift from traditional education to lifelong learning. Trade unions will need to re-think how they recruit workers who do not see each other every day, and how they can respond to evolving social protection needs.
Policymakers will need to deal with distributional effects driven by the shift to remote work, to protect the work-life balance that remote work potentially erodes, and to seek to ensure that the shift to remote work does not erode social protection.
Research by our member company, Manpower, suggests workers in the UK are resisting pressures from their employers to return to the office. While bosses are hoping to see a return to more traditional working patterns after the pandemic, Manpower says firms are engaged in a “balancing act of keeping their existing employees happy while phasing out remote work for new candidates.” Chris Gray, a director at Manpower, said: “Employers are keen to get people back into the office. However, employees still have a lot of bargaining power.”
He notes that employers have offered “unprecedented” benefits in the last 12 months, “from hefty signing bonuses to fully remote working” in order to attract skilled candidates. “But as demand for new workers cools, candidates are less able to secure these benefits - though many existing employees don’t want to give them up,” he added. Mr Gray said there has been a “shift from candidates holding all the cards to employers now having the leverage to ask candidates to come into the office - at least some of the time.”
Meanwhile, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy told a conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday that the company had no plans to order its employees to come back into the office as it continues to embrace remote working. He did acknowledge that bonding as a team was more difficult on video calls but said that most departments were continuing to work hybrid or remotely. “At the end of the day, we have to deliver the right results for customers, and people understand whether they work remotely or in an office that that has to be the No.1 priority. And so we’re trying lots of experiments, and we’ll see over the next year.”
In an insightful comment in the Financial Times Sarah O’Connor gives short shrift to the notion of “quite quitting”. “Employers don’t need to cater to employees’ every psychological need, and employees don’t need to be passionate about their employers”, she writes.