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State of the worker: A year of remote working

Shifting attitudes to remote working

More than one in five UK workers, the equivalent of 7.5 million people, would like to work from home all, or almost all, of the time once lockdown restrictions are fully lifted. Before the government issued its stay at home order only one in ten workers did their jobs from home for all, or almost all, of the time.

The findings, based on a survey of 1,248 UK workers in March 2021, builds on our productivity and wellbeing research from last year and our research from 2018 on the use of mobile and tablet devices for work. As restrictions began to lift, we wanted to understand workers’ experiences of lockdown and whether they see themselves working in the same way as they did before COVID-19.

This article offers insights to help organisations plan their return to the workplace and their longer-term Future of Work strategy. Subsequent articles will examine what workers told us about digital skills and how technology has enhanced, and will continue to enhance, their productivity.

Lockdown has opened workers’ eyes to the benefits of remote working. Before the pandemic, half of our survey respondents had never worked from home. In the future, only a quarter of respondents say they will not work from home.

Keeping workers connected during lockdown

Technology has kept many workers connected to their colleagues during lockdown. During the first three months of the pandemic, seventy-five per cent of office workers said they had used at least two new types of technology for work. Collaboration and communication tools are the most obvious examples of new technologies being used but our wider Deloitte research shows that the implementation of automation and Cloud applications has accelerated over the past 15 months.

Many roles that were previously done almost exclusively in person, for example GPs and health visitors, fitness instructors and even entertainers, have shifted to remote working. This shift was enabled by technology with an increased use in telemedicine in primary care, and videoconferencing and smartphone apps in other industries. Even if working from home does not remain central to how these roles are performed some of these new ways of working may be retained post-lockdown.

The attitudes of employers have also changed during the pandemic. In the past, working from home was seen by some as a flexible benefit. Not all employers trusted all employees to work as efficiently or effectively outside of the office. Working during the lockdown has dispelled many myths about how people work from home. Senior leaders have had to work remotely themselves and seen both the benefits and challenges of home working. Many employers now recognise that work is not about hours sat at a desk in an office but about productivity. Forty per cent of workers currently working from home believe that they work best at home while 36 per cent believe they work equally well both at home and in their normal workplace. Only 21 per cent think they work best from their usual workplace.

Why go into the office if you are as productive at home?

For many workers there is no going back to pre-pandemic ways of working. They relish the lack of commute and extra time with their families. They want home working to be more than just a stop gap. They know, their colleagues know, and their bosses know that most of their tasks can be completed as easily in any setting whether it is an office, in their home or out at a café. To return to the office, even for one or two days a week, workers will need a purpose beyond sitting in front of their laptop replying to emails, taking phone calls or inputting data into an ERP, CRM or other system. They will need to know that there is value in them commuting and that a day in the office will be rewarded with greater collaboration and creativity than if they were remote.

Working from home does not work for everyone. Forty-four per cent of our survey respondents find it a challenge. Thirty-nine per cent of these workers reported that it was hard to stay motivated, 34 per cent said they find it difficult to maintain a work life balance and 33 per cent felt isolated or lonely. Context is important here. The cumulative effect of multiple lockdowns and restrictions on how, where and when people could socialise with their friends and family no doubt influences some people’s perceptions of home working.

The impact of the pandemic on how we work has not been equal. More than half (58 per cent) of those aged under 35 say they are finding working from home challenging. This age group includes those at the very beginning of their careers. They may live in flat shares, working from their beds or sofas for the past year. They may have young children and need to balance childcare and their work even more acutely than they did before the pandemic. They may miss the sense of community and social life that often accompanies a workplace. Our research from 2020 found that this age group was also more likely to say that lockdown had negatively impacted their wellbeing than any other age group.

The future of the office

This is not the end of the office. Many companies will invest and revamp their spaces in the coming months to encourage teams to work creatively and collaboratively when they do venture into their workplace. Desks will be replaced with meeting rooms and other spaces to create a hub for collaboration, communication and creativity. Deloitte’s London Office Crane Survey found that over half of new construction between October 2020 and March 2021 involves the refurbishment and upgrade of existing office stock. Many existing buildings are capable of being turned into COVID-safe, wellbeing-focused and eco-friendly workspaces. If the purpose of the office changes from a place where workers primarily complete tasks to a place where they primarily interact with their colleagues, then the look and feel of the office will change to facilitate this new purpose.

The complexity of hybrid working

Seventy-one per cent of workers expect their employer to be supportive of them working from home as much or as little as they want. However, Deloitte’s CFO Survey found that two-thirds of CFOs expect the bulk of their firm’s workforce to return to working from an office by the third quarter of 2021. This gap between the expectations of workers and senior leaders will need to be resolved quickly to reduce the risk of employee dissatisfaction.

For most of the week, teams will prefer to work primarily from home, which the past 12-months has shown allows them to be as productive as when they are in the office. However, operational challenges will persist. What if half the team want to be in the office on one day and the other half on another day? New processes and tools will be needed to allow team members to know when and where their colleagues will be. Specific activities and tasks will be deemed to be “anywhere” tasks while others will be expected to be done just in the office or just at home.

Organisations will use this summer, subject to government guidance, to test new ways of working and the technology that enables it. The ideal for many will be to ensure the seamless integration of the digital and the physical, and to provide a consumer-grade technology experience for their workers so that it does not matter where they are based. Some Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) have already begun initiatives to understand what technology is currently available, both software and infrastructure, to deliver a hybrid of remote and office-based work. Others are shifting responsibility for new working models down to functional and team leaders.

The reopening of the UK economy provides an opportunity for CHROs to rethink how work is done, not just where work is done. Discussing how work should be managed, measured and remunerated in the future is as important as, if not more important than, redesigning the workplace. While new meeting spaces and collaboration technologies are important so too are deciding how meetings are run and what behaviours should be expected in them.

Research was carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Deloitte LLP. It screened a nationally representative quota sample of 1,248 UK workers aged 16-75. Fieldwork took place between 19 and 21 March 2021.

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