Evolving Workplace Norms: Was Remote Work Really Ever So Radical?

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I have struggled to wrap my head around some aspects of the work-from-home debate.

A few weeks ago, while speaking to a millennial co-worker who recently left the HR profession., The working model debate came up. I shared how I had always worked from home, having entered the workforce in 2020, and had grown up with a parent who almost exclusively worked from home, only ever travelling for monthly meetings and big work events. This had caused my perspective to be one of seeing remote work as a norm, and as a realistic option for many people – even thought this wasn’t really the case until 2020. 

I’m intrigued by the fact office working had been such a set-in stone expectation for so many up until the pandemic pushed people into their homes, despite the tech which makes WFH possible being available for years before. It’s similarly surprising that so many organisations who made public their aims to be inclusive long disregarded (and still do) the benefits of WFH for parents, caregivers, disabled people, and those unable to afford the costs of office commutes or metropolitan living.  

In this article, I wanted to explore a few of the key players that have prompted Gen Z’s aversion to what’s considered the traditional working model, as well as why employees from every generation are joining them in this shift.  

Remote work before the pandemic 

The WFH model wasn’t unheard of before 2020. Before the pandemic, remote and hybrid working had been increasing gradually. Between January and December 2019, around 1 in 10 (12%) of the of the UK workforce had worked at least one day from home in the previous week and around 1 in 20 (5%) reported working mainly from home.

Tech enabling WFH simply wasn’t a priority for many organisations, which is why many found themselves playing catch up during the pandemic. This goes from video calling platforms to their HR software, with many solutions lacking the flexibility to record the information of remote workers, covid sickness, and more. RCPCH was one of the organisations who brought on the xcd solution before the pandemic and discovered the strengths of its flexibility and cloud-based nature when their workforce went remote. 

“If we hadn’t gone with XCD, Covid-19 might have had a much bigger impact on us. Having that remote access and self-service for people working from home made a huge difference. Beyond that, being able to report on how long people were out with COVID and whether staff were suffering from long-COVID allowed us to support them much better.” – Louise Beauchamp, Director of People at RCPCH

Read our case study with RCPCH here.

How has the remote work wave impacted Gen Z expectations?

Gen Z employees in particular value the flexibility of remote work that became the new status quo during the pandemic. Gen Z starts 1997, so even the very oldest of this generation only experienced a few years of pre-pandemic workplace norms. This means that hybrid and remote working is the only way of working many Gen Z employees (including myself) have known, and this inevitably impacts our expectations of the workplace. 

But it’s not just Gen Z. 

A World Economic Forum report found that 73% of employees now desire permanent flexible work options. Remote and hybrid work encourages productivity and minimizes many of the stressors that can cause poor mental wellbeing, which Gen Z in particular try to avoid. Studies also show that companies who allow remote work to be an option for their people have 25% lower employee turnover than those that don’t. The reaction that’s been seen from employees of every generation in response to the recent spike in return to office mandates alone displays that this is something that is important to the whole workforce.

Different companies will want to achieve different things. Sometimes office work will be best suited to achieving that, sometimes it will be WFH or hybrid. Therefore, the one principle I feel I can confidently preach is flexibility. Everyone is unique. We have individual needs and preferences, live in different circumstances and lives. If an organisation’s wanting to retain talent, it’s been proven that flexibility is a key player. In polls on why exactly people prefer remote work, it is ‘flexible scheduling’ which comes out on top.

Office culture vs WFH culture 

As of late 2023, almost one-third of workers are employed by exclusively remote companies and 4 in 5 employees would recommend working remotely to a friend.

The joys of remote work are familiar to many HR professionals – if not through personal experience, they’ve learnt about the allure through viral LinkedIn posts or in conversations with their own people. For me personally however it has been going into office and having this contrast which has allowed me to realise what truly contributes to my wellbeing and productivity at work.  

Face-to-face time in office is immensely valuable when there are a bunch of meetings that need to take place with multiple people or teams. The dynamics of a video call are perfect for one-on-one discussions or internal team chats, but when decisions need to be made by multiple parties, there’s a difference when the conversations are in-person. Stanford researchers identified that video calls are often more fatiguing, which is perhaps why trying to have more high-stake conversations on those virtual platforms feels more draining and chaotic.

It’s the office setting compared to an at home setting which truly impacts my productivity and wellbeing. For example, being able to better manage conversations with people when I have a tight deadline – any fun or casual chats can be scheduled for after the project, whereas it’s more difficult to turn away someone who’s walked directly up to your desk. I also find the overall atmosphere of an office doesn’t support my productivity or mood. Buzzing, white light, and microwaved leftovers, in a face of makeup that I’ll be in for 12 hours simply don’t compare to a heated blanket, freshly cooked lunch, and the ability to schedule my time to facilitate deep focus and high-quality work I’m proud of.  

Overall, there is no ‘right way to work’. HR teams should look to the data of their own people to inform how they should implement various working models in their business and hold flexibility at the heart of their culture if they want to retain and attract talent of any age. The workplace is always changing, and what’s crucial is that leadership are prepared to evolve with the times, and support people teams in implementing what is needed to do so.