After the Emergency: Remote Working

After the Emergency: Remote Working

Employees are reluctantly starting to return to the office, but that doesn't mean a return to the old 9 to 5. The new normal is that there is no normal.

At the start of the pandemic, it was widely predicted that working from home would become the new normal. It was suggested that office workers would be much more productive if they didn't have to spend hours in traffic on the daily commute. The last twelve months have borne that out. Many have enjoyed the advantages of full time remote working, but employers have never been quite as happy with the situation. Now they're preparing to bring their staff back into the office.

Last week, Google became the first major technology firm to tell employees that they would be returning to the office full time after the pandemic. Remote working will be limited to 14 days per year unless line managers agree otherwise. Their peers in Silicon Valley have been moving in the opposite direction. Twitter and Facebook both intend for home working to become permanent. So too does accountancy giant PwC who announced a new flexible working policy days before the Google announcement.

In truth, those initial predictions of permanent home working for all reflected the bias of the people making them. Plenty of media firms have been fully remote for years. A significant number of online publications don't have a physical office at all, using freelancers to supplement a geographically dispersed management team. Journalists can work from anywhere and frequently need to take advantage of that when on location. All they need is a basic web connection. Few other office workers are quite so lucky.

Cultural Concerns

From an employers perspective, there are three main challenges with remote working: training, team building and company culture. The last of these is particularly important to Google, an organisation which is famously proud of its open and flexible traditions, that aim to encourage creativity among developers. All new hires have to go through an intense onboarding program intended to build loyalty and foster the required culture among staff. A few months ago Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, spoke of the challenges of building such a strong culture while working remotely. It's no coincidence that he's eager to get his team back into their Mountain View headquarters.

Amazon are following Google's lead, announcing a return to an office-centric culture this weekend. New CEO, Andy Jassy, has previously cited problems with collaboration and brainstorming as the justification for the move. The online retail giant has many unique work patterns that aren't seen elsewhere, particularly when it comes to meetings. It's likely these are contributing to the dislike for remote working among Jassy, Jeff Bezos and their leadership team. Such opinions are not necessarily shared by Amazon employees further down the corporate ladder, if online reaction to the announcement is to be believed.

Hybrid Working

One tech giant taking a different approach is Microsoft, who are adopting a hybrid approach to office working. Employees will be allowed to divide their time between home and the office, although they are expected to spend more time working in the office than outside of it. IBM and Apple have also hinted that they're thinking along similar lines. All three companies have more traditional cultures than other technology firms, reflecting their relative longevity. Here it is training and mentorship that is driving a return to the office, not culture. Junior employees need to be taught the skills necessary to succeed, and that's much easier when mentor and mentee are in the same room. Training programs don't require staff to be together full time, but regular contact is valuable. Goldman Sachs have also used staff training as an excuse to get their investment bankers back to their trading desks on Wall Street.

Most knowledge workers recognise the need to return to the office part time at some point, but there is a big difference between employers and employees on what that means. Many tech workers want their roles to be predominantly home based, with weekly trips to the office for variety or meetings. Many bosses what their teams to be mostly office based, but with greater flexibility around remote working than before the pandemic. The disconnect surrounding staff expectations extends to the political arena. UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, recently cited staff retention as a reason to return to the office in a widely panned interview. There are definitely people who want to return to the office full-time, but they're not a majority.


A balance will need to be found, and one which takes into account individual circumstances. Different working patterns will likelybecome normal even within the same team. There are plenty of organisations that make this work already. Hybrid working has been around for years, and the spread of work from home Fridays made it more popular even before the pandemic. People have become used to the freedom that remote working allows, and won't surrender it lightly.

Flexibility around working arrangements will become a selling point for businesses looking to attract the best talent. Those organisations that can best meet staff expectations will have an advantage in staff retention and recruitment. That's one area where small businesses and start-ups might have an advantage over their larger peers. It's much easier to remotely build a team in a small organisation than in a larger one. The challenge with the current situation, is the lack of flexibility caused by lockdowns and stay at home orders. Replacing one rigid work pattern with another one won't be popular.

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.