L.E.K.’s research shows a wide range of approaches to remote working being taken by employers, from the strictly temporary to the radically permanent.
It is evident that COVID-19 has had a profound and long-lasting impact on remote working, and that fully “back to normal” is very unlikely, even in the medium to long term.
Early evidence suggests at least somewhat of a clash between workers’ and employers’ preferences for working patterns.
Mixed working models are likely to be most appropriate, productive and profitable for most firms.
As both employers and employees are increasingly encouraged to “go back to work”, early evidence indicates a wide range of post-COVID-19 flexible and remote working approaches. Many are adopting approaches in line with workers’ increasingly stable preference for flexibility, but others are insisting on a “back to normal” policy. The winners will adopt a combination of both.
As COVID-19 is gradually and tentatively regarded as being stable or increasingly under control in many countries, governments are turning their attention to limiting its economic damage. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s back-to-work campaign is one example of the effort to return business activity to at least some version of “normal”. But is this encouragement working, and how do the approaches taken by employers and workers match up vs. employees’ preferences?
At the end of August 2020, a survey by L.E.K. Consulting (via Toluna) showed that over a third of respondents who had been working from home due to lockdown say they have returned to work, at least on some days, but most are still working from home (see Figure 1).
This result is broadly consistent with the British Chamber of Commerce’s research undertaken in late July 2020, which indicated that 62% of respondent firms expected some or all of their staff to be working remotely for the next 12 months. It is also a close match to a survey by YouGov for Barclays in May 2020, which indicated that c.60% of employers expected to encourage more remote working beyond the crisis. In other words, although many employers intend to return fully to “normal”, a large proportion do not intend to comply with governments’ desire for a widespread return to the normal workplace.
Looking at this issue in more detail, L.E.K.’s research shows a wide range of approaches to remote working being taken by employers, from the strictly temporary to the radically permanent. Figure 2 illustrates a non-exhaustive range of employers’ announced intentions as of July 2020 with respect to remote working:
It is already evident, therefore, that COVID-19 has had a profound and long-lasting impact on remote working, and that fully “back to normal” is a very unlikely outcome, even in the medium to long term.
But how closely do these approaches match workers’ preferences? Figure 3 compares workers’ preferences for working location in July 2020 vs. their current situation in August, for those who have now returned to their normal place of work.
These results show that, of those who have recently returned to “the office”, somewhat more are working full time in their usual workplace than workers’ overall stated preference the previous month. We therefore consider it likely that, of those returning, more have been required to work in the office full time than have wanted to.
Figure 4 compares working location preferences for those still working from home due to COVID-19 in July and the smaller proportion still doing so in August.
These results show that, of those still working from home following a COVID-19-driven change, somewhat more have a preference to continue to do this full time permanently than workers’ overall stated preference the previous month. This could indicate that a proportion of those who could have gone back to the office but wanted to continue working from home have got their way. In part, this is positive and mutually beneficial: many employers and workers have realised that remote working is more effective than they expected, at least for specific roles. But it is also partly antagonistic: some employers would prefer some workers to return to the office, some of whom are unwilling to do so. Qualitative feedback from our clients confirms that both of these scenarios are playing out.
The situation overall is evolving rapidly, with a wide range of approaches being taken, as is typical of any truly novel situation. However, although responses are still at a nascent stage, we see early evidence of at least somewhat of a clash between workers’ and employers’ preferences. This applies both to those firms requiring staff to return to full-time work at the office and those expecting to have all staff work remotely on a permanent basis.
We remain of the view that mixed working models are likely to be most appropriate, productive and profitable for most firms. Getting this right will be a key new dimension of competition and success in the post-COVID-19 world.