A man in a dark suit smiles at the camera against a black background.
Allan Boyle, Saltwater Consulting. Image: David Murphy

Are you in or out? Why remote work should be fully remote

17 Mar 2022

Saltwater Consulting’s Allan Boyle explains why he believes hybrid working isn’t the happy medium employers think it is.

While the exit from the pandemic may not be linear, all indications are that we’re coming out of it.

As a result, two years of systems rapidly put in place to deal with the virus are now being examined in the cold light of day. Nowhere is this more evident than in the discussions around remote work.

It’s a gross generalisation, but if the headlines are to be believed we have two camps.

A workforce, globally comprising a significant percentage of millennials and frontrunners of the Gen Z cohort, who’d like to continue working remotely and who are potentially wondering why it took until 2020 and a pandemic to get remote work accepted as a mainstream work practice.

Then, there’s a management level who’d like everyone back in the office.

It’s in this context that hybrid working has entered the lexicon, both as a term and as a concept. It seems like the best compromise, an option to keep everyone happy.

In actual fact, it’s the opposite.

Although no one is in a hurry to relive the past two years, they have provided a fascinating real-time example of the private and public spheres chafing against each other.

The concept of these opposing spheres dates from ancient Greece, but it was German sociologist Jürgen Habermas who wrote the key text on the subject in 1962, entitled ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’.

Broadly speaking, the public sphere would be political life, while the personal sphere is the arena of the family and home. It couldn’t be more obvious how these two have collided in the very recent past.

But, more than that, the move towards remote work has taught us something important about where work happens.

As the world went into lockdown in March 2020, technology greatly enabled many businesses to keep operations running with their staff working from home. And so, in a matter of days, the business case for remote work was proven.

Mass adoption of a remote working culture might have been a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We know that although the idea of remote work was not completely foreign, the mainstream culture was that you commuted to an office to work.

But it’s at this crux point that we find the first problem with a half in/half out approach.

Management, as a whole, might like to believe that hybrid working meets employees in the middle. There may be a genuine desire to take progressive steps forward from a pre-Covid workplace.

Under different circumstances, it would be difficult to argue that hybrid working isn’t a step in the right direction compared to a pre-Covid workplace scenario.

There’s just one problem. The pre-Covid workplace no longer exists.

So while management might view offering flexibility now, at the stage we’re at in the pandemic life cycle, as a step forwards, employees definitely don’t. It’s a step backwards for them all the way. And not understanding this will come with some heavy costs.

Hybrid working lacks the benefits of remote work

Just as remote work is about way more than the physical location of your employee, so too do the benefits extend beyond saving on office space.

The benefits, among others, for employees include:

  • Improved work-life balance – saving time on commuting opens up many possibilities
  • More control over creating an environment that enables good work – open-plan offices don’t work for everyone
  • More options on where to live – the high rentals in many cities have impacted hugely on people’s lives, and being able to work remotely has opened up more options for where people can live and relieves financial pressure

For employers, the benefits include:

  • Increased productivity – a well-known Stanford University study showed a 13pc increase in productivity in employees when they worked remotely
  • Attracting talent – a Gallup poll found that 54pc of employees say they’d leave their job in favour of one that offers better flexibility, and organisations that ignore how employees want to work will lose out on attracting the staff they need
  • A widened talent pool – not needing to rely on the talent that lives in proximity to your office means that your talent pool naturally widens
  • Increased employee engagement and more loyalty – full-time remote employees report being happier in their roles 22pc more than employees who don’t work remotely, and remote employees are 13pc more likely than office-based employees to stay in their jobs for five years
  • And, as mentioned, saving on office space

There is also a key environmental benefit for not having staff travel into work every day. And sustainability is already becoming an essential consideration for how companies operate.

Hybrid working offers none of these advantages to employees or employers. Employees would still need to live within travel distance of an office, severely limiting the flexibility hybrid working is supposed to provide.

Fully distributed teams come with their own cultures

Culture does not happen exclusively within the walls of an office.

Fully distributed teams are happening now. And their cultures are growing with them, from onboarding to team events. Getting your entire organisation to meet once or twice a year in person for a week is still more cost-effective than paying for office space.

Of course, there are considerations to take into account with remote work. Not least from a cybersecurity point of view.

But when it comes to this new world of work, you’re either in or out. Get your staff back in the office on a wholesale basis or go fully remote. For the record, my money is on the latter.

But hybrid working? No.

By Allan Boyle

Allan Boyle is a business transformation specialist and the founder of Saltwater Consulting. He has over 22 years’ experience in information technology.

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