The office environment that many of us are familiar with was thrown into the deep end in 2020 when COVID-19 struck. Due to the nature of their work, many office workers found themselves working from home with companies also embracing this new normal as a viable alternative during a pandemic period when governments around the world were restricting movements.
But after more than three years, and with the WHO declaring an end to COVID-19 as a Global Health Emergency, it appears that many companies, including the biggest and most profitable tech firms in the world, are no longer putting their actions where their (previous) beliefs were/are.
Earlier this week, Zoom, the world’s leading virtual communication company and one of the biggest advocators of work-from-home/work-from-anyway (and rightly so since Zoom’s business benefits when people WFH and need to use its video conferencing tool) announced that it will be asking its employees to head back to the office. According to a Business Insider article, “those who live within 50 miles of a Zoom office must now work there at least two days a week”
This reverse an earlier decision made in January 2022 when the company shared that it would allow employees to choose their own “workstyles” which include remote working.
What Happened To Full Remote Working?
As an economist would tell you, revealed preference is always the best indicator of someone’s preference.
For a good part of 2020 to 2022, the world was in lockdown and people could not freely move around within their country, let alone travel overseas. During this period, governments were encouraging and/or mandating for companies to allow workers to work-from-home. Companies like Zoom were also expanding quickly due to the shift towards online consumption of products and services.
It was, unsurprisingly then, for management to embrace full work-from-home. It served their interest then – to attract and retain talent during a period where growth for tech and online companies was good.
Since then, the macroeconomics landscape has shifted. As the world starts recovering from the pandemic, inflation has soared and this has led to interest rates rising. Growth and profits for many of these technology companies have declined and with them, a need to reduce headcount and benefits. Companies like Amazon, Google Meta and Zoom have had retrenchment and others like Twitter/X have changed their ownership entirely. And with this, comes a reversal in remote work policy.
Simply put, it’s easy for companies to claim that they are embracing 100% remote working during a period where people couldn’t easily move around anyway.
Google, which is Singapore’s best company to work for according to The Straits Times, expects its workers to come in about three days a week as shared in a May 2021 post by CEO Sundar Pichai.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, would also be expecting its workers to work from the office for three days a week, starting in September 2023. This is also a reversal from its policy in 2021 where the company said that workers at all levels can request to work remotely full-time after the pandemic.
Not to be left out, the finance industry has also insisted on its workers to return to the office with Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan both accepting that work-from-home is unlikely to be good for their business’ growth.
And let’s not forget Elon Musk who runs Tesla, SpaceX, and Twitter/X who believes that working from home is “morally wrong.”
Companies Would Likely Do What Is In Their Best Interest
If there is one lesson we can learn from the change in work-from-home policy that even the leading companies are making, it’s that we can always count on companies to do what is in their best interest.
An economist article published in June 2023 shared some studies that have shown a reduction in productivity in workers. The article – The working-from-home illusion fades – shared that while an earlier study conducted in 2020 showed an increase in productivity during work-from-home, a decline in efficiency is now observed. This revision in the study follows other studies that have reached a similar conclusion – work-from-home workers are actually less productive than their in-office colleagues.
Studies cannot be generalised to all companies, big or small, and the likely scenario is that how much more productive (or unproductive) a work-from-home worker can be will likely be a result of the job role, the person’s aptitude to work independently and his/her experience in the position.
However, it’s also hard for companies to cater to individual needs when HR policies have to typically be standardised. And perhaps, this is what companies will need to be thinking about as we enter a post-pandemic work environment.
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