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How business leaders will need to adapt to shifting employee expectations

‘Change’ has been one of the most commonly used words along the corridors of organisations during recent months. It has been applied to the way in which customers are shifting their focus towards engaging businesses who can offer real value to the customer experience over those simply peddling their wares. But perhaps the most import change is in the context of people – specifically your employees.

Remote working has become a part of everyday working life. Of course, it wasn’t necessarily an option for many businesses. However, as the coronavirus pandemic evolved from weeks into months, the traditional way of working was called into question, with a growing number of employees asking themselves, ‘Do I really want to go back to how office life used to be?’ The answer, it would seem, is a resounding no.

Indeed, this year’s Employee Expectation Report conducted by Wade Macdonald canvassed the opinion of employees throughout the Thames Valley and West London region on how they hope things will change when it comes to their workplaces once the pandemic is over. The results made for interesting reading.

Accordingly, only 12 per cent of respondents said they wish to return to, and work from, the office as they did before the outbreak of COVID-19, while 1 in 5 (19.5 per cent) stated they want to ditch the office altogether.

Interestingly 7 in 10 (69 per cent) commented they would favour the opportunity to split their working time between home and office. Of these, a third (35 per cent) would ideally work from home four days each week, 35 per cent said they’d be happy being office based for no more than two days, and 30 per cent like the idea of splitting the week in two – 50 per cent of time based in the office and the remainder at home.

So, what does this mean for employers? Do they have to radically change their working practices in response to the growing desire among their people for greater flexibility in where they physically perform their duties? The answer is yes. And no. Let us explain.

In an interview with the BBC, Stewart Butterfield, CEO and co-founder of Slack, said “there’s an opportunity to retain the best parts of office culture while freeing ourselves from bad habits and inefficient processes, from ineffective meetings to unnecessary bureaucracy. Every leader believes they can do better, and things can move faster: this is their chance.” He is right.

Indeed, the shift in the employee mindset has never been more significant than it is now. In fact, we are already seeing an increasing number of candidates telling us that while their primary objective is to secure that next all-important role, they want to work for an employer that is able to provide flexible working conditions.

The answer is likely to be some sort of hybrid remote-office model. While calls and meetings via Zoom and Teams have become common place, they are no substitute for the free flow of conversation that takes place in the physical environment, the spontaneous brainstorming and ideas sharing meet-ups that often start at the coffee machine, or the simple catching up with those who are friends as well as colleagues. These are the things that facilitate the smooth running of an office.

By providing employees with the opportunity to take all the good of the office with the benefits to be gained through working remotely too – such as less time commuting each week, lowered travel expenses, fewer distractions (although employers should look to support working parents with childcare) and increased productivity as a result – recalibrating the workplace can positively impact organisational culture, enhance its employer brand, and boost staff wellbeing and retention levels. And while we cannot predict with any certainty what might lie ahead, we can confidently say that work will never go back to how it was before. But that could be a good thing, for all of us.