The flexible future of working

The working day as we know it, in general lasting eight hours between 7am and 7pm and covering five days of the week, dates back 100 years. It has its origins in the industrial revolution, where industrial production in large factories transformed working life. At first the working day would range from 10-16 hours; the work week was six days and the use of child labour was common. A shorter working day as well as improved working conditions was raised by the International Workingmen’s Association at the Congress in Geneva in 1866, but the working week as we know it was not adopted in most countries until shortly after the first world war. There remain exceptions in developing countries and it depends on the type of work, but this structure has held for the majority of the global workforce since.

We have seen enormous change since then – women have been included in the workforce in an increasingly meaningful way, sharing the breadwinner / homemaker roles that had been divided for most of history, many jobs have shifted from manufacturing to desk-based, and of course technology has transformed almost all aspects of the economy and our work. At the same time companies and teams have become more global and cities have expanded significantly, extending the average commute. While there have been innovations along the way, we believe we will look back on the pandemic as a critical moment when the structure of ‘work’ caught up with these fundamental changes.

Initial government restrictions in response to the pandemic differed by country, but in general those that could work from home were told they must. Today the situation with the coronavirus remains very much in flux, with some governments encouraging workplaces to open while others request employees stay at home. But as economies broadly open from lockdowns, employers are wrestling with a decision on how to structure the new future of the workplace. What has interested us most is that already we see multi-national companies from all over the world embracing this opportunity and announcing real fundamental change.

One such company is Swiss firm Novartis, who this week issued a press release titled ‘Choice with Responsibility: Reimagining how we work’ announcing an updated flexibility policy which allows each officed-based associate to work from home indefinitely if they wish. They are shifting the responsibility to employees, in essence saying it’s for the associate to make it work with their manager, allowing them to ‘choose how, where and when they work within their country of employment’.

German company Siemens announced last week that employees in 43 countries will now have the right to work from home for up to three days a week; a policy designed for the long term future, not just for the duration of the pandemic. The head of industrial relations and employment conditions stated that “If there is one positive thing in this crisis, it is that it has shown what is possible with remote working.” As with Novartis, the approach is flexible and employees can choose their own preference. According to research by the Ifo economic institute, just over half of all Germany companies want to do the same.

In Japan technology group Fujitsu recently announced they will be halving their office space, setting up smaller hubs around the country and embracing telework as a ‘new normal’ for their 80,000 staff. Other big corporate names have followed suit such as Hitachi who is targeting for just half of their 33,000 employees to be required to work in the office, and snack food producer Calbee who are extending their teleworking policies indefinitely after their productivity rose during the lockdown.

Twitter made headlines early May when it announced that all employees could work from home forever if they wish, and Facebook announced eligible employees can request a permanent remote-work arrangement. CEO Mark Zuckerberg estimates half of the organisation will continue to work remotely within the next five to 10 years. A PWC survey on US executives and employees in financial services, retail and consumer products and tech, media and telecommunications last month highlighted the demand for policies like this. 72% of office workers would like to work remotely at least two days a week and the majority of both employers and employees thought productivity had either increased or stayed the same.



Source: PwC US Remote Work Survey

We wrote a few months ago about the potential positive impacts an embrace of flexible working policies could have on employee satisfaction, diversity and environmental impact. There is plenty of evidence that those first two factors have a positive impact on productivity and profitability, and we know most companies are looking to reduce their environmental impact.

These changes come with risks of course, as most big changes do. Company culture may be more challenging to form or maintain if employees are working from home. Staff may more easily be replaced, as the candidate pool expands significantly if location doesn’t matter. New trainees may learn less rapidly without senior people around them every day. And different employees may start to stand out and be promoted when presenteeism becomes something of the past, and employees are measured more on output than hours put in.

This growing list of companies believe the positive impacts outweigh the negatives. COVID-19 has forced enormous change on most elements of modern life, and we think a change in attitudes towards the workplace may be one of the most meaningful.


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