The question of when the big return to the office will occur has been hanging over the pandemic-inflicted globe since office workers were first sent home in early 2020. With the Omicron variant causing further restrictions as 2021 limps to an inglorious end, the goal posts for returning to the office have moved further downfield once more.

However, how much of a rush should employers and employees be in to return to fluorescent lighting strips and bad coffee? According to a survey conducted by PwC, overall productivity has continued to improve since work from home (WFH) became the norm in 2020, which would indicate that remote workers are continually improving when it comes to remote working.

The fact that employers were more optimistic than employees when asked to evaluate productivity may come as a surprise. The typical understanding regarding WFH is that bosses want workers to return to offices and workers want to continue in their makeshift bedroom offices with nothing more than the cat for company.

Company culture over cat company?

This attitude was perhaps more on display when the same PwC survey asked for the optimum solution to hybrid working, with CEOs preferring three days in the office to any other option. Only 5% of US executives agreed that employees did not need to be in the office.

When asked to describe the benefits of working from an office, the responses were usually more intangible; it boosts company culture, it allows for a free flow of ideas, etc. Although these benefits certainly can materialise from time spent in the office, they are not a given (although initiatives such as 'Pizza Fridays' and meditation classes can go a long way to setting a tone of joviality and togetherness).

In contrast, working from home seems to have more substantial benefits, particularly for parents, who can more easily carry out tasks such as taking their children to school. Other benefits include a reduction in commuting time and costs, balancing household tasks around schedules and complete control over a workstation.

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Who is losing out in the WFH revolution?

While parents tend to benefit from working from home during term times, their work-life balance tends to become more difficult during school holidays. Another group that often loses out when it comes to remote working are young workers or those in more junior roles. Without mentors or more experienced workers on hand, many younger office staff are losing valuable learning opportunities in the early stages of their careers, which can mean they will struggle to build up their networks and garner greater knowledge of their chosen industries.

This is only problematic, of course, if senior staff in a company fail when it comes to communication. If senior staff are hands-on when it comes to guiding younger team members, then remote working doesn’t mean they have to miss out.

In an effort to combat these issues, the PwC survey notes that US executives are leaning towards investment in virtual solutions over office improvements. Enhanced tools for virtual collaboration and connectivity could prove crucial to keeping company culture alive, particularly while the pandemic continues to keep memories of a vibrant office life a fever dream from days gone by. These tools could ensure that both parents and more junior workers feel well managed from home.

Training for managers could make the difference between a team member feeling supported while working remotely, or feeling either micromanaged or abandoned. Of course, when it comes to the managers themselves, some will feel more comfortable with the vagaries of working from home than others; the proliferation of WhatsApp groups and Zoom meetings may not be to everyone's taste. Adapting to this new way of working life is essential, and providing the proper guidance can create a situation where everyone is less stressed and more productive.

What now for remote working?

Notably, in the PwC survey employers were more optimistic about the success of the shift to remote working during the pandemic than employees were, although both groups were united in declaring the move a success.

As the pandemic continues to demand agility from businesses, remote working will be with us in some form for the foreseeable future. One potential benefit for CEOs here is that this gives employers access to talent on a global scale, without a physical office tying workers to a specific location. Even the most local of companies can think more globally. However, this only serves to emphasise the importance of managing those working remotely in a way that makes them feel comfortable, valued and part of the company or team culture. Attracting the global talent is one thing; retaining it is quite another.

For companies hoping to boost office morale as another bout of working from home looms, communicating effectively, offering support to all staff and providing effective virtual tools will continue to be key objectives in 2022.