Tech Updates

Even Google agrees the old days of office life are done

The great enforced global experiment in working from home is coming to an end, as vaccines, the Omicron variant, and new therapeutic drugs bring the COVID-19 crisis under control.

But a voluntary experiment has begun, as organizations navigate the new landscape of hybrid work, combining the best elements of remote work with time in the office.

Yes, there is some push for a “return to normal” and getting workers back into offices. But ideas such as food vouchers and parking discounts are mostly being proposed by city councils and CBD businesses keen to get their old customers back.

A wide range of surveys over the past 18 months show most employees and increasingly employers have no desire to return to commuting five days a week.

The seismic shift in employer attitudes is signaled by Google, long a fierce opponent of working from home.

Last week the company told employees they must return to the office from early April – but only for three days a week.

That’s still way more than tech companies such as Australia’s Atlassian, which expects workers to come into the office just four days a year, but it is a far cry from its pre-pandemic resistance to remote work.

Hybrid work is here to stay. Employers will either embrace the change or find themselves being left behind.

Gains in productivity

Google began – under pressure – to soften its opposition to remote work in 2020. In December of that year chief executive Sundar Pichai told employees:

We are testing a hypothesis that a flexible work model will lead to greater productivity, collaboration, and well-being.

Its chief concern has been protecting the social capital that springs from physical proximity – and also perhaps with keeping employers under surveillance.

But longstanding (and widespread) management concerns that employees working from home would lower productivity have proven unfounded.

Even before the pandemic, there was good research showing no productivity penalty from remote working – the opposite, in fact.

For example, a 2014 randomized trial involving about 250 Shanghai call center workers found working from home associated with 13% more productivity. This comprised a 9% gain from working more minutes per shift – due perhaps to fewer interruptions – and a 4% gain from making more calls per minute – attributed to a quieter, more comfortable working environment.

Research in the past two years supports these findings.

Harvard Business School professor Raj Choudury and colleagues published research in October 2020 that found allowing employees to work wherever they like led to a 4.4% increase in output.

In April 2021, Stanford University economist Nick Bloom and colleagues calculated the shift to remote working resulted in a 5% productivity boost. Though their working paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, was not peer-reviewed, it was based on surveying 30,000 American workers, which is a decent sample size.

Our relationship with work has changed

There are good reasons most of us don’t want to go back to the old normal. It just wasn’t that great.

While working from home can bring challenges of other kinds, not least the ability to switch off and stop working when work is done, working in an office can increase stress, lower mood, and reduce productivity.

My own research has measured the effects of typical open-plan office noises, finding a 25% increase in negative mood even after a short exposure time.

Then there’s the time spent commuting. Not having to go into the office every day frees up hours of time to do other things. Particularly in winter, it’s nice to not have to leave and arrive home in the dark.

Preferred number of days working at home, by occupation