Exodus (Back) to the Office: Is WFH Really Coming to an End?

Midway through 2023, the whispers began to circulate: In America, they’re making everyone go back to the office. Nearly four years on from Covid, businesses in the United States seemed to be mounting a pushback against remote and hybrid working, eager to resume the pre-pandemic status quo of “bums in seats” at the office. Now that work-from-home arrangements (WFH) had finally made possible a realistic work-life balance for thousands of Kiwis, the idea sent chills down the spines of anyone accustomed to skipping their twice-daily commute in favor of walking the dog, working out or simply managing the school run with a few less tears. 

But are Americans and other workers around the globe really being forced to return to chin wags at the water cooler and adhering to traditional office hours? And what does this mean for New Zealand businesses and employees?

Unsurprisingly, data from Stats NZ (as well as from the United States, Canada, Australia, and the UK) show that the number of people working exclusively from home has gone down since Covid. In Australia, recent percentage drops are on the small side (37% of people regularly worked from home in 2023, compared to 40% in 2021), while American magazine USA Today reports that Americans worked 25% of their days from home in 2023, compared to 60% in 2020.

Still, the number of people who work remotely for at least part of the week is significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels, and in New Zealand, that number seems to be holding firm. According to the latest Household Labour Force Survey, around 3 in 10 Kiwis worked from home at least part of the week in the December quarter of 2023, a proportion that has been more or less steady since March 2022. Of those people, 88.3% usually worked from home at least some of the time – and the number of people who worked from home and usually did so went up by over 7%. Almost a quarter of New Zealand businesses (23%) report that the past two years have led to giving their employees more choice over where to work, with the financial and insurance industries (followed by telcos and professional, scientific or technical services) leading the charge.

Simply put, the rumours of the death of remote working have been greatly exaggerated.

“Now that we’ve got a taste of it, it’s going to be the big elephant in the room for the rest of time,” says Mela Lush, founder of Kiwi employment community Jobs for Mums (https://www.jobsformums.co.nz). Mela, a solo mum of two young children, founded the family-friendly jobsite to meet the needs of parents who struggle to balance the demands of modern life with traditional 9-5 working arrangements. Through partnerships with employers of all sizes, from Spark and Fonterra to local-area construction and gardening businesses, Jobs of Mum advertises opportunities that are flexible and often part-time.  

“The way we’re working isn’t working for families and parents,” she says. “We started the 9-5 workday when women were the home providers of the family, nurturing the family, and the other partner would go outside the home to earn a living. But fast forward to today, and that’s not an option. Both parents have to work, and it’s difficult when the way we live isn’t set up to facilitate that.”

Women in particular, Mela points out, are negatively impacted by a lack of flexibility in working arrangements, especially with advances in artificial intelligence (AI). “What we know is that about 40-160 million worldwide are going to need transitional occupation, and that’s as many as 105,000 New Zealand women,” she says, citing the Global Women Diversity and Inclusion Report 2023. “AI is going to disproportionately affect roles that are repetitive, like bookkeeping, basic customer service, and administration, so it’s already going to be impacting more women because those are the roles that women tend to gravitate towards, because of that flexibility arc. Women are already disadvantaged because we’ve got the 80% gender pay gap attributed to the motherhood penalty. So it’s really imperative that we start thinking and learning what’s next for us as a society and as an economy.”

The solution, she says, is in seizing the opportunity presented by Covid’s embrace of WFH to create a new work model that includes flexibility as standard. Her perspective matches up with what experts in the Unites States predict for the future of work; according to USA Today, the return-to-office movement died in 2023, and employers need to find a way to make hybrid working the new norm. The benefits to businesses, Mela says, are well worth the effort.

“We know that flexibility is the number one motivator for women with children, and flexibility is a huge motivator for anyone anywhere – nine times out of ten, it will be more important than pay. We also know that diversity and inclusion drives productivity, and if you don’t advertise flexible roles, you only attract the same types of people. So offering flexibility is a great way to attract talent — you just have to make sure you’ve hired the right people in the organisation to lead change for remote work forces.”

Common concerns, such as ensuring productivity when WFH workers have easy access to Netflix and naptime, are best addressed by looking at leadership practices, says Mela, rather than micromanaging employees.

“When people say, ‘What about productivity?’, there are so many strategies and tools to mitigate that in an organisation. Or ‘We need the team in the office to do that.’ Is that true? The data is not suggesting that anyone who is in the office is more productive than anyone who isn’t. It’s really all about effective leadership. It’s not about your people, it’s about the leaders that you have in place and how good are they at managing expectations, communicating their expectations, and monitoring progress. And managing the need to control and watch people. People can be at the office and do bugger all, too.”

Roundabout Magazine

This article was published in Roundabout Magazine Issue 205 (March 2024).

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