Where will Switzerland be working after the COVID-19 pandemic?

As the coronavirus pandemic hit, companies turned to remote working as an experiment – unplanned, but largely successful. Now, many employees want to stay in their home office at least part of their working time. How should companies respond?

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us more about viruses, face coverings and reproduction numbers than we previously knew – or perhaps ever wanted to know. And the business world has been on a similar learning curve as it has explored remote working and home office. Many employees had little experience of working from home and digital meetings before COVID-19, but in March 2020, a majority had to get to grips with new ways of working virtually overnight.

Home office is here to stay

In the spring of 2020, we demonstrated that the pandemic was fuelling the trend towards working in home office. Over recent years, the proportion of employees working from home for at least half a day a week has risen by about one percentage point a year, from 18 per cent in 2013 to 24 per cent in 2018. The start of the pandemic saw this figure doubling to about half of respondents. But now that there is finally light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, it is time to ask: what is the future of home office?

A recent representative online survey conducted by Deloitte Switzerland of 2,000 16- to 64-year-olds living in Switzerland shows what would change if individuals could choose where they preferred to work. Of those whose job can be done from home, the largest group (37%) would prefer to work in home office for at least half of the working time. Strikingly, one in four (26%) would prefer to work solely from home, and only around one in eight (12%) would prefer to return to the pre-pandemic model and work solely in the office. Home office is clearly here to stay.

How would you like to work in the future if you had the choice?

Preference of home office linked with perceptions of productivity

There are a number of reasons why working from home is popular: for example, employees no longer have long commutes to work, have greater flexibility in organising their time and are able to work in the comfort of their own home. The findings of our survey also show that almost half of all employees (47%) believe they work more productively from home than in the office. Only around one in six (16%) report that they are less productive when working in home office. There is also a direct correlation between respondents’ self-assessment of their productivity and their preference for working from home: the more productive they believe they are when working in home office, the more working time they would like to spend doing so. However, it should be noted that employees’ self-assessment could be somewhat biased and may therefore not provide a fully accurate picture.

How productive do you think you currently are when working from home?

However, there are some downsides to working in home office: almost half of respondents (44%) report that a lack of interaction with colleagues is one of the major challenges. And while employees are missing the exchange with co-workers, they also report that working from home leads to distractions by partners, children and others with whom they live (28%). Meanwhile, the human factor is not the only issue home office raises: other challenges include not having the right equipment (22%) and a shortage of space (20%). These results are similar to the findings of our survey a year ago.

Balance, flexibility and alignment are crucial

These findings point to a number of conclusions for companies. First, businesses need to determine the right balance between remote working and physical presence in the office. Before the current legal obligation to work in home office where possible, around one-quarter of employers (26%) were reluctant to have staff work in home office or actually refused such requests. That now has to change. With employees trickling back to offices, companies should view the coming months as a transitional phase to experiment with the longer-term balance between remote working and physical presence. It may well be that employees’ need for personal contact and interaction with colleagues will at times be greater than their concerns about safety and infection, while at other times the opposite may be true.

Second, the combination of remote working with a physical presence in the office enables companies to develop new working models and make employment more accessible to certain population groups. For example, a flexible model that involves working from home and office-based work could make it easier for employees with children to combine work with childcare responsibilities. Other groups, such as those with restricted mobility, might also benefit from spending more time working from home. Making working arrangements more flexible would support current initiatives by companies to be more inclusive and also expand the pool of potential employees. Both sides would stand to gain: employees could more easily pursue gainful employment, while employers would have a wider pool of talent to draw on to tackle skill shortages.

Third, companies should move away from a workforce management model based on physical presence at the workplace and towards a model based on alignment. This means that employees know the over-arching goal and direction of the organisation and their role within it – and that is true whether they are taking part in a meeting at company headquarters, videoconferencing from their kitchen table or using their holiday home for some focused thinking. In fact, our survey shows that almost half of respondents (46%) working remotely are doing so not just from their own home but also from other spaces, such as a holiday home, a friend’s or family member’s home, or a co-working space. This is particularly true for younger employees. It is therefore clear that terms such as ‘home office’ and ‘working from home’ do not accurately reflect the phenomenon that we are observing. Companies should not see their employees simply as ‘remote’ workers, either. Instead, the future lies in ‘distributed work’ – employees operating from any location and being aligned on shared goals, an open culture and clear direction.

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