Since the pandemic outbreak over a year ago, countless organisations and individuals have discussed the ‘return to normal’: the return to our offices and workplaces, and the return to life as it was before Covid-19. But what we have learned over the last year is that nothing of this is trivial, and numerous terms have been coined to describe ‘the new normal’ or even ‘never normal’, where we need to anticipate constant change.
Over the past few weeks and months, many large organisations have released their return-to-work policies, and they differ tremendously. Some ask all their employees to return to the office. Others allow their employees to work flexibly and spend one or more days at home, while a third major trend is to allow complete freedom in flexible working and spend as much time as one wants from the home office.
Microsoft, for instance, released a very comprehensive and informative guide on the company’s pandemic response and hybrid workplace for its employees. It focuses on three main areas: work site, workplace and work hours, describing the physical space, geographic location, and days of work for any individual. Microsoft describes the hybrid workplace as being built on a commitment to flexibility that welcomes diverse workstyles, relies on learning and mindset shifts, considers business and individual needs, and is built on trust and technology. It can be argued that no organisation has managed the hybrid workplace transition better than Microsoft, enabling all its employees to work flexibly in every respect, powered to a large extent by Microsoft Teams.
Of course, most other non-service-based organisations have also coped exceptionally well with enabling flexible work. This is why strict return-to-the-office directives are often challenging to understand and make little sense. One would think that happy, healthy, safe, and productive workers would be more critical to business success than the requirement to be in the office.
And here we are at a cornerstone of return-to-work policies and requirements. Fisher Philips, one of the largest US law firms in the areas of labour, employment, civil rights, employee benefits, and immigration law, maintains a Covid-19 Employment Litigation Tracker and Insights dashboard that shows cases that were a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic and are traditional employee versus employer cases. By June 2021, the dashboard held information on more than 2,600 cases, and the most common case type was ‘Remote Work/Leave conflicts’. These conflicts exist because the employer did not sufficiently enable or allow employees to work from home to stay safe and healthy.
Once worldwide government waivers and recommendations to work from home end, it will be the employer’s responsibility to compensate for the loss of life or any other chronic illness caused by Covid-19 in the workplace. The responsibility will also include transport to and from the workplace. Therefore, companies requiring employees to commute to work must also ensure that transportation to and from the worksite is safe. This safety, and the liabilities related, may result in a wave of predictable but extreme insurance claims and settlements. And no organisation wants this to happen.
It is easy to believe that many large firms are championing going back to the office because they are heavily invested in commercial property. Companies that own their large buildings do not want them empty. They need people to occupy offices, otherwise they risk the financial health of their business as the property becomes a burden rather than an asset. It is also likely that once commercial debt portfolios have been structured, even those with the most expensive properties will consider more flexible working again.
Today, as we see all these company-provided directions, guides and policies differ tremendously, it is difficult to predict the longer-term ‘new normal’ and the ways people will work. However, what is easy to predict is that Microsoft Teams will continue to be the remote workers’ primary tool, and that working from any location will be prevalent. As workers will be in a constant rotation of dynamically working from their home and the office, it is our job as a software supplier to ensure this ‘new normal’ is as seamless and straightforward as possible.
At the end of the day, the only thing we know is that we don’t know what the future holds. However, we can look at trends and businesses’ behaviour to understand that remote work will continue to rise and we should enable it for as many people as possible.
Anders Løkke is the senior director of strategic alliances at Pexip
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.
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