No Covid, still hybrid

While infections have risen lately due to a couple of pesky subvariants, it certainly feels like Covid has gone away for good. Mask-wearers are very much in the minority now, people have started to stand a little closer to each other in queues, and the first Glastonbury in three years happened this summer. It is quite a departure from the tiered system that lead into summer 2020 (thankfully).

We (office workers) are still working from home though. The great change in lifestyle that was at first temporary, then looked a bit more permanent, is now looking like a new normal that is here to stay. While this mainly affects office-based work, the number of people with such jobs means that the direct and knock-on effects of the hybrid lifestyle are significant.

Back in February of this year, I collected my thoughts on hybrid life and what it meant for business, employees, and the country in general. That blog was written after a Christmas period that was somewhat disrupted by the Omicron variant – there was no official lockdown, but festive parties were called off because people wanted to remain Covid-free for the holidays. 6 months post-NYE 2021 and things feel quite different. It feels as if we are in the post-Covid era and the new normal is like the old normal, but with a few tweaks.

So what has changed?

(Some) firms toughen up

With working from home normalised by the pandemic, firms began hiring far and wide because why not? Skills are in demand and people can do the job from wherever! At the time, since all employees were forced to WFH, it made sense to pay new hires an equivalent salary. Now though, with office collaboration perfectly safe – and beneficial to company prospects – it begs the question why someone who comes into the office should be paid the same as someone who does not.

In May, it was reported that law firm Stephenson Harwood would pay remote staff 20% less than those that hybrid-worked from the office. The firm explained how they had recruited workers from outside London and the lower wage reflected the saving made from not commuting to the capital. Google, in the US, also suggested that there may be pay cuts for employees that opted to stay home, with (what appears to be) a mandatory hybrid model in place since April 2022 for the majority of Googlers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told staff of a similar arrangement at the height of the pandemic.

These events were no doubt applauded by Jacob Rees Mogg who has been lambasting civil servants for not returning to their desks. To make his point, he left notes on desks that read “sorry you were out when I visited”.

A survey by the CIPD, reported by The Telegraph in June, found that only one in ten companies plan to reduce pay or benefits for WFH-ers, with the CIPD’s head of public policy Ben Willmott stating that employers must recognise “there are potential ethical and legal risks in this approach” and that it could “make it harder to recruit or retain staff if people working remotely are valued and rewarded less than those who have to attend their organisation’s workplace.”

Reykjavik, Iceland

The nomad life

The Guardian wrote in March 2022 how the pandemic locked us down but freed many from the confines of their offices. I knew people during the pandemic who upped sticks from London and moved to more tranquil settings, working from their laptop in their new environs. The phenomenon has continued. I know someone currently holed up on the west coast of Ireland, punching code into a laptop and enjoying the expansive views. Bermuda, Iceland, Malta, and Barbados have all launched their own visa/welcome stamp/work from X certificate that allows foreign nationals to pitch up, pay a fee, and work for a company based in another country.

In August 2021, Ocado Group – the tech firm behind the online grocer – announced that staff could now work from abroad for one month of the year. Chief People Officer, Claire Ainscough, said “balance and choice” were the main reasons for the move. It would, for instance, allow those with relatives abroad to see their family without taking a big chunk of holiday to do it.

We can’t say that we have any digital nomads at Hamilton Blake – not yet anyway. Conor did work from home for a bit to avoid roadworks on his commute, but we’re not sure that counts!

Critical mass

Those rows of empty civil service desks recall the experience of a close contact of mine. Working for a company of around 150 employees, spread across two sites, he says that since the pandemic there are faces you see a lot, and faces you never see. He terms the latter ‘ghost employees’.

“It’s like we haven’t reached the critical mass required to get people in more. When lots of people do come in on a rare occasion there’s a buzz and it’s fun, but there is no guarantee of that buzz being there each week, so people are less incentivised to come in. You see the same faces over and over again. Some days you see no-one and it’s eerie!”

It is not too much of a stretch to theorise that a regular guaranteed number of people in-office is a more reliable pull factor than random numbers each day, where an employee could be the only one in the building/department! It poses the question; can you be too flexible in your approach?

Beep beep, beep beep, yeah!

The 4-day week

While the idea existed pre-Covid, arguably the increased flexibility granted to employees by hybrid working makes it easier to imagine the work week condensed into four days. As of summer 2022, more than 3,300 employees at 70 UK companies were trialling a four-day work week based on the 100-80-100 model – 100% pay, for 80% of the hours, for maintaining 100% productivity.

Post-pandemic, firms are realising that “the new frontier for competition is quality of life,” nonprofit group 4 Day Week Global’s CEO Joe O’Connor told the Guardian. “Reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge.”

The trial will measure the effect on employee wellbeing, productivity, gender equality and the environment. If positive, the results may persuade many firms to trial their own four-day weeks, mirroring the switch from six days to five – often first accredited to Henry Ford – that became the norm in the 20th century.

Closer to home

The main difference for Hamilton Blake post-pandemic is the continuation of video meetings, allowing us to meet more flexibly with clients. It also means we can take on business further afield. In-person meets do happen, but they are no longer the norm, with all parties saving time and money by not travelling.

The future

The future of work likely includes the ‘metaverse’. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, have been working on a virtual world where people can interact with each other as 3D avatars. It’s pretty sci-fi-esque, but I think this may have advantages over video calls, fostering some interactions that are lost when interacting via the video screen window.

We’ll revisit this topic in 2023 – it will be interesting to see how things have developed further!