The UK, and other countries with a comprehensive Covid-19 vaccination rollout, are now in a far better position than they were a year ago. At the start of 2021 the news that vaccines were available was just a few weeks old – there was hope, but not many had already received their jabs.
The start of 2022 is more positive. Itâ€™s true there are recurring variants that are delaying a complete return to normal, but widespread vaccination has meant that fewer people are suffering serious consequences.
The issue for executives now is how to plot a path to normality. There are some companies that are intent on returning all their employees to the office. Investment banks like Goldman Sachs are a good example. The argument is that younger employees learn about their job using an apprentice system that is very hard to transfer to a hybrid or online model.
But even the companies that are focused on a return to a pre-pandemic normal in the office are finding it difficult. Many of the investment banks are currently asking their employees to stay at home because of the omicron variant. The return to normal is uncertain and stuttering because after omicron subsides, who can predict when we might see the pi, rho, or sigma variants?
It is very unlikely that lockdowns will return. Vaccination has dramatically reduced the rate of death and hospitalisation, but Covid is still out there. People are becoming ill and even those that are asymptomatic or with mild symptoms are asked to isolate so they donâ€™t pass it on further. Many companies have been struggling because vital employees are isolating at home – you canâ€™t drive a train or bus remotely.
Worker shortages, self-isolation, and the uncertainty of how dangerous any new variants might be have created an uncertain situation. Executives that are keen to establish some normality at work are essentially gambling on the future of their business if they make very rigid decisions that are difficult to unwind. Flexibility will be an essential component of business strategy in 2022 – not a dogmatic return to â€˜normalityâ€™.
The industry analyst Gartner published a short video recently that explains some of the issues around this strategic uncertainty. The idea of a return to 2019 standards for work location is now very difficult to support for several reasons:
- 75% of knowledge workers now want flexibility in where they work
- Working from home can also create the opportunity for asynchronous work – moving away from a meeting and presenteeism culture and focusing on what a team delivers, rather than just time in the office
- Compliance and security have been proven to work in a distributed work environment – precisely because so many companies were forced to make it work during the early stages of the pandemic
The Gartner analysis suggests that organisations seeking future success will invest in changing how their employees deliver services – both in terms of their working location and how they can work in both synchronous or asynchronous teams.
This should now be clear to every corporate leader. Nobody can run a company where they are constantly gambling on whether the office can be used or not. Even the banks and other companies that have tried hard to return to â€˜normalâ€™ have seen their plans constantly changing as new variants emerge.
The only safe and secure way forward is to follow the Gartner advice. Think carefully about where your employees are located and how they are working. Working from home should be possible for everyone in a job where it is possible, even if your employees split their time between home and the office.
With this flexibility, itâ€™s easy to manage the uncertainty of a new variant just by asking everyone to stay at home. When the danger subsides, some of the team may want to use the office, some may prefer to stay working from home.
Itâ€™s time to consider a work from home strategy as an integral part of future business resilience – not just an emergency response to a single pandemic. Building flexibility and resilience into your business by embracing more flexible work locations is how companies will survive and thrive in the 2020s. WFH is an integral part of the post-pandemic new normal.