The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week covers a wide range of topics including the Ukraine war, climate change and new technologies. But one issue which is seemingly drawing more debate than others is hybrid working and shorter work weeks.
Speakers at the conference have spoken for and against hybrid work weeks, with much of the concern focusing on how working from home – or for only four days a week – could impact productivity and workplace dynamics.
Employers want their teams back together in the office and employees want the same, but not all of the time.
However, the previous ‘weekday, nine-to-five, in the office’ paradigm appears to be a relic of the past. Many workers now prefer a hybrid arrangement that gives them the flexibility to work remotely for at least part of the week.
Working from home can poison office relations because communicating virtually requires far more empathy than meeting a person in real life, said Christian Ulbrich, chief executive of the real estate group Jones Lang LaSalle.
Ulbrich added that one reason staff should return to the office at least three days a week is that “conflicts are much easier resolved when people are together”. He said he had learned from experience that it is easy to upset people accidentally on video calls.
However, labour experts at Davos also highlighted how flexible work can help retain talent and lead to greater productivity and well-being in the workforce.
“The flexibility people want most at work is not choices about where they work, it’s when and how much they work,” said Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
After the United Arab Emirates introduced a shorter workweek earlier this year, around 70% of employees reported working more efficiently and spending more time with their families, while there was a 55% reduction in absentees, according to the country’s minister for government development and the future.
Many of the benefits of reimagining how, when, and where work gets done have been discussed extensively: lower real estate costs for companies, as well as less need for travel, and greater schedule and location flexibility, for individuals, said global recruitment firm Willis Towers Watson.
However, it noted that there is much less debate about how new work models will also reshape an organisation’s risk profile, including:
- Increased cybersecurity risks,
- Increased business disruption;
- An increase in errors, omissions and product liabilities cases.
- Less clear responsibilities in relation to remote and flexible working conditions
- Working anywhere could increase the risk of non-compliance with labour and tax laws.
A significant proportion of employers say they will require employees to be back in the office full time, said Mark Edward Rose chief executive of real estate company Avison Young.
The current focus of this debate essentially boils down to ’employee quality of life versus corporate productivity’, he said. He noted, however, that this overlooks something crucial to harnessing the power and potential of a workforce: hybrid working can be a critical enabler of workplace diversity, equity and inclusion.
“For those of us who believe that DE&I is non-negotiable, attracting diverse talent is a critical priority. This is where the hybrid work model comes into its own. This isn’t just about preferences or performance; the hybrid work model, when executed properly, specifically enables us to access talent within certain target groups.”
He added that a hybrid working model is critical to attracting a diverse workforce, including three groups in particular: working parents, people with varying health needs, and those impacted by the rising cost of living.
“Flexible work practices, including home working, have been an option for many years, but they have been given a huge stimulus by the recent pandemic.
“The scepticism around ‘shirking from home’ and the stigma often attached to those with alternative work patterns have largely disappeared. Managers have learned how to effectively lead and co-ordinate remote teams. Technology has advanced and been more widely adopted such that hardware and software solutions to support flexible working have become the norm.”
With further reporting by Bloomberg.