Working from home. Zoom calls. Virtual commutes. For many, our experience of work has changed drastically over the past 14 months – and not all for the better.

Remote working has been a necessary response to the challenges of COVID-19 that has allowed many of those capable of performing their job at home to stay employed as workplaces shut their doors to the pandemic.

It’s been a far from perfect transition, but our new, digitally enabled work selves are at least being promised a future in which we have greater say over how and where we do our jobs – or so the hype around ‘hybrid’ work leads us to believe.

However, among the prospects of zero-commute times and potentially fewer opportunities to bump into that particularly annoying colleague, the ability to split our work between the office and our homes raises a number of tricky questions for businesses.

How, for example, do employers build and maintain corporate culture when the office is no longer the epicentre of the working day? Equally, how do they manage the experience of the remote working haves and have-nots so that employees, regardless of whether they have the technical or practical resources to work remotely, can also benefit from the promises of flexible working?

This is something that employers need to think about when devising their hybrid strategy, says Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

“The danger is, at the moment we know employers are disproportionately focused on optimizing home- and hybrid-working arrangements, and that their eye is off the ball when it comes to flexible hours,” Willmott tells TechRepublic.

SEE: The future of work: Tools and strategies for the digital workplace (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“That’s a risk if you have this two-tier workforce where people who are able to work from home, in a hybrid way, benefit from quite a lot of flexibility; and those people who have to attend the physical workplace have very little.”

Most businesses have showed enthusiasm – or at least, acceptance – for the idea of giving office-based workers freedom to work remotely more often in future.

Certainly, the data appears to support this view – and there’s a lot of it. According to research by the CIPD in February, for example, 63% of employers plan to introduce or expand a combination of remote and on-site working.

But with the world now beginning to unlock, businesses need to get a handle on how they will manage these new ways of working in the long-term, particularly if much of the workforce is going to be highly distributed.

This encompasses far more than just a consideration of whether or not employees are working from home or in an office, says Willmott. “I think [employers] have to really think about a whole range of issues when they’re thinking about how they’re going to arrange or adapt to work in the future,” he says.

“How do we optimize opportunities for collaboration and utilizing the workplace in as optimal a way as possible, for as many people as possible?”

The technology band-aid

Technology has offered an intermediary solution for mass remote working for the past year, but apps and software platforms aren’t the all-encompassing answer to a permanent change in how we work.

There’s also the fact to consider that, while technology has and does make remote working possible, it’s also very much tested our limits of how much digital engagement we can bear when life limits other forms of escapism.

Caroline Walsh, vice president of Gartner’s human resources division, often sees organizations turning to tech as the golden bullet for their remote-working requirements, without pausing to consider the impact on employees whose batteries are already drained.

“We found that over the past year, 84% of HR leaders introduced new tools for virtual meetings,” Walsh tells TechRepublic.

“They’re bringing in these new tools, they’re implementing new technology, and they’re also increasing their expectations for manager/employee check-ins, to monitor productivity.

“What we’ve found is that this absolutely contributes to employee fatigue.”

Employees in the remote world are already more likely to fall prey to digital distractions or virtual overload, and it’s easy to see why: not only are we being forced to sit through more video meetings than ever before – leading to a form of digital burnout commonly referred to as ‘Zoom fatigue’ – but our work and home lives have increasingly morphed into one.

SEE: Research: Video conferencing tools and cloud-based solutions dominate digital workspaces; VPN and VDI less popular with SMBs (TechRepublic Premium)

On top of that, more employers are beginning to size up the promised advantages of productivity monitoring software and other forms of performance stock-taking tools.

Contrary to their intended purposes, these kinds of tools are more likely to exacerbate feelings of stress, fatigue and apathy amongst employees, suggests Willmott.

“There is published research that shows that if people feel that they are excessively monitored, or under excessive surveillance in the workplace, it increases their likelihood to feel that they are stressed. It reduces their job quality, they’re more likely to want to leave the organization, and it reduces their organizational commitment,” he says.

“The last thing we want to do is move from concerns over presenteeism in the physical workplace, to concerns over presenteeism in the digital workplace.”

Regardless, many organizations still look to the latest shiny thing as the answer for any perceived break in their remote-working chain. “We see that quick run to technology with the belief that an investment is going to fix the problem,” says Walsh.

“But without really addressing some of those underlying concerns, I worry that organizations who run to the next technology without really thinking about what might be causing that fatigue, and what might be causing some of that mental, or emotional, or physical wellbeing challenges, are going to be disappointed with those investments.”

Long live the office?

Fortunately, most employers appear to be attuned to the fact that prioritizing the wellbeing of their workforce is a key determiner of job satisfaction, productivity, and retaining top talent.

Both Walsh and Wilmott believe that a renewed focus on employees’ needs could be what defines the post-pandemic experience of work. According to Walsh, this means paying greater attention to how work fits into and around employees’ lives as a whole, as opposed to simply what happens within the hours of 9-5.

It also means employees working with their managers and their teams to design ways of working that allow them to be most productive. “A few years ago, we saw employee experience really being everything that happened in the office, and everything that happened from when the individual walked into the office to when they left at the end of the day,” Walsh says.

“Now, as organizations have begun to see that work-life and whole-life are intertwined, we’re really beginning to see the employee experience encompassing much more than the office. Now it means the home where work gets done, but it also means the experience that employees have in doing their work.”

Office space will also need a considerable re-think; not just in its layout, but how it can best be utilized for a hybrid workforce.

SEE: Life after lockdown: Your office job will never be the same – here’s what to expect (ZDNet)

According to Walsh, some organizations are already drafting up strict guidelines around what office space should be used for, versus the tasks that should be performed remotely.

Primarily, the office will be seen more as a hub for team-building and collaboration, meanwhile individual and ‘focus’ work is more likely to take place at home.

Still, with offices having historically formed the centre point of workplace culture, this will require some creative thinking from organizational departments. “This is an area where I think we’re going to see real advantages to more progressive, creative organizations who are able to think about how to use space to build culture,” Walsh says.

“We’re seeing a partnership between real estate, HR and IT, who are the movers who are looking to solve that problem.”

Willmott points out that hybrid-working policies shouldn’t just be focused on where people are able to work, but also how much control employees have over their jobs and opportunities to develop and progress, particularly as the shift to remote working changes the nature of certain roles.

“Employers really need to maximize the potential from online learning and development so that people have the opportunity to develop the skills that they need as their jobs adapt, or when their jobs adapt,” he says.

“Or, if organizations are investing technology in a way that is changing the way that products or services are designed, produced, or delivered, then they need to ensure that they are training staff at the same time, so that they have the ability to facilitate that.”

Flexibility in employees’ working hours also need to be addressed, particularly for those employees who aren’t able to work remotely. “We know that there’s significant unmet demand for these flexible-working arrangements,” says Willmott.

“For those people who can’t work from home because of the nature of their job, then employers are really going to have to put more effort on flexibility – things like flexi-time or compressed hours, or job-sharing or part-time working.”

Keeping tech workers happy

It sounds like an almost idealistic vision of work, particularly for those who have spent the majority of their careers tied to a desk with little say over how they approach or structure their role. But evidence increasingly suggests that those businesses who do offer greater flexibility, including the ability to work remotely, are likely to attract and retain the most-skilled workers.

Tech workers in particular are getting more choosey about where they work. After a year of rapid digital transformation across industries, demand for professionals with cloud, cybersecurity and software development skills are peaking. Couple that with the fact that tech workers increasingly want to work remotely, and will potentially change roles if it enables them to do so, and it stands to reason that flexible-working policies are crucial to enticing top digital professionals.

However businesses pursue their agendas, Wilmott and Walsh both warn that organizations risk introducing further inequalities if they don’t manage the move to hybrid delicately.

For workers whose roles are primarily on-site, Walsh says there is room for organizations to explore how they can offer at least some of the benefits enjoyed by those who can work remotely. “There are positions, there are skillsets and there are roles that we previously thought had to be on-site. But are there parts of the role that can be pushed to remote?” she says.

Walsh believes the issue of a divide between those for whom flexibility is available and those for whom it is not will be a challenge for businesses in the months to come. Even so, her outlook is optimistic overall. “My general outlook is hopeful, but cautiously hopeful,” she says.

“I’m hopeful because we are at a moment where there is more opportunity and really more imperative than ever before to design flexible, employee-centric ways of working. And we have the technology, we have the tools, so all of that is possible.”