Back to the office? The rules of work have changed - ignore that and we all lose out

Comment: Tech workers have spoken, loud and clear - the five-day office week is over. Employers who refuse to change will ruin it for everyone.

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Demand for technology professionals is booming, yet swathes of the UK workforce lack even basic digital skills.

Image: Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

Working from home was once a coveted privilege amongst office workers who slogged away the hours of 9-5 behind a desk, yet these past 14-odd months have driven home the age-old adage that too much of a good thing is bad for you.

While many of us by this point crave in-person interaction with our colleagues – not to mention a change of scenery from our thoroughly uninspiring home workspaces – employees have made it clear that the old ways of working are done.

Take a recent survey by Robert Half, for example, which found that as many as one in three remote workers may quit if asked to return to the office full-time. Remote working during a pandemic might have been a colossal drag, but employees clearly have an appetite for flexibility on a more holistic level. 

These findings aren't a one-off. Surveys from LiveCareer and professional network Blind uncovered similar return-to-office attitudes, with around one-third of professionals saying they would change jobs if forced to give up remote working. The findings are clearly no fluke, and bosses who think they know better, probably don't.

The good news for workers is that their new expectations of work reflect a changing balance to the employer-employee relationship.

Traditionally, employees have found themselves at the mercy of whoever pays their salary as to where and when they work. But there is mounting evidence that skilled workers – particularly developers and IT professionals, who now rank remote working as one of their biggest career must-haves – will find themselves with considerably more leverage in the post-pandemic jobs market.

Technology professionals were already in high demand before the events of 2020 unfolded on an unsuspecting world. But the rapid, cross-industry digitalization that followed made IT skills akin to gold dust as businesses scrambled to stay on top of a crumbling economy. After the rapid and reactive digital transformation induced by 2020, IT leaders will be looking towards a period of long-term investment and fine-tuning in 2021 and beyond, making tech professionals amongst the most sought-after staff on the market.

SEE: A better future of work is coming, but only if we make the right choices now (TechRepublic)

Recruiters are already feeling the pinch. A survey in January found that getting hold of software developers and other IT professionals will present the biggest challenge for hiring managers in 2021 , owing to the massive demand for their skillsets. Couple this with data pointing to a looming tech skills crisis , and the outlook looks increasingly desperate.

The problem may be more urgent than some realize. After a year muddied by burnout, frustration and a lack of motivation, employees are feeling flighty. Research published by Personio in May indicated that as many as 38% of workers are planning to change jobs in the next 6-12 months; a figure that rises to 58% amongst technology and IT professionals.

If these figures are to be believed, employers need to figure out what they need to do to prevent the loss of tech talent at a time when many are investing heavily in digital transformation programmes. If they're serious about attracting and retaining the best the tech industry has to offer – not to mention maintaining the gains they've made in their digital roadmaps over the past year – they'll have to let go of their old ways and embrace 2021's biggest buzzword: hybrid.

On its surface, the hybrid model promises the best of both worlds, combining the freedom to work remotely for two to three days of the week, and from an office or workplace on the remaining days.

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

We've seen that workers value the workplace as a space they can connect with colleagues and get work done which, for some reason or other, they're unable to do at home. At the same time, we know that being able to work from home gives employees the flexibility to fit life around their jobs, as well as sparing them a daily, and often expensive, commute to and from the office.

A balanced approach, which takes the needs of staff into account as well as the needs of business, therefore seems the wisest way to keep staff on board – and the organization moving forwards.

While the move to hybrid might be a gamble, the biggest losers from the great reimagining of work will be the organizations that refuse to take on the lessons of the past year. Not only are they denying staff the chance to move to a happier and more flexible model of work, but they're setting themselves up for failure: if they fail to understand their staff this badly, how can they ever expect to understand their customers?

The question for bosses who think the only way to get things done properly is to return to the old way of doing things is simple: What will you do instead to make your employees stick around? Because, after a year that has made freedom, wellbeing and work-life balance our most prized commodities, a bigger pay packet and an office pool table may no longer cut it.

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