Are Flexible Work Arrangements The New Normal?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to work from home, at least temporarily. And with many employers still hesitant to reopen their offices until a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, flexible work arrangements are now becoming a permanent option.

Tech giants Amazon and Google have announced that they will be allowing their employees to work from home for the rest of the year. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that he expects half of his employees to work remotely for the next five to ten years, while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told staff in an email that they can continue working from home “forever” if they wish to do so.

Some companies, meanwhile, are pushing for shorter workweeks.

In 2019, Microsoft Japan tested out a four-day workweek to great success, resulting in a 40% boost in productivity. As its offices start to reopen, the company now has in place what it calls a “hybrid workplace strategy.” Working from home also remains an option for most employees until October of 2020, according to a company spokesperson.

This massive shift towards working remotely and spending less time in the office is now causing companies like Mastercard to consider consolidating offices to save on costs. Facebook, meanwhile, has plans to open working “hubs” in places like Denver, Dallas, and Atlanta, and will focus on finding new hires in areas close to its existing offices, zeroing in on places like Portland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

Though flexible working isn’t exactly a new concept, the pandemic has led to a surge in the number of people experiencing its benefits firsthand. It has also earned global praise from human resources experts and government officials in recent months.

Alin Abraham, a consultant based in Singapore, said that flexible working would provide improved work-life balance for those who need it the most, including part-time students and people looking after young children or the elderly.

In May of 2020, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proposed having shorter workweeks to boost domestic tourism post-pandemic and to address work-life balance issues.

In California, Supervisor Cindy Chavez of Santa Clara County said that working from home is an aspect of social distancing that she wants to transition into the post-COVID-19 world. Chavez believes this move will maintain productivity and reduce our climate impact. 

According to Chavez, CO2 emissions across the San Francisco Bay Area fell by 32% during the first seven weeks of the COVID-19 crisis in March.

In July of 2020, Chavez and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board (BAAQMD) asked employers to sign the “Cut the Commute” pledge to maintain the progress of the Bay Area’s air quality, even after shelter-in-place orders are eased. Employers who sign the pledge must commit to having around 25 percent of their staff work from home where possible. Employers must also have a work-from-home policy as part of their employee benefits package.

Santa Clara County, with around 22,000 employees across its different departments, was among the first to sign the pledge.

One of the early signees was Eric Thornburg, president and CEO of the San Jose Water Company. Thornburg said that getting 200 of his employees to work from home for five days each month would result in a reduction of around 30,000 commuter miles per month, equivalent to around 12 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Rod Sinks, chairman of BAAQMD, said the pledge would also be able to address other crises affecting the Bay Area, like housing and transit.

It’s estimated that at least 100,000 workers in the Bay Area drive more than three hours to and from work every day as more people are left with no choice but to live in distant places where housing is cheaper. According to Sinks, keeping these people off the roads is an element of equity while transit is being developed.

Anna Jensen, a software engineer at Flipboard, said that working from home has spared her from her usual two-hour trek from her home in Downtown San Jose to Redwood City, giving her more time for other tasks like studying for her online MBA program.

While having a flexible working arrangement isn’t possible for frontline and service workers, Jensen believes this could be an open door for employers to reimagine how work looks, feels, and functions.

According to HR consultant Emily Draycott-Jones, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped employers move away from the traditional thinking that productivity is tied to the number of hours spent in an office environment.

With remote work tools like Slack and Trello, and video-conferencing platforms like Zoom and Google Meet becoming increasingly popular, working from anywhere and at any time has certainly become a lot easier.