The days of remote working are over

It seems like only yesterday that Zoom had revolutionised the workplace, turning static office working into flexible, remote working with the rise of videoconferencing as a popular platform. Sofas and slippers replaced shirts and suits as the world – gripped by COVID-19 – settled into a new routine. And yet, recently Zoom announced the return of some of their staff to the office, operating under a new ‘structured hybrid approach’ (Independent, 2023). The days of remote working are over, and there are several reasons why.

The opportunity to stop the endless commuting culture was largely considered a benefit of remote working at first. The typical usual commuting time in the United Kingdom as of March 2023 was between fifteen and twenty-nine minutes and has commonly been viewed as a chore, or a waste of time (Statista, 2023). But new research by the World Economic Forum argues that commutes function as a sort of ‘liminal space’, providing both a physical and emotional distance from both the home and the workplace (World Economic Forum, 2023). This can help us to nurture relationships more closely, both inside and out of work, translating to greater job satisfaction and wellbeing in general.

Once we’ve arrived at the workplace, the benefits of being face-to-face with colleagues or employees far outweigh the Zoom connectivity issues or the technical difficulties. Managers can far more easily intervene and observe, taking note of more tangible features such as mood and contentment. Being face-to-face with your team releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical in our brains (Forbes, 2021). Interpersonal bonding, too, strengthens ties amongst peers, bettering learning as well as collaboration. When it comes to in-person one-to-ones and meetings, research shows that they fare thirty-four times better than digital requests (Washington Post, 2023). The ability of managers to pick up on intangibles, such as body language, means that they can offer better advice and information. Even merely a physical handshake can promote cooperation in a way that no email signature can.

It’s not only social benefits that office working provides, but physical benefits too. An office environment means that companies are responsible for providing adequate working conditions – suitable chairs, for instance, to prevent back pain, or eye strain. Eight in ten office workers spend between four and nine hours a day sitting at their desks, and so the environment in which they do so is crucial (Personnel Today, 2018). Unlike the kitchen table or the sofa, offices are designed to maximise productivity and minimise distractions.

Zoom’s retreat from a fully remote-working ethos was, naturally, met with some humour by those who viewed it to be contrary to the company’s values. But, in many ways, it’s simply just a natural response to the changing of times. The threat of COVID-19 no longer outweighs the benefit of office working. Physical working environments provide us with more structure, as well as the opportunity to furnish interpersonal interactions to maximum effect. Perhaps, as Zoom best demonstrates, the ‘digital era’ stretches only so far.