As the tech industry calls workers back to its offices, does this spell the end of the home working experiment for the wider business community and a full-scale return to the office?
The truth is that the great home working experiment has only just begun and instead of seeing remote or home working die a death in a post covid world, it will continue to evolve.
All too often we read in the media about another company which has decided they need to haul their workers back into the office five days a week, sometimes because leadership has decided an element of the business isn’t working – whether that’s collaboration, creativity, delivering results or attracting talent, or something else entirely.
The assumption is that the enforced introduction of remote working due to the pandemic is the factor which has changed, so axing it will see the business flourish once again. This approach fails to take the time to understand the company’s employees and to deliver a solution which balances meeting their needs with the business’ goals.
Take Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, who is now arguing that employees do a better job when they are in the office together, at least early in their career. Or Amazon’s CEO Andy Jassy, who recently said the business has decided they should go back to being in the office together the majority of the time – or at least three days per week. And we could also take a peek at Elon Musk’s 2.30am memo to Twitter employees in March this year saying that the office was “not optional.”
Business leaders reading these headlines might feel swayed to take a similar course of action but it’s important for them to draw on insights gleaned from their own employees, before making any decisions. They should also consider that news stories about surveys into workplace trends can be misleading.
Delve into the origin of the company which conducted the survey and they might find the business which sponsored the research has a vested interest in encouraging employees back to the office because it will boost their bottom line, such as technology companies keen to foster adoption of their collaboration platforms.
In time, employees forced to return to the office full time might look at the wider economic woes we are experiencing in the UK and decide to comply with leadership’s wishes, keeping their heads below the parapet as the threat of redundancy looms. Even the tech sector is not immune to the economic challenges affecting the global economy. Money is tight and demand is well below what it was three years ago, and staff are both a company’s greatest asset and its greatest cost.
With this in mind, Zuckerberg, Jassy and Musk’s change of stance on home working are all a predictable and pragmatic response. But this doesn’t herald the end of the great home working experiment, although it does make for great headlines.
Instead, many companies are now testing new workplace strategies to see what works. They are seeking a good compromise and the right balance for the needs of the business and the needs of their employees.
The next episode
Rather than collapsing, the remote work ‘experiment’ has only just aired episode one, following a successful pilot during the pandemic, which had some room for improvement. The past three years has proven that for some companies, distributed work can generate increased productivity, improve job satisfaction and wellbeing, and deliver real estate savings.
But context is critical – every business has a unique set of workplace considerations to factor in and the solution is nuanced. The tech sector was at the forefront of home working, well before the pandemic. Writing code and providing telephone support can be carried out remotely but what about business-critical creativity, innovation and collaboration, and the buzz of energy which can only be found working alongside teammates?
Reports of productivity issues, sickness and absenteeism, staff attrition and difficulties finding and attracting new talent, are all signs companies have not ‘yet’ found the right balance. The solution is not always to mandate that all employees should return to the office.
Rather than seeing hybrid working as a power play between employers and employees, the most successful leaders will see the opportunity remote work affords and the need to better understand the factors impacting staff productivity and wellbeing – so they can make informed decisions which benefit everyone.
The challenge for businesses is that finding the right balance for a remote working policy is not an easy task. As soon as leaders start exploring the rights and wrongs, the sheer number of considerations quickly escalate and fill the journey to a decision with hidden bends and unexpected obstacles.
There may be no ‘right’ policy, but there is the right compromise for your organisation and your staff, at a given point in time – if you invest the time and effort needed to find it. This should be based upon updated insights into the needs and objectives of the company and employee situations, behaviours, and references. For example, for one employee, the ability to work from home might improve their productivity, while for another it might stifle their output.
It’s crucial to review a remote work policy at least twice a year to ensure it remains fit for purpose and consider how you can motivate your employees to return to the office, rather than mandate, to ensure trust is retained and they remain loyal and engaged.
CEO Grant Price brings more than 25 years of board and ‘C’ level experience to YOHO Workplace Strategy, a research-driven consultancy specialising in boosting employee wellbeing and productivity, and helping businesses prepare for the impact and implications of Artificial Intelligence. The company helps employers with office-based employees, solve challenges ranging from AI strategy development to wellbeing, attrition, attracting talent, remote and hybrid working, company culture, and working policies and procedures.