It’s hard to get people back into the office. Good

Almost every innovation, except accidental ones such as penicillin and dynamite, has come from a concerted effort to overcome a challenge. The work from home revolution is both an answer to a challenge (the pandemic and restrictions on movement) and now a challenge itself, with bosses grappling with how to bring workers back into the office.

Employees have felt the benefits over the past four years. It’s hard to lose the taste for reduced commute times, quality time with family and, for many, getting more done – whether it’s a load of washing on their lunch break, or focusing better on their work.

Bosses aren’t as sold on the benefits of remote working as their employees.
Bosses aren’t as sold on the benefits of remote working as their employees. Credit: iStock

But from KPMG’s survey of more than 1300 chief executives late last year, it’s clear bosses in general aren’t sold on the benefits. Two out of three chief executives think workers will be back in the office full-time by 2025.

If that sounds out of touch, it’s probably because it is. Swinburne University of Technology associate professor of supply chain management, John Hopkins, said CEOs “might be a little bit far away from the coalface”, and PwC Future of Work leader Caitlin Guilfoyle said bosses are likely nostalgic for what has worked previously.

Of course, there are benefits to people sharing a space: building rapport, efficient communication and, especially for newer employees, informal opportunities to learn from their seniors. But employees recognise these benefits and most do want to be in the office, at least part-time. Hopkins says fewer than 10 per cent want to work completely remotely.

“How many days do you work from home?” has shot up the list of questions people ask at barbecues and awkward networking events. It’s often followed by unprompted self-reflection: usually, how we’re more productive in one place over the other. The split of answers reflects workers’ diverse needs and preferences, as well as the sense that a reasonable expectation is probably two to three days in the office.

Many companies are gradually mandating more days in the office, or dangling financial incentives to coax employees back from remote work, but the pushback they’re receiving, from experts and workers alike, shows the need for a rethink.

Productivity has been in the spotlight, but the evidence has been mixed for flexible work. That’s probably a reflection of individual differences which would be present whether people worked mostly from the office or home, and how well-trained managers are to support remote employees.

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Forcing employees back into the office can foster discontent with little impact on productivity. And carrots and sticks tied to office attendance may not pass the fairness test.

One of our biggest wins from the pandemic was our record low unemployment rate. Yet, if we’re not careful, we’ll end up erasing at least some of the gains.

Mandates mean workers who are carers in their personal capacity – disproportionately women – will be more likely to give up working hours because of how difficult (and often impossible) it can be for them to fulfil both roles. And financial incentives, unless sufficient to cover costs such as childcare, will be sacrificed by those who find it harder to come into the office and those earning less in a household – again, often women – leading to greater inequality and a lack of diversity.

Instead, we need to see this potential conflict – between bosses who want people in the office every day, and employees with diverse needs – as an opportunity. Much of the advantage in flexible work, such as saving on transport costs, spending less on childcare and being able to pop into the gym during lunch break, can be preserved.

If it’s really a big benefit for companies to have employees in the office, they should compete for that edge by providing access to amenities such as childcare and gyms, and opportunities including personal and professional development and mentorship.

We knew, even before the pandemic, that these are beneficial for companies to attract and retain talent, while improving productivity and employee satisfaction. As with flexible work, these are steps on which companies have generally dragged their feet until it becomes a necessity – and for which employees, until now, have not pushed as hard.

Companies can’t make up for such things as time otherwise spent with loved ones or time lost commuting, but they can encourage higher office attendance while retaining talent, improving cohesion and the transfer of knowledge.

It’s a good thing companies are facing resistance. The benefits, such as access to amenities, may seem skewed towards employees, but they’re also important for the growth and success of companies themselves. Happier employees, engaging in professional and personal development, will drive a company’s performance – rather than workers chained to their desks who may end up walking away.

We should also acknowledge we can’t bring every single person back into the office five days a week without substantial losses, or ambitious spending by companies, and probably the government on things such as cheaper childcare and public transport.

As with many innovations, there are pros and cons to working from home. But there is no significant harm to flexible work, as evidenced in many companies and countries that remain functional and continue to grow. Making work more accessible has benefited many lives, personally and professionally.

Working from home may have spread as a response to a global pandemic, where companies had little choice. But if bosses want to reverse the trend, they will need to make concerted efforts to preserve the gains we’ve seen.

Unless bosses are quietly plotting for an explosion in employee benefits by 2025, there seems to be neither a great likelihood nor a compelling case for workers to come back to the office full-time.

Millie Muroi is a business reporter covering banks, financial services and markets.

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