Reasons to return to the office

Written by Peter Cosgrove

September 17, 2021

We all have heard that companies have moved forward 10 years in 6 months with the adoption of remote working due to unforeseen pandemic circumstances. Most people (even if somewhat grudgingly) will admit that remote/ flexible works, yet employers and employees are beginning to wrestle with the challenges of returning to the office. Clearly, until one feels safe one should not return however if we assume safe working conditions here are four reasons why employees might decide that remote working is not the panacea that they thought it was.

I’m more productive than ever. This is a regular line you hear from people when they work from home, however productivity is not everything, There is a line that says “everything that counts cannot be counted” and there are many things that happen in an office like mentoring, leadership development, relationship building, political manoeuvring that may not tick a productivity box but that can be vital for long term career development. While the lack of commute may make employees feel better, the lack of relationships will be a huge challenge for those who continue to work remotely. If you consider when you laugh, it rarely happens in isolation, it is with a group of people. Isolation can be hard. Burnout is also a factor that employees are struggling with, our lack of ability to stop working has meant despite no commute time employees are working longer hours than ever.

Proximity Bias: While employers are all putting together policies about hybrid working models, there is a big difference between a policy and a practice. Even though you may be allowed work from home full time or part time, it does not mean everyone will do this. If the senior executives are all back five days a week there is no doubt this could cause a two-tier workforce. There has been a term ‘proximity bias’ or ‘distance bias’ highlighting how you often get forgotten if you are less visible. This generally happens unconsciously but is something employees need to be mindful of. I worry a lot about how employers are going to manage meetings with half of the workforce in the meeting room and half virtual. I cannot help to think that the virtual experience will be a much lesser experience. Very few employers have the advanced technology needed for this to work seamlessly.

Competing with Technology: If you can do your job five days a week remotely, why do you even need to be the same country? That can seem like a real positive unless you come from a high salary country where your employer may realise that they can get the same skills much cheaper elsewhere. If your job is based only on the skills and outputs and much less on the relationships, you are essentially giving up your key competitive advantage versus the machines. We will never out hustle or out work an algorithm but skills like persuasion, influencing, empathy and many more are uniquely human skills. Relationships do not get built quickly over screens, it is face to face. Linking with your colleagues over a screen will never be as good for building relationships.

Flexible not remote: Many employees say that they are much happier now they don’t have to meet a lot of annoying colleagues and bosses and want to work from home forever. There is a danger that you are in a job you generally did not like, as it is not really possible to ignore colleagues forever. The idea of working remotely because you want to avoid your colleagues probably means it is time for you to move job. Secondly, if your employer is actively encouraging you to stay working from home full-time, that could be a red flag as there may be ulterior motives for this (cost reduction, not seen as a key worker etc). Flexible working which to me is the biggest postive of the pandemic is the idea that we do not have this inordinate stress to get in for 8.59 rather than 9.02, flexible working should really help with this, however it should not mean actively avoiding the workplace and your colleagues.

Humans are complicated, just because technology enables us to do something it does not mean it is better. Look at the relationship you have with your phone or with email, look how much time we spend staring down at our phone and not up at other people. Working remotely will be a huge benefit for a minority of the workforce but for the majority I would suggest they don’t make their minds up just yet.

 

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