Why are employers forcing employees back to the office?

Many of the large companies are now ordering their staff back to the office, Meta, Amazon and even (cue the ironic music) Zoom. The messages are broadly similar, they had requested that staff should be in the office a minimum of three days a week and staff have not complied, now its an order not a request. Why are we still having this ongoing war between employers and employees about days spent in the office?

Firstly, we need to step back and realise that no one knows the answer as to what the best hybrid work set up is, despite many saying they do. We worked in offices for over two hundred years and this is the biggest ever shift, it is impossible to interpret any results after only three years. However, employers need to step back and appreciate that they may be approaching this the wrong way.

Employers need to explain the ‘why’ to employees. It is one thing to tell employees that they have to come into the office but that is not the sort of culture that most employees enjoy. Employers should explain to them what they see as the benefit of the workplace. Leaders do generally have more experience and ability to see the bigger picture however they need to be able to impart this wisdom to their employees. Start by highlighting the benefit to the future careers of their employees. As more work becomes automated, as Chat GPT only continues to improve, the interpersonal skills that we have are vital and many of these cannot be learned in the comfort of your own home. You need to interact with others, have messy conversations awkward silences, as this is how we learn about others. Empathy is a key human trait and again not best learned when you are alone. These skills cannot be easily measured and have no immediate productivity score, but that does not mean they are not critical for long term success.

Employers also need to look at the office set up/ design, does it encourage people back into work, as many companies have said they want the office to be a magnet not a mandate. This is not about pool tables and fitness centres it is about the importance of human interaction when it works well, whether that be creativity, joy, even chit-chat, anything that makes us appreciate the importance of being around other people. We are a social species and the more we work from home the more we will lose the want to go back into the office, and maybe employers are starting to see this.

Many employees argue that they can meet their own friends when they want and they do not need work friends, however its not just about friendship, its about trust and how this helps you in work. Colleagues will go the extra mile for you when they trust you. Being able to gain a great mentor does not happen overnight, it is through building a relationship with them. Even a new career opportunity may come from a conversation with a colleague from a different department that you only meet on the train into work.

Consider an event that happened three weeks ago where someone shared some sad news with me just before an in-person meeting started. This may not have happened on Teams/ Zoom. Those minor but important interactions have been lost and they are often things that help us understand our colleagues better. This does not mean every meeting needs to be in person, it means employers need to explain that in-person and online serve different purposes, both great but they cannot completely replicate each other.

I am still meeting many employers asking me how they can get their employees back into the office, I think that is the wrong question. Maybe ask – what am I doing to get them to see the benefits of coming back into the office and what changes have I made to the office that would encourage employees to come back. Until then the war continues.

Peter Cosgrove is Managing Director of Futurewise and advises companies on how to navigate the new world of work.

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