The tug of war with the return to the workplace

Leaders want people back; employees want the option to stay home… who’s right?

The tug of war with the return to the workplace

It’s a tug of war that’s set to play out soon, if not already. As the COVID-19 pandemic loses its menace and economies and workplaces re-open, employers are looking to get people back into the office.

But many workers are really not keen to go back, judging by recent surveys. People have come to enjoy the lack of commute, the flexibility, the work-life balance in working from home. They’re saving money on expensive lunches, expensive work clothes and transit or parking. They’ve figured out the virtual approach and are comfortable with it.

Employers, however, are keen to have people reconnecting, to get back to those brainstorming sessions and in-person client meetings and energized corporate culture. They want to be able to see people sitting at their desks, working productively, and many are considering the hybrid approach.

Take, for example, Sandeep Mathrani, CEO of WeWork. Not mincing words, he said people who are comfortable working from home are the “least engaged” while those keen to get back to the office are “overly engaged,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

"No one is saying they don't want to go to work. They are saying 'I wanna go to work two or three days a week' and 'I'd like to work from home a day a week,'" he said. "It's also pretty obvious that those who are overly engaged with the company want to go to the office two-thirds of the time at least…Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home."

Or how about the opinion piece by Catherine Merrill, CEO of Washingtonian Media, in the Washington Post? While excited about the prospect of returning to in-person, she said she was “concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion.”

Merrill mentions that it’s easy to go remote in a crisis because everybody already knows each other: “We also could rely on office cultures — established practices, unspoken rules and shared values, established over years in large part by people interacting in person. Now, we face re-creating a workplace where a good culture of trust will be harder to build.”

Older workers are also less keen than their younger colleagues to return, she wrote, “working from comfortable homes and happy to be relieved of commuting.”

But that presents challenges when it comes to hiring and attracting talent, connecting with leadership, performance management and professional development, informal meetings and promotions, said Merrill.

CEOs fear “erosion of collaboration, creativity and culture,” she said, in ending her column with what appears to be a veiled threat:

“Although there might be some pains and anxiety going back into the office, the biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security. Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.”

Apple employees speak up

The tug of war is clearly visible at Apple. Recently, CEO Tim Cook sent an email clarifying that most employees would be expected back at the office three days of the week.

“For all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other,” he said, according to the Verge. “Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”

But the overall message did not go over well with a group of employees, who penned a letter in response.

“We would like to take the opportunity to communicate a growing concern among our colleagues,” they said, according to the Verge. “That Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.”

Many workers have felt “actively ignored” over the past year, they said, and resent the implication that they must go back to the office to reconnect with colleagues.

“Not only do many of us already feel well-connected with our colleagues worldwide, but better-connected now than ever. We’ve come to look forward to working as we are now, without the daily need to return to the office. It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

Who’s right?

As much as employees may feel a greater sense of self-sufficiency and autonomy having worked from home for over a year, that might not be the direction of their employer. As much as employees prefer to commute from one room to another, and to work in jammy bottoms, while having time to have breakfast with their young children or do a workout at lunch, that might not be a priority of the employer.

As much as employees might feel they have a say in all this, that they should be dictating how and where they work, that might not be the outlook of their employer. And as much as employees feel the technology is there to effectively connect workers and their work virtually, employers might not be as impressed.

Like it or not, many employers want to see their workers all together in one place, interacting, innovating, engaging. And it’s their right to have it that way, despite the many changes that have come about through the pandemic.

Will they lose people? Yes, I’m sure some people will insist on greater flexibility and remote options and quit. Will people become less engaged or less productive because they’re forced back to their desks? Possibly, but hopefully that won’t last long as people transition, and if performance management is effective. Will staff be more stressed? I’m sure there will be a big adjustment as people face frustrating commutes and a reduction in personal time, but they did it before so presumably they can cope.

I suspect most employers are willing to take a chance with those risks and ask people to come back. But hopefully they’ll provide greater flexibility, having seen the success of work from home in areas such as engagement and productivity.

And hopefully employees will come to appreciate the many benefits of the hybrid model.

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