(Why) should we return to the office?

🟤 Strategy & Leadership

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Nick Mackeson-Smith
Nick Mackeson-Smith
Chief Curiosity Officer, Founder and Director
March 18, 2024

It’s a consistent theme we’re hearing right now - “it’s time to get people back into the office”. But is it? Are we prepared to erode all of the gains we’ve made in new ways of working over the pandemic and post-pandemic years? Employees have been empowered to work with new levels of trust and freedom, and have incorporated work into their life routines. New levels of flexibility have been matched with new levels of productivity, and people we speak to at all levels regularly report that they are “at their most productive when working from home”.  

We surely can’t all be suffering from collective delusion about our own levels of productivity, and I don’t for a second believe that people are saying they are more productive when being at home, and are then choosing to do other things. There isn’t any evidence of a grand lie.

So what’s driving the chatter about returning to work?

I wrote an article in June 2020 - just as the pandemic restrictions were starting to take hold. In it, I quoted Shopify CEO and founder Tobi Lutke, who tweeted,

“As of today, Shopify is a digital by default company. We will keep our offices closed until 2021 so that we can rework them for this new reality. And after that, most will permanently work remotely. Office centricity is over.”

For Shopify in 2024, that remains true. They are proudly “digital by default”…. as are the team here at Five. So why not everyone else?

Could it be about control?

There are a few things that spring to mind when thinking about trust, control, and oversight:

  • Monitoring and productivity: In-office work allows for easier monitoring of employees' work habits and productivity. Managers may perceive that being physically present in the office makes it simpler to oversee what employees are doing and ensure they are focusing on their tasks. This direct oversight is often seen as a way to prevent slacking and maintain high productivity levels.
  • Collaboration and communication: Organisations might believe that bringing employees back to the office will enhance collaboration and communication among team members. The spontaneous interactions that occur in an office setting can lead to the exchange of ideas and foster a sense of teamwork and unity. This is something that remote or flexible work arrangements can sometimes dilute, despite the availability of digital communication tools.
  • Learning and growth: Organisations may have a view that a big part of the growth of an employee comes from observation, interaction, and connection. Well-established models for learning theory would reinforce this belief. Without less-experienced people having direct in-person access to those who are more-experienced or capable, there may be additional barriers to rapid learning and growth. How will mentor relationships develop in this new world?
  • Corporate culture and identity: An office environment helps in cultivating a strong corporate culture and identity. Leaders may feel that it's easier to instil company values, ethos, and a sense of belonging among employees when they are physically present in a shared space. This can be particularly important for onboarding new employees, who might find it easier to integrate and understand the company culture in an office setting.
  • Security concerns: Data security is another consideration that might drive the decision to reduce flexible working arrangements. In certain industries, the risk of data breaches and the handling of sensitive information might necessitate tighter control over work environments, which is more achievable in a controlled office setting than in employees' homes or in public spaces.
  • Management style and trust issues: The decision to bring employees back to the office can also reflect a management style that prefers or is more accustomed to traditional forms of supervision or communication. We’ve heard many leaders remark that they “just like having the team outside their office”. In some cases, this might be highlighting underlying trust issues, where there's a belief that employees won't work as effectively unless they are directly observed, or within close reach.
  • Performance assessment: Assessing performance can be more straightforward when employees are working from the office. Managers might find it easier to evaluate the contributions and progress of their team members through face-to-face interactions and direct observation of their work processes.
  • Organisational efficiency: Some organisations may perceive in-office work as more efficient for certain roles or tasks, especially those that require physical interaction with products or other team members. There can be logistical challenges with remote work that some organisations find detrimental to operational efficiency - like handling stock or money.

Could it be about wellbeing?

We’ve all heard so much about how flexible work arrangements have a positive impact on employee wellbeing, but it’s important to recognise that there are specific aspects of office work that can also contribute positively to employees' mental and emotional health, social connections, and overall satisfaction:

  • Social interaction and community: One of the key benefits of working in an office is the opportunity for face-to-face interaction and the sense of community it can foster among employees. Social connections at work can enhance mental well-being, reduce feelings of isolation, and provide emotional support. After prolonged periods of remote work, some employees might feel disconnected from their colleagues, and returning to the office can help rebuild these important relationships.
  • Separation of work and home life: Flexible and remote work arrangements can sometimes blur the boundaries between work and personal life, leading to longer work hours and difficulty disconnecting. Being in an office environment can help establish clearer boundaries, making it easier for employees to switch off from work at the end of the day and potentially reducing burnout and stress.
  • Structured routine: The structure of a physical workplace can contribute to a more regular and predictable daily routine, which can have positive effects on mental health. This includes fixed work hours, a commute that can serve as transition time, and the separation of workspaces from personal spaces, all of which can help employees manage their time and mental energy better.
  • Professional identity and purpose: Being physically present in an office environment can strengthen employees' connection to their job roles and the organisation. This can enhance their sense of purpose, professional identity, and commitment to the company's goals. The tangible reminders of their professional roles and achievements, visible in an office setting, can boost motivation and job satisfaction. I know I often get feedback from my own team in remote locations about the importance of ensuring that the identity and purpose is front of mind, as they can sometimes find remote work to be a barrier to this.
  • Diversity and inclusion: What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for all, and organisations conduct a difficult balancing act in creating an environment that reflects their culture, values and beliefs, whilst acknowledging and creating safe spaces for their employees. Managing this centrally means that the organisation can apply more focus on creating a consolidated approach to diversity and inclusion, instead of a free-for-all.
  • Access to support and resources: Offices are typically equipped with ergonomic workspaces, technology, and other resources that support productive work. Employees also have easier access to support from colleagues and managers, which can reduce frustration and improve task efficiency. Immediate access to managerial support and mentorship can also play a crucial role in employee development and wellbeing. I know Julius in our team wants a massive TV and I’ve got one he could use…. He’s in Christchurch, I’m in Auckland…. You see the problem here..
  • Health and safety: For some organisations, the office environment provides a controlled space that can be optimised for physical health and safety, including ergonomic setups that may not be available in a home office. Companies can also offer wellness programs, mental health resources, and recreational activities that employees might not have access to at home. Sometimes, there may also be domestic abuse situations, and the office provides the only safe harbour from suffering.

Could it be about money?

Undoubtedly, money will play an important factor, as most organisations have (or at least should have) commercial considerations at at heart of everything they do:

  • Property and infrastructure costs: Maintaining office space is a significant expense for many organisations, involving rent, utilities, maintenance, and security. If a company is already committed to long-term leases or owns the office space, there's a financial incentive to utilise this investment fully rather than let it sit underused. Bringing employees back to the office can help justify these fixed costs - especially if they have only recently refurbished, renovated or moved in.
  • Technology and security investments: Supporting a remote workforce requires substantial investment in technology, including secure remote access systems, collaboration tools, and the provision of company hardware to employees at remote locations. While these investments are necessary for remote work, they can be costly, especially when considering the ongoing need for cybersecurity measures to protect company data across diverse locations.
  • Productivity and efficiency concerns: Organisations may perceive that certain tasks or roles are more efficiently carried out in an office setting, leading to better overall productivity. If the perceived productivity gains outweigh the costs of maintaining office space and related expenses, this can be a compelling financial reason to encourage a return to the office.
  • Employee reimbursement policies: Remote work often comes with costs that might be reimbursed by the employer, such as home office equipment, internet upgrades, and utility costs. As these expenses add up, companies might find it financially more viable to centralise operations in an office, where such costs are more predictable and potentially lower per employee.
  • Impact on revenue and business opportunities: Some organisations might assess that face-to-face interactions, both internally and with clients or customers, are critical for driving revenue and business growth. If the cost of lost opportunities exceeds the savings from a remote or flexible workforce, this can motivate a push towards returning to the office.
  • Talent management costs: While remote work can reduce turnover by increasing job satisfaction for some employees, others might feel disconnected, leading to disengagement or even attrition. The costs associated with recruiting, onboarding, and training new staff can be significant, and if these costs increase due to a remote working model, companies might reconsider their stance.
  • Insurance and liability: The insurance and liability considerations for remote versus in-office work can differ significantly. Depending on the nature of the business and the regulatory environment, having employees work in a controlled office environment might mitigate certain risks and associated costs.
  • Cost of Flexibility: Implementing and managing flexible work arrangements can entail additional administrative and operational costs, including the development of policies, training for managers, and technology to support hybrid work models.

It’s clearly tricky to pick through this, as ALL of these factors are important, and all of them are worth considering at length. But do the benefits of flexibility and remote working outweigh this?!

In my view, it makes no sense to go back to what we had before. The world has changed. Tools have changed. People have changed. Instead, we need to carve out a new path that meets the needs of our people, the work they are doing, and the way in which customers need to be served. For some organisations this might mean a heavier focus on in-office presence and collaboration, but for others the opposite may be true.

There can’t be a one-size fits all approach. I do, however, think that there are some really clear principles that are important to consider and explore across each organisation – specifically:

  • What work spaces will work best for our people?
  • What technology is needed to enable connection, collaboration, productivity, learning, visibility, and performance?
  • How will we measure and maintain performance?
  • What are the expectations on our leaders in this regard?
  • What culture is needed in order for our people to thrive and deliver effectively against our strategy?

The broader and deeper these conversations are, the more likely it will be for each organisation to craft and nurture something that works for their culture, execution of their strategy, and for the good of the customer.

There’s still a lot to do - even four years after the beginnings of a global lockdown and our first forced foray into mass hybrid and remote working. The first steps are often the hardest, but not this time around. Technology developed to meet the challenges we faced faster than many of us had anticipated, and our people embraced new levels of trust, empowerment and flexibility more readily than we’d imagined. I believe that the decisions we’re making now are the most important ones in determining the future success - and potentially even the future existence - of many organisations.

Make sure that you are having deep conversations at the executive table about returning to the office, and make sure that any choices are made for the right reasons. What you choose will make a massive difference to your ability to perform in market, and innovate, and collaborate. It’ll make a massive difference to the type of employees you can hire, and where they are based. This is a moment that’s not one to miss.

We’re happy to help you have that conversation.

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March 18, 2024
March 18, 2024

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