Should we go back to the office?

What the end of lockdown means for businesses

On Monday 19 July, Covid restrictions were fully lifted and businesses are no longer mandated to have their employees work from home. A few weeks on and the world of work remains very different.

After 18 months of disruption businesses must now make a choice: do they return as quickly as possible to how things used to be…or do they use this as an opportunity to officially inaugurate new—hybrid remote—ways of working?

The debate is fierce. 

There are influential groups—inner city enterprises and associated businesses (think tanks, conference organisers etc.)—who have a vested interest in a return to the pre-pandemic status quo and are making a lot of noise. 

At the same time, there are swathes of employees who, having discovered the freedom and autonomy of remote work, are making their aversion to a full return to the office felt. 

In this blog post, I want to explore this choice: how has the pandemic affected perceptions of the workplace? Why are some businesses advocating a ‘full return’ to the office? Is it the best option? Are businesses ready for alternatives?

How the pandemic has changed the Future of Work

Let’s ask a foundational question: why do we use offices? 

Because they used to be indispensable. Two hundred years ago, you had to work face-to-face. And a whole infrastructure and culture has risen up around it that most have never thought to question. 

Hybrid or remote working at scale was dismissed as impossible.  

But this has changed. In many cases, the pandemic has shown that offices are, in fact, surprisingly dispensable. 

We have seen that the hybrid workplace (a flexible combination of in-office and at-home work) is preferred by employees and is at least as productive, if not more so. 

Research has shown that employees have begun to discover that both worlds have something to offer:

They want to keep the flexibility of home working as well as the opportunities for in-person work. (Note that such in-person work doesn’t necessarily imply being in ‘the office’. It could also be in cafes or shared co-working spaces.)

In fact, Accenture found that, among high-growth companies, 63% have already adopted a “productivity anywhere” model. While among negative or no-growth companies, 69% are still trapped in all-or-nothing thinking (all in the office or all-remote). 

What has happened is that the pandemic has severed the connection between productivity and location

Previously thought to be inseparable (how could you do work except in the office?) businesses now have an opportunity to focus on maximising productivity, regardless of physical location. 

Why companies are advocating a full return 

Yet some companies are pushing back. 

JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley, for example, have made it clear that they are whipping everyone back to their desks as soon as they can. Both banks want to have all bums on seats by September. 

Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan’s CEO, stated that remote work doesn’t work “for those who want to hustle”.

But I’ve noticed a theme among the advocates of the pre-pandemic status quo. 

The cornerstone of their arguments for the ‘full return’ to the office centres on the importance of in-person contact, for two main reasons:

Firstly, spontaneous collaboration. 

This is the principle that critical opportunities for innovation stem from serendipitous water cooler chats between colleagues that wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise. 

But is this really true?

Certainly, being able to convene from time to time to discuss things in person is incredibly helpful. And perhaps someone occasionally stumbles on a conversation to which they can meaningfully contribute.

But is this principle such an indispensable engine of industry that everyone in the entire company must be in the same building, at all times, to foster it?

I suspect not. 

And as Ed Zitron bluntly states in his piece on the ‘Upcoming Remote Work Company Culture War’

Not only that: while the office can foster spontaneous collaboration, it is possibly even more conducive to spontaneous disruption. Where people and meetings and coffee chats are such a constant distraction that no one has any time to focus on ‘deep work’.

Deep work was coined by Cal Newport in 2012 to mean: “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

If anything it is the absence of opportunities for such deep work that is a major stumbling block to value creation and innovation in the modern enterprise. Not the absence of water-cooler chats! 

Lastly, in areas where spontaneous collaboration is helpful, carefully chosen and well-supported technology measures can be invoked to fill the same role. 

Companies can use chat applications like Microsoft Teams, Webex and Slack for rapid, informal exchanges that also give other team members the ability to intervene serendipitously in public conversations.

Couple this with the ability to escalate chat exchanges into short ad hoc video meetings and you have a powerful suite of options.

The most innovative digital workplaces use digital employee hubs, like Unily, to truly unite the enterprise and create ample opportunity for cross-pollination across the business.

Secondly, they need to see what everyone is up to. 

This stems partly from the fear that, unless employees are watched over and kept within the immediate sphere of influence of the managers, they won’t do as much work. They won’t ‘hustle’, as Jamie Dimon would have it.  

However, this is inspired by a very traditional management theory approach that views employees essentially as unwilling cattle that must be corralled into behaving appropriately.

This may have been effective in factories where work was essentially binary: either you do it or you don’t. But nowadays the most valuable work is non-linear, creative and knowledge-based. Most importantly: it can’t be forced! 

Managing from this place of fear and control infantilises employees and takes away from them what they want most: autonomy and freedom to find creative solutions to difficult problems. The result is more presenteeism and less actual creativity and innovation. 

Frankly, my experience suggests that this also partly comes down to a certain personality type that prefers to be in control and enjoys the power that comes with being able to see their people before them and to boss them around.

And they can easily justify their behaviours by stoking fears about the impact of hybrid working. 

Should companies go back to the office?

In a sense, this is the wrong question.

The key is to move from trust, rather than fear. 

Rather than taking the fear-based approaches outlined above, consider the following possibility: that you don’t actually need to figure out which one is the ‘right’ approach. 

It doesn’t even need to be within the remit of the executive anymore. 

Instead, trust individuals and teams to work out for themselves what the best approach is. And put your energy into providing them with the resources to be productive and engaged wherever they are and however they want to work.  

And none of us knows exactly what that will look like for your business. Until you get there! 

This means that instead of saying that you are definitely or never coming back to the office, we set off on the road to employee empowerment and autonomy: enabled by technology, supported with guidance and education and all taking place within a culture that is able to house many different ways of working without discrimination or division. 

Are businesses ready? 

At Future Worx, we help companies from all kinds of different industries to transition to new ways of working. Our experience of the pandemic has been that companies are not quite ready yet to fully embrace the hybrid workplace. 

Many have a vision, but the scale of the change is huge and goes right to the core of our work culture. There are so many moving parts—buildings, facilities, IT, HR—that it will take time.

But businesses weren’t ready for most of the events that shaped modern society: world wars… great depressions… the Internet! 

And you don’t need to be 100% ready to make this transition, either. Businesses can still make big steps towards an effective hybrid workplace without knowing exactly what it will look like or how they will get there.

Most importantly: don’t let a lack of hybrid-readiness be a reason for insisting that everyone return to the office full time! 

The obstacles to a successful hybrid workplace

We’ve also seen that there are common obstacles and hurdles to a smooth hybrid workplace. 

The central one is this: saying that workers can work however they like, but not actually making any plans or adjustments for how that will be achieved. 

This will inevitably devolve into a lurid ‘culture war’ between those who predominantly use the office and those who tend to prefer working from home. 

But there are many other potential hurdles as well: prioritising resilience over efficiency, fostering inclusivity in a digital workplace, hiring for skills and not roles, supporting your fresh hires when they can’t come into the office, dealing with legacy software, managing the dangers of digital siloes and ignoring people’s shifting motivations.   

We explore these problems – and their solutions – in our latest eBook, The great return to the office: the seven monster threats that will thwart your successful transition to a hybrid workplace. 

Check it out here

Check out more of our insights