Three years after the pandemic began and people around the world were driven to work remotely, thousands of companies are still trying to find a model that they feel comfortable with.
Organizing workloads, distribution of teams, the necessary roles in each project, and the professional development of employees is a complex task that is at the heart of the responsibility of every executive. But if, on top of this, we add having to empty offices overnight, getting used to managing and communicating from home and then, one year later, starting to ask workers to return to their desks, it is only normal that we should disagree about how best to accomplish this.
Has remote working become the norm?
The short answer is no, not at all. But that isn’t the case everywhere. The general statistics show that in Europe and the Middle East, attendance in offices ranges between 70% and 90%, while in Asia, it is between 80% and 110%, meaning that even more people are present in the office than before COVID.
A special case is the UK, where the pressure to return to the office is increasing while the workforce remains reluctant. Fifty percent of leaders want employees to spend more time in the office and, at the same time, more than a third of workers say they would leave their job if they were forced to work in the office full-time.
On the other hand, in the USA, people are still mostly working from home, and office occupancy is still between 40% and 60%. In 10 major U.S. metropolitan areas, office attendance only recently reached 50%, on average, for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
The main reasons that experts highlight in order to explain the difference are that, in general, American employees have more space at home to work more comfortably, they often face longer commutes to get to the office without access to good public transport, and they have a tighter labor market, which would enable them to find another job more easily if their company did force them to work in-person.
What are we losing if we stop going to the office?
In any event, many governing boards are seeking formulas that will repopulate offices, particularly in the USA. And in the rest of the world, companies are racking their brains to find a means of achieving a suitable balance between the way we have become accustomed to working in recent years, and life as it used to be, before the pandemic.
But if remote working has functioned reasonably well during this time in most companies, why not just leave things as they are? Or why don’t we allow each employee to decide when they want to work, and from where? The answer isn’t that straightforward. Basically, because the vast majority of us don’t work alone.
On the one hand, there is a general consensus in relation to the benefits of being able to work from wherever you want, or whenever you want. Among other things, we know that, both for companies and employees, it allows us to:
- Improve our work-life balance
- Increase our quality of life
- Save time and money on journeys and commutes
- Focus on specific tasks without interruptions
- Have access to jobs in other places around the world, or to a more diverse range of talent
- Feel that our company trusts us
- Manage our own schedule and take on greater responsibility
- Increase employee satisfaction and retention
- Reduce spending on office rent or maintenance
However, in the process, it seems that we are losing fundamental elements of human interaction, which are essential for any type of organization to be successful. This is leading well-known companies such as Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, Amazon, Starbucks, and Twitter to seek all sorts of means to encourage their employees and executives to return to the office, for at least a few days a week.
In the beginning, these took the form of incentives or requests that were rather timid, due to a fear of quiet quitting and the Great Resignation. But recently, in some cases, they are going as far as disciplinary measures, or even linking part of a salary bonus to in-person work.
In this sense, the areas that executives are most concerned about now are:
1. Productivity, trust, and image
Although the productivity and performance of a team are factors that are very difficult to measure, many companies believe that their employees are more decisive when they are in the office, and that they concentrate better and are less distracted.
On the other hand, some executives do not feel comfortable seeing the half the company’s offices sit empty, or having customers, investors or suppliers visit at times when there does not appear to be much activity.
In addition, there can be cases of unfairness in relation to employees who are, in fact, going to the office. In this instance, if the most deserted days are Mondays and Fridays, it is easier for a dynamic of distrust to arise.
2. Communication, collaboration, and problem-solving
Many defenders of remote work argue that people concentrate on their tasks better at home, generally, because they avoid unexpected visits and continuous interruptions. Those who oppose it believe that resorting to videocalls and text messages to resolve issues that can be dealt with much more efficiently face to face, in the office, is a waste of time.
Beyond this debate, where there seems to be some consensus is in the idea that in-person work contributes to better communication, especially when it comes to solving problems or working on projects that require a more creative, innovative approach. In this instance, human contact is able to create greater harmony between employees, and generate more positive working atmospheres in which trust and collaboration flow more strongly than in virtual environments.
Lastly, although technology is invading almost every space nowadays, when we are in the office we are also exposed to fewer unnecessary digital stimuli, and we can avoid many of the misunderstandings that often lead to uncomfortable, or even violent, situations. When we speak face-to-face, we communicate and understand moods and emotions better, which is a key aspect of any well-functioning relationship.
3. Connection, growth, and a sense of belonging
Almost any company in the world would be able to argue that digital communication is sufficient for purely operational tasks. But, in order to truly understand an organization, you need to experience it in person.
And this is probably always a valid statement, because every company consists of a group of people working together to achieve a common goal. And, in the pursuit of this goal, aspects such as teamwork, the sense of belonging to a group, connection, commitment, culture, and values are much more effectively integrated when there is frequent social interaction.
In addition, many leaders believe that when their employees are 100% online, it is more difficult for them to align themselves with the rest of the team and the purpose of the company, and for them to feel valued, establishing close, trusting relationships with them and having more complex conversations regarding their aspirations, performance, or professional development.
4. Healthy routine, disconnecting, and quality of life
Finally, another argument in favor of returning to the office is that it can be very beneficial for the lifestyle of many employees. Some of us forgot about this for months, or disregarded it, but the majority of humans simply enjoy being together, sharing little moments like a coffee or a spontaneous conversation in a corridor, or working in a group to achieve something that inspires us, or something we think is important.
And, on the other hand, although we have all made the most of the advantages of working in a more independent, flexible manner at home, physically going to the office also helps us to draw clearer boundaries between our professional and personal lives, which contributes to a better work-life balance, in many cases.
Office or remote work? The solution lies in flexibility
Curiously, many of the workers who are enjoying the advantages of returning to the office do not advocate openly declaring it, depending on the environment. The main reason for this is that they fear that they will lose any option of working from home, be it for a few days, a week, or whenever they need to, because this is a right that we had no choice but to acquire during the pandemic, but which was unthinkable before then in thousands of companies around the world.
However, although some companies are pressing for a return to full-time in-person work, it seems that the general trend is moving towards hybrid or flexible models, with the aim of adapting and satisfying everyone in the organization.
If executives have learned anything in recent years, it’s that a much more diverse set of realities coexist within their teams than they would perhaps have imagined: from digital nomads who have been working remotely since they were hired, to those with lots of family members, including single, introverted people, and people who need social contact like they need air. Nowadays, leading also involves finding or designing working methods that allow each type of person to give their best.
As usual, there is no special recipe that guarantees a suitable balance between remote work and attendance at the office. But if you are in the process of aligning your teams around an agreement that covers their individual needs, while also guaranteeing some good results for the business, you may find these steps helpful:
1. Define a clear remote-working policy, and communicate it
First, think about what problems you are trying to solve with this new policy, whether they are based on evidence or opinions, what the consequences of the new model will be for the company and for the staff, and whether or not there are other ways of dealing with the situation that you want to resolve.
Once it is defined, whether it be a 3/2 split, or 4/1, or an option that provides complete freedom, or a full time in-person plan, it is essential that your employees are fully aware of which remote working model the company wants to adopt, and why.
For years now, there have been so many changes in such a short time in the world of work, and this will continue to be the case, with trends on the horizon such as the development of AI, mass redundancies, or the four-day work week, and your teams need some certainties that will help them feel more comfortable and secure.
Don’t forget to clearly and sincerely explain the reasons that led the management team to choose a specific formula. It is highly likely that many people will have a similar vision of the importance of being in the office frequently and, knowing that the company shares these same values, employees will identify more with the organization.
It is also positive that those who do not agree with the model have all the information on the table, so that they can decide whether or not they want to continue to work for a company that they don’t feel committed to.
2. Adapt the model to the reality of each team
Designing a system of remote working based on flexibility and then including a lot of strict rules doesn’t make sense, and it will only lead to greater frustration and more problems. If you start out by setting specific days for being in the office and days for being at home, the message the worker will receive is that the company is not giving them the option to choose, and that they don’t trust them to manage themselves.
It is advisable to establish, for example, an average number of days per week, or per month, in the office. In other words, defining foundations at an organizational level in order to guarantee that employees will continue collaborating in-person for projects that require this, and then allowing each team or department to adapt that strategy in line with its composition, dynamics, and objectives.
3. Support everyone individually
Just as you learned to identify how each member of your team was doing at any given time during the pandemic, what situations were more difficult for them, and how the situation they were experiencing at home was affecting their performance, the new hybrid format will once again require you to adapt your leadership style to support everyone individually, so that they feel valued and heard.
If you want to find the perfect balance between remote work and time in the office, why not ask your team directly what their ideal model would be? There will be people who concentrate wonderfully at home, others who need the mental structure of the office every day, others who will be happy coming in three days a week, and others who will get up every morning without knowing what to do. In addition, the transition won’t be equally simple for everyone, depending on the amount of routines that have been established in recent years.
If you understand the reality, and the needs of individuals, it will be easier for you to find common ground when it comes to tailoring the foundations of the new remote working system to the uniqueness of your team, and giving everyone time to adapt.
4. Make going to the office worthwhile
How many conferences or training sessions with an online option have you attended in person since the pandemic? How long has it been since you’ve been to the cinema? If the circumstances of recent years, as well as technological advances, have allowed us to consume services from home that were unthinkable until recently, why would it be any different when it comes to remote working?
Who wants to leave the comfort of a domestic space that they have grown accustomed to in order to return to a labyrinth of gray cubicles? If you want your employees not just to return to the office, but to want to return, you need to offer them something that makes it worthwhile. This doesn’t just mean installing colorful sofas or a ping-pong table, the key is to offer different spaces that allow workers to concentrate, learn, collaborate, or socialize, and that have the necessary technology for them to interact fluidly with those colleagues who are working remotely.
5. Guarantee disconnection
During the most difficult period in the pandemic, many companies needed to establish digital disconnection policies to avoid overloading their employees, and to protect their rest time. In this new hybrid context, it is important to maintain or update these guarantees, so that the pursuit of flexibility does not lead your teams to feel like they need to be available all the time, anywhere.
Implementing a hybrid working model requires time, planning, review, training and investment. But you should bear in mind that you are redesigning one of the most basic levels of the company: how we work.
With the IESE programs for executives, you will perfect your ability to manage and lead, so that you can help your organization adapt to a new, more flexible working structure which takes into account both the uniqueness of each employee, and the health of the business.