Going Backwards……

Many companies chose Labor Day to lean on workers about when and how often they have to return to the office. Emboldened by economic trends including several major employers announcing plans to shed workers, and notwithstanding low unemployment.

Apple after several failed attempts, Prudential and Tesla plan to end employee choice over when to work remotely. Goldman Sachs lifted all restrictions on office entry to facilitate an eventual move to full-time attendance.

Corporate leaders hope through data to show that office attendees are more productive and engaged. Sue Nador pointed us to an excellent NYT podcast about employee surveillance, and how some employers were able to introduce sometimes as a quid pro quo for agreeing to a hybrid work, the tracking of keystrokes, camera hours, etc as a proxy for the time spent at work. (Counter apps will happily ghost keyboard activity while you are out at coffee with pals).

The advance of technology is inevitable, mostly improving desktop utility as work becomes more transactional. These apps, however, tend to measure activity rather than output and underline the leadership skills required to manage a hybrid environment – a recent UK survey reported 60 percent of managers asking for training.

Employers seek to achieve a balance between a sense of belonging, to a company and culture, while having the freedom to be able to work where you want. Malcolm Gladwell asks “…is sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom the work-life you want or do you want to feel part of something?” Managers need to be more attuned to these goals.

Two-thirds of desks in major cities remain unused, with about 25% of the pre-pandemic volume of people (12% on Fridays). In London footfall in office locations (e.g. Tube stations, retail) is down about 26%.

Most employees like the flexibility of remote working which informs their expectations for work-life balance, weighing the costs of where to work as inflation surges. Some employers have relaxed the minimum number of office days to better attract talent. The pandemic caused a realization that work no longer needs to be organized as it was.

Nonetheless, the number of remote U.S. LinkedIn work postings fell between March and July and Gallup found that 22 percent of respondents who were allowed to work remotely were choosing to be in the office for most of the week but 90 percent having no desire to return to full-time.

Corporate Research Forum in the UK found nine out of 10 employers operated a hybrid model requiring two or three days in the office with employees happier with the arrangement than employers of whom 67% were struggling to persuade people to return.

Spotify has seen an increase in returnees because it says, it has not made any conditions. Surveys suggest this trend is fuelled by diminishing infection rates and job security and proximity concerns which improves career trajectory. Face time remains important!

Some employers have created new working spaces to induce returnees; high ceilings, treadmill pods for group meetings, and indoor and outdoor cafeterias at Marriott’s new headquarters. LinkedIn has created workspaces and conference rooms designed as a hub for a hybrid workforce.

Envoy offers a shuttle service, a carpool program, and a monthly commuting subsidy to persuade employees to come in for three days a week. There are free snacks everywhere, and a monthly happy hour with dogs welcome to avoid the cost of dog walkers.

Marriott hopes that when remote workers will feel left out of the “family reunion” when they join video meetings and observe the ‘in-office” overflowing social chatter. If you want people to show up you have to make the office somewhere they want to be.

While companies appear to want to drive their people back to the office few have considered what they now want them to do there. What work is best achieved when people are together, and what is best achieved when apart – then design the office that supports that purpose.

Whether to embrace Hybrid working or even how to, is a unique proposition for every company dependent upon the nature of its work and the environment in which it operates. Waiting for things to return to how they were or trying to force people back, is fruitless and no one appears prepared to punish workers who decide not to show up.

The rush to go backward needs forward thinking.

Inspired by recent articles in the WSJ and FT

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