This week in HR and in the previous few weeks, we’ve seen a curious phenomenon – some of the country’s biggest companies are reverting to an ancient model, persuading workers back into the office. It’s an interesting conundrum for people like me, in HR thought leadership (I use the term lightly, but the idea is not inaccurate—we consultants and bloggers generate thought and knowledge about different subject areas), since so many of us have coronated remote work as the new normal. Lo and behold, many of the very CEOs who extolled the advantages of remote work are bribing workers to get back to the office. Either we were all wrong, or there are other drivers at play.
Let’s look at all the signs I’ve seen that seem to lend credence to a return to “business as usual” vis a vis the “new normal.”
One of my favorite clients, a large corporate office moving company, has increased their business dramatically in the last 2 months, with relocations and office renovation prep work, meaning in the New Orleans region alone businesses are back in the office and moving on up to bigger and better office environments ahead of optimistic forecasts for the near future.
Construction businesses, including my own clients, have been frantically renovating commercial spaces all over the Gulf South in prep for returning employees.
Some of the largest companies, including the most progressive in the USA, are reportedly bribing employees to return to the office.
Big businesses are moving to states like Texas and Florida as a direct result of business-friendly, and COVID-practical policies, meaning, they understand the talent are moving to states where there are fewer restrictions on personal freedoms. Obviously, the trend reaches further back than COVID, but certain more severely restricted states saw dramatically increased attrition in the last 1.5 years.
Let’s get real, working from home is simply not in most business leaders’ visions for the futures of their companies. Is this a vanity thing? Possibly. There are always ego-reasons why CEOs want to look at their work, their empires, and pat themselves on the back. “Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair…” – Ozymandias But I think the impetus for getting people back in the office is deeper and wider than ego; it has to do with Performance.
Employee Performance on average today may be acceptable—even good, but strong performance is hard to sustain remotely over the long term where most personality types are concerned. Performance is directly correlated with Engagement. Engagement is a result of connection at its core – connection, safety and security, tailored management, and development opportunities. Most leaders say face-to-face time is valuable for collaboration, mentoring, and corporate culture, according to Bloomberg. As concern about the virus wains, employers are increasingly realistic about what people need to succeed in their work. Not everyone can sit at a computer all day and be productive in meaningful, innovative ways, and it’s more difficult still to detect and ward off things like burnout when you don’t interact regularly. There are practical concerns as well. Not all jobs exist in code on a screen, and employers have to consider ergonomics, office supplies, secure internet, resources, safety, and so on.
There are obvious advantages – savings on office rent, reduced interpersonal conflict, and it’s even possible that some employees are doing better work from home. Employees may be better able to achieve work-life balance from home, although some studies show workers report higher stress, striving to achieve visible results from home. And there is the matter of workers moving across jurisdictions, not thinking of the tax implications for their employers.
If anything, I have learned that there are compelling arguments to be made for both sides. Hence the emergence of hybrid models. In the next few weeks, I’ll write about hybrid models and how they’re being implemented by various companies. Hopefully, I can find some data on performance metrics. For the time being, I think it is vital to understand what employees want: FLEXIBILITY. Workers today want their work to accommodate their personal lives, not the other way around. Workers have moved back to wherever they are from or to whatever city they always dreamed of living in, and they don’t want to come back to the office full time. Workers may need to be bribed with higher wages and greater autonomy in their work. Winning companies will be the ones that offer the smartest solutions. What will those look like? It’ll be different for each employer and industry. I suspect the best place to start with your employees is either to state what you need from them, what you expect from them, give good rationale, and be firm, or, if you have the luxury of doing so, survey your employees and managers and find a brilliant solution somewhere in all the feedback.
Every week, I get marketing emails full of glowing endorsements of remote work, “It’s here to stay.” I think amalgamated data points, from across different sectors, however, tell a different story. More like remote work forever is wishful thinking.