As an HR expert with years of experience and a lot of grey hair to show for it, I’ve seen workplace trends come and go. But in this post-pandemic world, one question dominates the boardroom and watercooler conversations alike: where should our people work? The recent KPMG 2023 CEO outlook survey report suggests that around two-thirds of organisational leaders are anticipating a full transition back to in-office operations over the coming three years. But is this vision rooted in practicality, or is it just nostalgia for pre-pandemic routines?
I was recently interviewed by Liz Flower of the BBC to discuss the issues raised by this report and give her further food for thought. This blog is based on our discussion.
The Advantages of Working From the Office
An Employer’s Perspective:
Collaboration and Team Cohesion: The face-to-face interactions in an office setting naturally foster spontaneous brainstorming and camaraderie. When teams work within a shared space, the synergy is palpable. You can’t replace those impromptu corridor chats that can sometimes lead to the next big idea.
Support and Development: It isn’t always easy to spot when someone is struggling, either with their workload or with external factors. Being in the office enables line managers to spot problems early, discuss issues informally and provide support as required.
Onboarding and Culture: For new hires, the first few months are not just about understanding the role but also imbibing the company’s values and ethos. The physical office, with its posters, mission statements, and even its layout, tells a story. It can be challenging to replicate this immersive induction in a remote setting.
Oversight and Decision Making: Direct supervision is often easier in person. It can expedite decisions, especially when complex issues arise that require nuanced discussion. Employees often feel more comfortable asking for guidance face to face with their line manager, bouncing ideas off them and reading body language. This is lost online.
From The Employees’ Perspective:
Work-Life Boundaries: While remote work offers flexibility, it can sometimes blur the line between professional duties and personal time. The office acts as a physical reminder, compartmentalising work from personal life. The day starts and ends at specific times and this is better for mental health and well-being as it allows employees to switch off.
Social Interactions: Humans are inherently social beings. Interacting with colleagues, sharing a laugh over lunch, or discussing weekend plans can act as stress busters, breaking the monotony of work. Building effective relationships informally, means work is often more efficient as good communication, understanding and cooperation are easier to achieve.
Resources and Tools: Not everyone has a high-speed internet connection, a noise-free environment, or an ergonomically safe space to work at home. Offices provide these resources and environment, ensuring employees can work efficiently and safely.
The Disadvantages of Working From the Office
From The Employer’s Perspective:
Operational Costs: Rent, utilities, maintenance – the costs add up. Especially for start-ups or small businesses, these expenditures can strain the budget. Many small businesses will not see the need for the office as they seek to keep their costs as low as possible.
Health and Safety: In a world recovering from a pandemic, maintaining a safe workspace may require significant resources. Regular sanitisation, ensuring adequate ventilation, and even restructuring workspaces to maintain social distance are now priorities. If there is an outbreak of covid, or any other infectious disease, the whole team could be impacted and the business could suffer if everyone is in the office full time.
The Employees’ Perspective:
The Dreaded Commute: The daily grind of traveling to work, often during peak hours, can be both mentally and physically draining. It’s not just about the time lost but also the energy expended, and the additional cost of fuel or transport. Many employees feel they can use the commute time better, either for the business or as their own time.
Less Flexibility: Fixed work hours might not always align with an individual’s peak productivity periods. Some people might be night owls, while others are early birds. If the business is able to work with deliverables, rather than set hours, then the flexibility afforded to an employee by enabling them to work from home, in hours to suit them, can be highly effective.
Office Distractions: From that constantly ringing phone to colleagues dropping in for a chat – these frequent interruptions can sometimes make it challenging to focus in an office environment.
The Advantages of Working From Home
An Employer Perspective:
Reduced Overheads: No office space? That’s a significant cost-saving. Even businesses that opt for a hybrid model might find themselves downsizing their premises, leading to substantial savings. Care should be taken to ensure you still have some mechanisms for bringing the whole business together on a regular basis, but even if it is a quarterly social or a whole company away day, you can use space other than your office to ensure you remain cost efficient.
Wider Talent Pool: If you are not requiring employees to be in the office on a daily or even weekly basis, geography is no longer a constraint. Businesses can now hire the best talent for the job, regardless of where they live.
Custom Work Environment: Each person has a unique way to enhance their personal productivity. Working from home offers the freedom to tailor-make a workspace that suits an individual’s needs, whether it’s a quiet corner or a desk by the window.
From choosing one’s workstation and setting the room’s temperature just right, to deciding what to wear when no one else can see you, remote work offers unparalleled personalisation.
Disabilities: For some employees, working from home enables them to enter the workforce for the first time. For someone who is wheelchair bound, a commute to work may be particularly difficult. The same is the case for people who are agoraphobic or who have complex needs, either physical or psychological. There are lots of reasons why someone with a disability would be able to fully engage with work if able to work from home, but be unable to work in an office environment.
The Disadvantages of Home Working
Oversight and Productivity: While many employees thrive when working remotely, not everyone does. It’s a challenge to ensure that every team member is as productive at home as they would be in an office. Some staff (and managers) are procrastinators and being forced to work from home can cause issues with motivation and productivity. This requires managers to develop different skills, to be ultra-aware of others and to know how to respond to get the most from people who struggle to work from home.
Team Connectivity: Virtual team-building activities can never fully replace in-person interactions. Over time, this can lead to a sense of detachment among team members. Tools such as Slack, Teams and Jabba can all play a role in improving connectivity, but they are second best to real life, face to face experiences.
Tech Hurdles: Not all homes are equipped for remote work. Employers might need to invest in providing the necessary tools and technology for their employees. Whether an employee is working from an office or their own home, the employer must ensure the employee has all the tools and infrastructure required to properly perform their role. IT departments are now supporting 30 offices with one employee, rather than one office with 30 employees. This has its own costs and challenges, especially if the staff are geographically spread.
Health and Safety: Whether the employee is working from home, or from an office, the employer has a legal responsibility to ensure the psychological and physical health and safety of their staff. This is much harder to achieve if you are relying on an annual home worker risk assessment.
A Safe Space: For some employees, leaving home and going to an office environment allows them to be in a safe space. Both male and female employees can experience domestic abuse or domestic violence at home. Forcing someone to work from home, in an abusive environment can be detrimental to their mental health and their productivity. All employees must be fully consulted before being forced to change their working arrangements.
Bullying and Harassment: While for some, bullying and harassment is worse in an office environment, at least there is a social network, colleagues and a line manager who may see the unwanted behaviour and step in. When working from home, bullies and harassers take advantage of isolation, hide behind texts and are much harder to confront or call out. Statistics show us that workplace bullying and harassment significantly increased during lock down.
Isolation: Working from home can get lonely. Over time, this can lead to feelings of detachment and even burnout. As we have said earlier, people are innately social, and employers will need to be mindful of this and seek ways to help employees feel less isolated.
Dependency on Tech: A poor internet connection or a malfunctioning laptop can disrupt an entire day’s work. This can be frustrating for both the employer and the employee, but can lead to increased levels of stress for the individual, especially if it causes deadlines to be missed.
There are real differences in the expectation of employees based on their age. Young people entering the workplace for the first time want flexibility. They want to be able to be in an office environment, learn from more experienced members of staff, be mentored, understand the office politics and develop strong effective working relationships.
In office environments where Thursday night means office drinks, those same young people want to be able to work from home on a Friday and be home in time to start their weekend.
The challenge with this is that older, more experienced workers who ‘know how things work around here’, don’t always want to be in the office. They often don’t have the same sense of isolation at home, the commute is one they have grown used to after many years and being at home means a better work life balance.
This discrepancy is something which many employers are having to actively manage. Some do this by prescribing when teams are in, others do this by enabling everyone to work from home on the same day. Some organisations have trialled the 3 day weekend to enable their staff to have a better balance, in a more controlled way.
Will all staff be back in the office full time?
Some are going to need a lot of convincing!
The Legal Elements; Including the Risk of Discrimination
The rapid shift towards remote work has left many businesses, legal and HR departments scrambling. Employees are gaining more rights, for example, ensuring they can request flexible work arrangements from day one of employment. This includes the right to request to work from home. Denying such requests without substantial grounds can lead to the risk of an employment tribunal.
The introduction of remote working has revolutionised work-life balance for a multitude of employees, especially caregivers and those with parenting duties. However, mandating a full-time return to on-site work will jeopardise this equilibrium.
In the KPMG report, there was also a suggestion that people working in the office, may have greater access to promotions and pay increases. If benefits are linked to physical presence, companies will inadvertently open themselves up to discrimination claims.
Policies which unintentionally have a more significant adverse effect on one gender, older workers or those with disabilities will expose organisations to indirect discrimination allegations.
The decision between office, remote, or hybrid work isn’t black and white. As the work landscape continues to evolve, employers and HR professionals must remain flexible, understanding and innovative. The future of work is undeniably exciting, and with the right approach, businesses can navigate these uncharted waters successfully.
The idea of a wholesale return to traditional office life, while alluring to some, doesn’t offer a universal solution. The resilience and versatility displayed by businesses and employees over the past few years are commendable. It’s paramount that the discussions around office returns is undertaken with depth, empathy, and adaptability, considering the multifaceted needs and desires of today’s diverse workforce.
The businesses which thrive will be those who figure out how to strike the balance between the needs and wants of employers with the needs and wants of the employees.