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The reluctant march back to the office

With lockdowns all but over (if you don’t live in Victoria), thousands of people are abandoning their temporary work-from-home mode and heading back to their regular workplace. DAVE WESTMAN looks at why that’s good news for some and bad for others.

We stood at the cliff face for a long time – certainly for most of this century so far. We contemplated the idea of working from home instead of clocking in at the office every day. But, despite the fact technology had made it possible, most of us were too scared to jump. Then COVID snuck up behind us and gave us a big shove. And, like most of the big “leaps” we make in life (think moving out of home, getting married, changing careers, having kids, and switching coffee brands), it proved to be a good move for many of us.

While some organisations are running the numbers on what a major shift to remote workers would do to the cost base, workers have a different set of considerations. And it seems, the consensus is that the best outcome is to have the flexibility and benefits of both.

The Boston Consulting Group commissioned a survey of more than 1000 workers to gauge their preference for working location and also their thoughts about the options. The headline result was that most (60%) prefer to split their time between working from home and working from the office. Importantly, the preference is for four days a week (or more) at home.

Workers found remote working had not only lifted productivity and their engagement with work but also increased their perception of achievement and success. For many of us, these results would have seemed counter-intuitive, pre-COVID, but make sense when you look at what drives people. In a post-COVID (or mid-COVID) world, we have seen enough remote working to recognise the results as a reflection of our own experience and the experience of colleagues, friends, and family. We also appreciate the fact it could be done even better with proper planning. Many home office arrangements were hastily constructed with a “make-do” attitude. The technology was patchy, space was restricted, desks were repurposed furniture, and sound-proofing was at a premium.  Even last week, a visit to a large office superstore yielded just one option for a desk where, previously, there had been dozens.

A brief look at what we know about the social drivers of behaviour might help to explain the desire for working from home AND the traditional workplace.  We all want to feel we matter in the eyes of others (Significance), that we have clarity now and into the future (Certainty), that we have choice and influence (Autonomy), that I feel cared about and I belong (Relatedness) and that I am being treated fairly and equitably (Equity). Our needs in each of these drivers of (S.C.A.R.E) are prioritised differently for each of us. These drivers of behaviour were reflected in the findings of a survey by Chris Mattey, from Boston Consulting Group. He identified three key drivers for people wanting to return to the office, at least some of the time:

  • The need for social interaction
  • Opportunity for formal collaboration
  • Better set-up and technology

The Relatedness driver and the need for social connection is the most obvious thing people lacked when forced to work remotely. During the lockdown, many of us got to peer through the window of colleagues and bosses to give us an insight into their personal life. We know from zoom calls about spare rooms, lounge rooms, kitchen tables, artwork, dogs, kids, and canaries. But no amount of zoom calls can make up for the one-on-one discussion around the water cooler. Those with high social contact needs are ready to start checking in again.

But one of the key factors influencing people’s desire to continue working from home is Autonomy. Being in control not only appeals to us but it drives productivity. Being able to do certain tasks at a certain time (like picking up the kids) can fit into the daily schedule. And in purely practical terms, there is far less time wasted commuting.

The issue of distractions is polarising in the work-location debate. While some find the distraction of calls, colleagues, customers and casual conversations a source of constant interruption at work, others struggled with working from home and the distraction of kids and the kitchen (did anyone work from home and NOT gain weight?). Toddlers tend to work to their own timelines and priorities and don’t understand the concept of “important zoom call”.

Another take on distraction, that we wouldn’t normally consider, is the influence constant communication can have on problem-solving. The latest psychological literature views constant collaboration as an impediment to a team’s harnessing of collective intelligence. The problem arises because high levels of communication allow a team to arrive at a “consensus” too quickly and doesn’t allow individuals time and opportunity to fully explore alternative ways of solving a problem.

So who loved remote working and who loathed it?

Workers over the age of 60, perhaps more focused on work-life balance, were particularly keen on remote working, according to the survey. But anyone with high needs for autonomy and being in control was also in their element. For families, less commute time and more flexibility were big winners.

Younger people, aged 18 to 30, we’re particularly keen to return to work, according to the survey. People with high social needs will be desperate for catching up with colleagues face-to-face and the (hopefully rare) untrusting bosses will feel more confident about productivity when they see bums on seats with their own eyes. For families, those with toddlers, babies, or any kids not at school during the day, returning to a proper workplace will be a welcome relief.

What have we learned from the whole experience?

The workplace will probably never look the same. Many organisations will take the opportunity to downsize the space they lease to save money and we may well see the creation of small working “hubs” where high tech offices can serve as meeting places and distraction-free work environments. Whatever way the cards fall over coming months, the flexibility of remote working options will be a major consideration in future employment decisions.

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